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On Yom HaZikaron, Israelis and Palestinians grieve — together

The Rana Choir rehearses.

The Rana Choir rehearses. Image by Courtesy of Galia Golan

Even as countries close their borders, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us just how much we are all in this together, demanding cooperation within and between countries. Here too, another form of unusual cooperation has been going on, even in these times of lock down, and it is cooperation between ostensible enemies.

Combatants for Peace, an organization of former fighters from both sides of the conflict, was created in 2006 to promote non-violent opposition to the occupation. Even in these days of lock down, Palestinians and Israelis from Combatants for Peace have continued to work together – in virtual space, of course – preparing for the annual Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Ceremony held every year in cooperation with the Parents Circle/Bereaved Family Forum, scheduled for April 27.

The author holds a sign at a march for Combatants for Peace.

The author holds a sign at a march for Combatants for Peace. Image by Courtesy of Galia Golan

These preparations, in which I help by proof-reading translations of speeches to English from Arabic and Hebrew, have provided me at least some daily activity while in lockdown. But this activity is also emotionally potent, translating testimonies in which a father, Bassam, speaks of his 10 year old daughter shot by an Israeli soldier or another, Rami, who lost his young daughter in a Palestinian attack in West Jerusalem. And also the surprise of one grieving Palestinian, Adam, at the applause of the large Israeli audience when the Palestinian attendees arrived in their buses from the West Bank last year. The translations will be used online this year, the memorial’s 15th, which will have to be conducted differently. Without a physical audience, this highly emotional ceremony will be streamed live on the internet, followed by links to homes of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis sharing their experience and stories of remembrance.

With or without the pandemic and these unusual arrangements, the Israeli-Palestinian Memorial is always controversial. Held at the same time as the official Israeli “Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism,” it has prompted protests in both societies and, in the past, the Israeli government has denied permits for some Palestinian participants to enter the country.

While the form some of this opposition has taken has not always been respectful, it is understandable. After all, those being remembered in this joint ceremony were, for the most part, people who were killed as a result of the conflict between our two peoples. Whether in battle, or victim of a terror attack, or a stray bullet, “collateral damage” or the dispersal of a protest, they were the enemy. For some, recalling the lives of the enemy through a joint remembrance is a betrayal; acknowledging their lives is nearly an act of treason. Each side feels justice is on its side; each feels that its actions, even if lethal, were necessary, honorably motivated, sometimes unintentional.

An embrace at the 2019 ceremony.

An embrace at the 2019 ceremony. Image by Courtesy of Galia Golan

This opposition may be found on both sides, perhaps even among the majority on both sides. But this joint memorial, the coming together of Israelis and Palestinians to remember those lost in this conflict between us, turns out every year to be a great source of hope and even optimism. At the end, a joint Israeli and Palestinian women’s choir from Jaffa, “Rana,” sings Had Gadya – the closing song at the end of the Passover Seder, which always brings a sense among the thousands in attendance that we are in this together, we enjoy a common humanity — if people who have lost those dear to them as a result of the actions of the other side can see the humanity in the other side, there is indeed hope.

There is the surprising realization that we may not be fated, after all, to nurture hatred and perpetuate violence against each other, forever. The conflict is not a blind virus – mysterious and unique; it is an act of people, sustained and perpetuated by people, and as such, it can be stopped. Not easy, but sharing the enemy’s pain is also not easy. Yet it is possible, as thousands of Israelis and Palestinians prove every year.

Galia Golan is an emerita professor and former chair of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the author of 10 books, most recently “Israeli Peace-making since 1967: Factors Behind the Breakthroughs and Failures.” She has been a leader in Israel’s Meretz Party, Peace Now, and Combatants for Peace.

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