For an Israeli and a Palestinian, their struggle for peace reaches across borders
BROOKLINE — Rami Elhanan stood before a gathering Saturday afternoon on the lower level of Temple Beth Zion and spoke about how Israeli forces shot and killed seven Palestinians, including two children, Friday afternoon during mass protests in the Gaza Strip.
“I’m ashamed of it as a Jew. I’m ashamed of it as an Israeli. I’m ashamed of it as a human being,” he said.
Elhanan, 68, a graphic designer from Jerusalem, appeared before the group with Mazen Faraj, 43, a Palestinian with whom he shares a deep but painful bond.
The men lead the Parents Circle — Families Forum, which represents more than 600 families who have lost a relative during the fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Elhanan’s 14-year-old daughter, Smadar, and four others were killed by a pair of Palestinian suicide bombers in Jerusalem 21 years ago. Faraj’s 62-year-old father, Ali, was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers in 2002.
For the past 13 years, they have told their stories together as they push for peace and reconciliation on both sides of the conflict.
“We are not doomed. This is not our destiny to keep on killing each other,” Elhanan said. “We can change it. We can break once and for all this endless cycle of violence. And the only way to do it is simply by talking to each other because it will not stop unless we talk.”
Faraj, who lives in a refugee camp in the West Bank, said circumstances beyond his control have defined his life, except for his decision to pursue peace.
“I never choose to be Arab. I never choose and decide to be a refugee. And I never choose and decide to be in an Israeli jail. And I never choose and decide to be a bereaved son. But today, for more than 13 years, I choose and decide to be a peacemaker.”
The men have been giving public presentations in the Boston area since Thursday, also appearing at Wellesley College and at Temple Israel of Boston.
They took turns telling stories about their slain relatives and their decision to seek peace.
Elhanan said his daughter was a joyful teenager who enjoyed swimming and playing the piano.
“Everybody used to call her princess,” he said.
Faraj said his mother died when he was an infant, leaving his father to raise him. After his father was shot, Faraj said Israeli forces refused to let him go to the hospital immediately because of a curfew.
“I cannot imagine anyone can wait all this long night and long hours to see what’s happened to your father, but this actually is what you mean by occupation, to live under the military law of Israel.”
Elhanan and Faraj are scheduled to speak at Old South Church in the Back Bay on Sunday morning.
Their trip comes at a pivotal time for the nonprofit organization.
Earlier this month, officials from the United States Agency for International Development told congressional aides it would no longer set aside new money for programs benefiting Palestinian civilians. Such funding is critical for peace-building programs run by Parents Circle — Family Forum, the organization said on its website.
“It will make our life, our mission, and our work on the ground much harder,” Faraj said in an interview.
The men’s trip to the Boston area was organized in part by Bill Matson, a retired human resources executive who is a member of the Old South Church.
In April, Matson said he and his wife, Donna, watched Elhanan and Faraj speak at a hotel in Jerusalem. The couple was touring Israel with a group led by Israeli and Palestinian guides.
Matson, 59, said the presentation moved them so much that they began working on bringing Elhanan and Faraj to Boston.
“For people who have lost so much to not be seeking revenge and rather reconciliation is hugely important, and that message gave us hope,” he said. “They’re getting people to know each other as human beings, and in doing so, you realize we have the same hopes, we have the same fears. That was so powerful.”
Shifra Freewoman, a Brookline resident who attended the presentation, said she was touched by the way Elhanan and Faraj spoke from the heart.
She said she was particularly struck by Faraj, who spoke some Hebrew while addressing the audience.
“He was very embracing and at the same time he had a very clear narrative of what his story is on the horrors that he’s going through as a Palestinian,” Freewoman said. “He didn’t mitigate that all.”
Bernie Plovnick, a congregant at Temple Beth Zion, said he was moved by their message about mankind’s universal experiences.
“As has been said, they’re praying with their feet and they’re saving lives,” he said. “I wish we could all walk with them.”