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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
The Jewish Community Voice
"Forum of Grief" leaves some touched, others disturbed at M'kor Shalom
Sunday, Oct. 20 (Special to the Voice)
By KENDALL ELLIS
The evening was about grieving. It was also about peace. In the social hall of a Cherry Hill synagogue, there were few of the 100 guests who were not moved by the heartbreaking stories of Amiram Goldin and Dr. Rihab Essawi and their struggle with grief and conflict in Israel. However, the value of this kind of program to furthering the peace process was not clear to all who attended.
Amiram Goldin, a Jewish Israeli man, and Dr. Rihab Essawi, a Palestinian woman, are members of a bereaved family forum representing some 200 Jewish Israeli and 190 Palestinian families who tell their stories of bereavement in the hopes it will help end the Middle East conflict. Their stop at Cong. M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill was part of a 14 city national tour. M'kor Shalom's Seeking Shalom group hosted the program.
M'kor Shalom Rabbi Barry Schwartz opened the program making reference to a recent Time magazine cover of Abraham.
"It's appropriate for us to approach this evening as a family matter because we all came from Abraham. All of Israel's adversaries come from Abraham," he said.
Dr. Dan Gottlieb, psychologist, a congregant and guest on the panel said, "I met with these people [Goldin and Essawi] this afternoon. I expected to be moved, but it was more. When I saw these two people they looked alike to me; they looked alike in sadness. Meeting them has changed me, forever."
Amiram Goldin, project manager for a joint Arab-Israeli industrial park in Sachnin in the Galilee, addressed the silent room first, describing his village in Israel and then sharing his nightmare. Goldin's son, Omri, left his home to do a military stint over two months ago. A 20 year old and lead singer in a punk band, Omri and his girlfriend took seats on a bus from Galilee. They fell asleep as the bus began its journey. A suicide bomber boarded the bus shortly after, waited five minutes and then detonated the bomb.
"My son's girlfriend was badly injured. My son died immediately," Goldin said holding his head in his hand and shaking his head in disbelief.
"I don't want anyone, Israeli or Palestinian to suffer what I have," he said.
Dr. Rihab Essawi, a professor at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem lost her mother during the intifada, her brother in 1982 while he was a student in Lebanon and her 17-year-old nephew in 1995.
Essawi and her nephew were gardening together when an Israeli border patrol soldier drove by and spotted her nephew standing on the hill. Her nephew was shot in the neck and died in her arms on the way to the hospital.
"We're not talking about politics here. We're sharing our deepest feelings," she explained.
Prior to program's start, Adam Elisha, a high school senior from Cherry Hill East, said that he'd come in the hope of learning something. "I hope to hear a side of the story most American Jews don't hear about. The Palestinians are suffering too," he said.
Helene and Hal Cohen, also Cherry Hill residents, came in the belief that such programs are necessary for peace. "Talking and making it individual. It's the only way I see out of this," said Hal Cohen.
Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the six-month-old organization responsible for producing the tour, purports to humanize the conflict by having people share their stories. Their literature maintains that they are a national organization of American Jews deeply committed to Israel's well being through the achievement of a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They further deem that the only way to achieve this goal is to end Israel's occupation of land acquired during the 1967 war.
Goldin said emphatically, "The only solution is two states. All of our leaders cannot leave the table until this is solved. No one is winning now."
Essawi concurred saying, "Two states side by side with the common capital of Jerusalem. That is the resolution."
Index cards with questions from the audience flooded the front of the room. Rabbi Schwartz mediated by combining commonly asked questions and screening what he described as the more volatile political questions due to time constraints.
What can Americans do to support the peace process?
Essawi responded, "We're not here to tell you what to do. We're here to talk. You can write your congressman and your senators. Be part of a peace movement and live your life as normally as you can."
"I speak loudly to everyone. I speak person to person. Maybe what I say does make a difference," answered Goldin. "I try to give everyone the message that both sides are trying. We're all tired," he said.
Rabbi Schwartz read another question to the panel on whether or not this forum had spoken to groups in mosques.
"Last night we spoke in New York to a group of Arabs and Jews. No, I have not spoken in a mosque," Essawi said.
Many questions concerned how Israeli and Palestinian teenagers are reacting and what message Palestinian children are being given in school.
"Palestinian teens are out of hand," responded Essawi. "Sadly, teens are influenced by their peers much more than their families." She also said that there are no schools for Palestinian teens. Michael Partnow, M'kor Shalom congregant and president of the Jewish Federation of Southern N.J. took issue with her response. "While it might be true there are no schools in certain areas, there are certainly Palestinian children attending schools," he said in a brief interview following the program. "For years Palestinian children have been taught to hate Jews and to deal with violence against the Israelis. Dr. Essawi did not provide an honest answer."
Amiram Goldin reacted to the question of teenagers with a pained expression, saying, "I cannot be objective. I lost my son at 20 years old. I can say the teenagers are not extremists. They understand we must have peace."
Rabbi Schwartz closed the program by thanking the panel and hailing them as heroes.
"People who lose loved ones can so easily turn to violence and rage. We can almost understand it, but to hear voices spreading peace after so much suffering is truly courageous," said Schwartz.
Jennifer North, the congregation's Social Action Committee chair, plans to evaluate the program. "We really need to wait and see how people feel about this forum," she said. "This is a lot of information and a lot of emotion."
Partnow expressed serious concerns about the intent of the organization that put the tour together. "Their words were compelling and their stories touching, but Brit Tzedek v'Shalom is a dangerous organization giving the message that American Jews are not of one voice for Israel," he said. "Regardless of our political opinions I believe there is uniformity amongst American Jews. Israel has the right to remain a sovereign state and we as American Jews stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally, Israel in support of that right."
The tour continued to synagogues in Austin, Texas, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Washington DC.
Before the night ended, Steve Masters, from the Brit Tzedek v'Shalom National Executive Committee handed out baskets for donations from a somewhat reluctant and surprised crowd. As the baskets traveled from table to table, Goldin and Essawi sat side by side in front of the room nodding to one another like a pair of old friends.
"We're not without pain and loss but we are working together," said Masters, pointing to his speakers. "This is what peace looks like."