As I take my seat in the arena in north Tel Aviv, memories of last year’s Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony flood me. Last year I cried. I cried a lot. I cried at the stories of human beings who lost loved ones, Jews and Arabs.
And in addition to the tears and the sadness there was something else. Another emotion that I didn’t understand: I was excited about something and I wasn’t sure what. For a year I struggled to figure out what it was.
I went around talking about the ceremony with anyone who would listen. I would remind them, “I’m not a leftist, at most a centrist.” And I’d say, “There’s simply something about this ceremony that feels right, that rings true.” And I would declare, “ I want to live in a country where the official state memorial ceremony looks like this one. Where people from both sides of the abyss, come together and show respect and concern for each other.” Something just feels very, very right about it.
I told people that, as a father of sons who serve in the army, I believe that this is the way to protect them, this is the path that can lead to change.
Later Tuesday evening, a Facebook post about the event would have a cynical comment, “I want to understand something: did you honor the dead martyrs, the terrorists who murdered innocent Jews?” This commenter may be an extremist who’d ridicule any effort at coexistence or reconciliation. And while the answer is, “no, there is no mention of suicide-bombers or murderers” (it seems that the organizers are amazingly sensitive in selecting the stories they present so that they can be “heard” by the widest range of people possible), the truth is that he asked a tough question.
Going to a ceremony that memorializes victims from both sides of a conflict forces one to deal with many hard questions.
Is there no right side and wrong side? Is there no perpetrator and victim? No black and white?
And what’s the point of this whole thing? Isn’t it simply promoting a narrow, extreme left-wing agenda? What pragmatic policies can it lead to?
These are hard questions. But not nearly as hard as those that the members of the Parents Forum – “bereaved families supporting peace, tolerance and reconciliation” – must ask themselves: Why did our son die? Did we make the right decisions? If our leadership had taken a different direction, would our sister still be alive? What can we do for the next generation?
And all parents living in this part of the world, must ask ourselves hard questions. Are we on the right path? Are we doing everything possible to protect our children?
The speakers, mostly bereaved family members, talk openly and from the heart. Many speak about their initial resistance to joining a group that included people from the side that killed their loved ones; sit and talk to the enemy?
And they speak about the journey through and beyond their reservations. They speak about arriving at the belief that the only way to prevent more deaths is by this impossible union, this fusion of opposites. They help us see the shades of gray that are the reality of the conflict.
So what is so special, so accurate about this alternative ceremony? Why do I feel that it has nothing to do with political affiliations and that the majority of Israelis can and should see the correctness of this approach?
This year I think that I figured out what that other feeling was last year — what it was that made me excited.
Had Gadya – Everyone Dies
Each year the ceremony ends with the song Had Gadya sung in a mix of Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic by a choir of Palestinian and Israeli women. They sing the traditional song with an almost religious fervor. What seems to be a song of despair — the fire burns the stick, the stick beats the dog, the dog bites the cat, everyone dies — ends with the unified cry “how long will the awful cycle continue?” We acknowledge the despair of the never-ending cycle and in doing so declare that “had gadya” is not viable and must be a thing of the past; things must be different, even if we do not know just how that works.
Perhaps Albert Einstein can provide a clue about how it works. In a letter he sent to President Roosevelt, Einstein wrote about scientific discoveries that “may be turned into a new and important source of energy”; the discoveries that led to both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.
In a nuclear reaction there is a fusion of the particles in an atom and the identity of the nucleus is changed.
There was one part of the evening that grasped my innards and won’t let go. Araab Aramin and Yigal Elchanan, young men — one Palestinian, the other Israeli — spoke one after the other.
These young men could easily be on opposite ends of rifles, missiles or roadside bombs. They each spoke, they each told of a sister killed in violent acts.
And then they embraced and all the difficult questions were irrelevant.
When Araab Aramin and Yigal Elchanan hug each other, when they declare that they want a different way, a fusion takes place that can change the identity of our Israeli-Palestinian nucleus.
My Middle-Eastern journey is far from over. I have much to discover in the years to come and many questions to answer. We know too well, just by reading the news each day, how opposing particles in close proximity can end up as deadly weapons. But how can we do good with this special energy? How can we use it to change the nature of the conflict? How can we break the vicious cycle?
Having made a bit of progress calms me. Finally, not all is gray for me. Now I have a few black and white certainties. My unambiguous hope is that next time you will join me. My hope is that the alternative ceremony grows from 4,000 people to 40,000, from 40,000 to 400,000. I would like to see the alternative memorial ceremony evolve into the mainstream ceremony.
Maybe then this special energy – this nuclear fusion – will yield answers to the other hard questions.