On Monday night this week, I attended – with two of my daughters—a remarkably poignant event which was co-sponsored by about 10 social justice and peace organizations in Israel, where a Palestinian man from the West Bank and an Israeli Jewish woman from Jerusalem, shared their personal stories of loss and of hope with regard to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This program, which was presented by these two leaders of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, was attended by hundreds of people from all over Jerusalem in a packed auditorium at the high school next to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem known as “Leyadah”.
This event was organized within the last few days as a kind of protest and solidarity evening with this organization, since Israel’s Ministry of Education announced last week that this particular organization is now banned from entering Israeli schools to present their dialogue programs, as they have been doing, with great impact, for many years. This disastrous decision—which is part of the growing attempt to silence peace and reconciliation organizations in Israel—has sparked outrage from all over Israel from many parts of society, including the educational system. So far, ninety schools have announced that they will not abide by this directive!
The Parents Circle-Families Forum https is one of the oldest peace organizations in Israel. Also known as the Bereaved Families Forum, it was founded in 1995, in the years following the Oslo accords. According to their website:
The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF) is a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost an immediate family member to the ongoing conflict. Moreover, the PCFF has concluded that the process of reconciliation between nations is a prerequisite to achieving a sustainable peace. The organization thus utilizes all resources available in education, public meetings and the media, to spread these ideas.
The two representatives who spoke to us were eloquent and inspiring. Yifat is an educator at the “Leyadah” high school. She lost an older brother to the conflict during the First Lebanon War. She spoke to the crowd very softly and beautifully, causing many people to have tears in their eyes. Two of her sons were present in the room and she told a story about how a question asked early on by one of them brought her to join the forum. You could see and feel that she is undoubtedly an excellent educator and very seriously committed to her work for peace and reconciliation via the organization of bereaved families.
The second person to speak was Mohammed, from the village of Halhool in the West Bank near Hebron, who also lost a brother. His brother was killed by bullets shot by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in an incident in which the army later described to the family as an “accident.” Mohammed has been speaking to young Israelis and Palestinians for 17 years and he still believes in it. Why? He feels that he has changed the lives of many young Israeli Jews and he had many good stories – and a good sense of humor – to support his case. He has spoken to Israeli Jews in schools and in pre-army academic institutes for a long time, in excellent Hebrew and with a lively positive personality. Also, like Yifat, he does it to keep a flicker of hope alive in a growingly desperate situation.
Why is the Israeli government blackballing this excellent and important peace organization?
Firstly, because it doesn’t believe in peace and doesn’t like anyone who talks about it. Rather, this most right-wing extremist government in the history of Israel believes fervently in war, violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, home demolitions of innocent Palestinian families, and creeping annexation. One just has to listen to the statements of Mr. Smotrich (of the “Religious Zionism” party) and Mr. Ben Gvir (of “Jewish Power”) who represent Israeli fanaticism at its best (or worst!) or read what they have to say in the print media.
Secondly, this government is becoming increasingly neo-fascist in its educational approach. Not only are they trying to silence this organization, but they also recently cut the funding for education in Arab towns within Israel and for Palestinian university student from East Jerusalem! The finance minister and the minister of education – who are from the farthest right and the far-right political parties in Israel who were brought into the government by Netanyahu– are clearly now trying to control the minds of Israeli students, for fear that they might learn something about the other, or develop empathy for people who have lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict, or begin to think that it is time to end the conflict through dialogue and negotiations.
I was told that the Parents Circle-Families Forum will appeal this decision via procedures with the Ministry of Education. If this doesn’t work, they will take the issue to the Supreme court (which already has many critical cases regarding the anti-judicial revolution of the right on its docket).
Also, we in civil society will continue to protest this very unwise policy. It will be another item, of many, on our protest agenda, against this scary and dangerous government. In addition, I imagine that teachers and school principals will continue to resist this, whether they do so in the classroom or in extra-curricular, out-of-school sessions.
We who heard Yifat and Mohammed speak this past Monday night in Jerusalem were deeply moved and encouraged by their commitment to dialogue, reconciliation and peace. They gave us a little hope, which is hard to find in Jerusalem these days.