Change is possible – it begins within our hearts

Nkyinkyim Installation, which stands at the entrance of the National Memorial for Peace (Montgomery, Alabama), And dedicated to the Africans who perished in the Atlantic Ocean during slave trade. (David Altschul)
Nkyinkyim Installation, which stands at the entrance of the National Memorial for Peace (Montgomery, Alabama), And dedicated to the Africans who perished in the Atlantic Ocean during slave trade. (David Altschul)

You might wonder why two bereaved Palestinian and Israeli mothers and a bereaved son would travel for more than 15 hours to the South of the United States to learn the history of slavery and understand the civil rights movement. What reason could they have for starting this unfamiliar journey in New Orleans and ending in Montgomery. In my opinion, they wished to learn, to listen, to understand and to concentrate on the words and feelings of others. They wished to experience other realities without barriers or prejudices.

The trip started with a homage to African ancestors at Congo Square, New Orleans. This was the only place in which slaves could meet each other on a Sunday — the only day they were allowed some rest. We were given the chance to be a part of this homage and to think of our own ancestors. The women in our group danced, while the men played the drums. Soon enough, all inhibitions were discarded, and a sense of joy came in their stead. Then it was the turn of the women to drum so as to encourage the men in their warrior dance. Personally, I found the ceremony as a way of connecting to my South-African roots, and an appropriate way to start a journey which would no doubt be fraught with the pain of slavery, as well as the path towards freedom.

(David Altschul)

Day Two was deeply painful and disturbing. It started with a visit to the Whitney Plantation, where generations of Africans and their children were sold and enslaved. History cries out at the injustice of a people ripped and stolen from their homeland, their families and future.   Two million enslaved people drowned on the way to the Americas. I kept being reminded of modern day refugees fleeing on small boats, drowning in many cases. We are told that slavery has come to an end, and yet today one in three black men is incarcerated and forced to work on plantations. Is this not modern day slavery?

The main impression that accompanied me during the trip was witnessing the great progress that the US society has made since slavery. On the other hand, I couldn’t stop thinking about the long way that still remains. The abolition of slavery does not make racism, discrimination and inequality vanish. For me, it grounded the feeling that real change doesn’t necessarily come from legislation and not even from peace agreements. Real change begins from within people’s hearts, when they learn to listen to the other side of the story with empathy.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, similar to black and white relations in the US, has a long way to go until solved. However we can see clearly that change and progress are possible. During the trip, we found out that all of us, whether American, Israeli or Palestinian, share one fundamental insight — the understanding that all conflicts start moving towards resolution only when a desire for a better future blooms within both sides. This desire can only arise from mutual understanding.

What can give back to the generous and loving people we met in the South of the US? I think it is the possibility of illustrating, as we do in the Parents Circle-Families Forum, the understanding of listening with empathy.

Three bereaved members of The Parents Circle Families Forum (PCFF)  took a unique trip to the South of the US, meeting advocates for nonviolence and peace and understanding the history of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. The trip started in New Orleans, through Jackson, Selma and walking over the famous bridge to Montgomery. We gave talks in synagogues and shared our stories along the way. A workshop on nonviolence and restorative justice was a part of the learning curve. Sharing narratives was a tool for finding the commonality in the shared pain of loss and harnessing that loss for change.

About the Author
Robi Damelin's son David Damelin was killed by a Palestinian sniper in the second Intifada. She is the spokesperson for the Parents Circle- Families Forum, a group of hundreds of Israel and Palestinian bereaved families working for peace and reconciliation.
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