Robi Damelin has always fought injustice. Growing up in South Africa, she spoke out against apartheid and worked actively for co-existence. In 1967, she moved to Israel—“to solve the conflict,” she says with self-deprecating humor. She ended up working on a kibbutz. “Ever since then,” she told me, “I have had a love-hate relationship with this country.” She loves the reality of a homeland for the Jewish people, but she hates the oppression of Palestinian people that results from the Israeli military occupation. “Israel will never be free until the Palestinians are free,” she says.
Robi’s son, David, shared her perspective about the occupation. Robi claims he “would rather have gone to jail than serve in the military, but he knew that as soon as he was released, he’d just be posted somewhere else. In the end we agreed it would be better for him to serve as an officer and set an example to other soldiers by behaving like a human being.” David fulfilled his required service, but in 2002 he was called up to the reserves. Again, he and Robi decided he should serve and set an example.
But as a soldier “he was a symbol of an occupying army.” On March 3, 2002, 28-year-old David Damelin was killed by a Palestinian sniper.
“I was beside myself with grief,” says Robi. “I had all the good things in life, but it all became totally irrelevant. I just wanted to prevent other families from experiencing this.” Robi was invited to a meeting where she met Palestinian mothers who had also lost children. “I saw there was no difference in our pain. I realized that through our joint pain we could speak out and make a difference.”
Robi closed her public relations business and became a spokesperson for The Parents Circle (www.thepa rentscircle.com), a group of more than 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost an immediate family member in the conflict. Robi spends her time traveling the world to spread the message of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace.
“Reconciliation is not about hugging and eating hummus. It is about understanding the needs of the other,” Robi explains. “You need to view history through the human eye.” Together, members of the Parents Circle study each other’s personal and historical narratives. During a typical learning experience, they visited Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem), listened to lectures by Israeli and Palestinian historians, then visited an Arab village destroyed by Israelis in 1948.
At the village, one Palestinian mother saw the well she had used as a child. “That helped me understand why she walks around with the key to her family’s house, wishing she could return,” said Robi. “These experiences create empathy.”
In 2010, an Israeli marketing firm challenged creative thinkers throughout the world to come up with a way to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. The result was Blood Relations (www.bloodrelations.org), which provides a catalyst for dialogue by demonstrating people’s shared humanity through the common bond of blood. The effort was launched in Tel Aviv in September 2011, when Israeli and Palestinian members of the Parents Circle publicly donated their blood to Israeli and Palestinian hospitals as a symbolic act of healing. Robi donated her blood while seated next to a Palestinian mother whose son had also been killed.
“The pain of David’s death never goes away,” says Robi. “But what do you do with this pain? Do you invest it in revenge, or do you think creatively?”
People ask why I have hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. How can I not have hope when there are people like Robi Damelin?
Lynne Hybels is co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Robi Damelin’s story is documented in the film Encounter Point (www.justvision.org/encounterpoint).