It was in a small, stuffy room in the sub-basement of the Golden Walls Hotel, just across the road from the old city of Jerusalem. I was with a small group on a two-week trip to Israel/Palestine.
We had come to offer an arts camp for children in the West Bank, to study the holy sites, and to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Outside we could hear the muffled sounds of traffic, shouts of passersby and the call of the muezzin from a nearby mosque. It was a blazing hot day. Inside the room was quieter and cooler. But still stuffy. It smelled, our guide liked to say, like life. We drew the patterned hotel chairs into a circle and made two extra spaces for the men who were there to speak to us.
I knew very little about Rami and Bassam, other than that one was a Palestinian and one was an Israeli, they had both experienced violent conflict for most of their lives, and they were speakers for a group called Parents’ Circle / Family Forum.
I did not know that what they would say in the next hour would change my life, and would continue to inspire and challenge me in my journey toward emotional intelligence for years to come.
They sat next to each other, and it was clear from the start that they had a deep love and respect for one another.
Rami began by putting his arm around Bassam with a grin, saying: “My name is Rami Elhanan. I am a Jew. I am an Israeli. Before anything else, I am a human being. This Palestinian is my dear brother. In many ways he is one of the closest people to me on earth. What makes us so close is the price we both have paid as an outcome of this ongoing conflict between our two nations.”
Bassam’s eyes looked down during Rami’s speech, but at this point he raised them and we saw the quiet strength in his gaze. “My name is Bassam Aramim. I am a Palestinian. I spent seven years in an Israeli jail for a mistake I made when I was twelve. And I am proud to call this ex-enemy, this man, my brother. Because we are fighting together, we are struggling together, for peace.”
They went on to tell their personal stories of horror, hatred and loss. Rami described his daughter Smadar. She was, in his words, a beautiful, amazing, vivid, sparkling little girl. He said everyone called her The Princess. The family lived a good life in a house in Jerusalem: Rami, his wife (a professor at the university), his three boys, and The Princess. It seemed like the perfect existence. But then on September 4, 1997, the bubble they were living in was blown up by two Palestinian suicide bombers, who exploded themselves in Ben Yehuda street, killing five people including three young girls. One of them was 14-year-old Smadar.
Bassam told the story of his daughter Abir. On January 16, 2007, in front of her grade school, an Israeli police officer shot her in the back of the head from a distance of 15-20 meters. She died several hours later. She was 10 years old.
The men spoke of their inconsolable grief, their shock, their anger, their depression, their hatred… and finally their desire for healing and peace. It was that desire that brought them to Parents’ Circle, an organization committed to bringing grieving Palestinians and Israelis together for reconciliation.
Rami admitted with shame that until he entered the organization at the age of 47, he had never looked at a Palestinian as a human being. Now he says, “Our blood is exactly the same color. Our pain is exactly the same pain. Our tears are exactly the same bitterness. And if we, who paid the highest price possible, can talk to each other, then anyone can, and anyone should. We can break once and for all the endless cycle of violence and revenge. The only way to do it is simply by talking to each other. It will not stop until we talk. We do not ask you to be pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. We demand of you to be pro-peace.”
Our group was profoundly impacted by Rami and Bassam. We spoke about them and about their message for days to come. But the learning did not stop there.
The next week, we visited Tent Of Nations, a Palestinian organic farm which is constantly threatened and frequently bulldozed by Israeli soldiers, because of its prime location for Israeli settlements. The Nassar family, owners of the farm, had also committed themselves to healing and peace. They had established a peace camp for Palestinian and Israeli students to come together, and they hosted groups like ours for discussions about reconciliation.
When we drove onto the farm property, we were greeted at the end of the dusty laneway by a large rock with the words, “WE REFUSE TO BE ENEMIES” written in three languages. Daoud Nassar spoke with us at length, ending his speech with the words, “We are determined to stay. But we are also determined that whatever violence we experience here at the hands of others we will turn to good, to peace.”
One of the simplest definitions of emotional maturity is the ability to be both defined and connected.
Being defined in relationships has two parts. First, we define ourselves when we take a position. In other words, when we say (with our words and our actions), “This is what I think and believe, this is what I want, this is what I am doing, this is where I stand.” Second, being defined in relationships means that we allow others to define themselves by taking a position. We make room for them to say (with their words and their actions) what they think, believe, want, and will do, and where they stand even if their position is different from our own.
Being connected to others means we can stay in relationship with them at a level of intensity appropriate to the relationship without taking our self away from them or giving up self to them. We are appropriately connected when we care for them without taking care of them, when we are responsible to them without being responsible for them, and when we stay in one-to-one contact with them even in the face of disagreement and emotional intensity.
The people of Israel/Palestine who are working for peace are the best examples I have ever seen of being defined and connected in the midst of an impossible, violent conflict. Despite suffering unimaginable pain at one another’s hands, I see them choosing to say who they are, to tell their stories of horror and joy, to stay where they live, to speak courageously about what they think… AND at the same time they choose to see their enemies as human beings, to move toward one another in their differences, to listen, to talk, and to work together for the healing they dream might one day bring their two nations together. As they said: if they, who paid the highest price possible can talk to each other, then anyone can, and anyone should.
I am both embarrassed and inspired by their example. And I think: if these people can do it on such an unfathomable scale, surely I can do it in my everyday life. When I want to complain because being defined and connected is such hard work, I remember Rami and Bassam and I try again.