Rami Elhanan, Laila Alsheikh and Herb Keinon
By Richard Friedman
As part of its webinar series “Looking Toward the Future,” the Louisiana Jewish Coalition delved into one of the most complex of issues, one fraught with emotion and tragedy, yet, at times, opportunity and even reconciliation — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The coalition was formed this past summer and is comprised of Federations and other Jewish organizations from throughout the state. There was coordination on crisis issues, such as disaster management, and it occurred to the group that there were great opportunities to work together proactively to advance Jewish identity and solidarity throughout the state.
ADL’s New Orleans-based Southern Division Director of Community Engagement, Aaron Ahlquist, guided the Nov. 28 discussion between Israeli and Palestinian Parents Circle Family Forum participants Rami Elhanan and Laila Alsheikh, which was followed by perspectives from longtime Jerusalem Post journalist Herb Keinon.
The Parents Circle is made up of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost immediate family members to the conflict over the years. It 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.”
Alsheikh spoke first, referring to her Israeli counterpart as her “brother” and “one of the closest persons to me in the world.” A Palestinian Muslim mother, she recounted her young son dying in 2002 from tear gas Israel used in response to the war of terror the Palestinian leadership had launched against the country. For years afterward, she said, she didn’t have any relationship with Israelis. “I felt they all were responsible for the death of my son.”
One day a friend called her about Parents Circle. At first she wasn’t interested, but the friend persisted. Alsheikh came to realize that she didn’t want her other children to become victims of “the cycle of violence.” So the friend said that maybe this would be a chance to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“When the Israelis started to talk about their personal stories I was really touched and amazed,” Alsheikh said. “It was the first time I looked at them as a human like me, not just the enemy.”
Same Kind of Pain
Elhanan, an Israeli whose father was a survivor of Auschwitz, began by referring to Alsheikh as “the closest person to me on the earth. What makes us so close is the price that we each have paid. We share the same kind of pain. We don’t need to say words to each other.”
Elhanan’s 14-year-old daughter was murdered in 1997 by two Palestinian suicide bombers. “I thought I could go on with my life pretending as if nothing had happened, but nothing was normal anymore.”
An acquaintance got him involved in Parents Circle. “I was 47 at the time. I am ashamed to admit that it was the first time I was meeting Palestinians as human beings — people who were carrying the burden that I carry.” His involvement in the group led to a transformation in his life.
“I have no way of explaining what happened to me other than deciding to devote my life to go everywhere possible to talk to anyone possible, to convey this basic message: We Israelis and Palestinians are not doomed. This is not our destiny to keep killing each other.”
Speaking with emotion, he added, “We can break this endless cycle of violence and the only way to do it is by talking to each other. Once you are able to listen to the pain of ‘the other’ you can expect the other to listen to your pain — and then together we can start the journey of reconciliation. This is the only way possible.”
Like An Eternity
In his remarks, Keinon, who is well-known to American audiences, praised the current Israeli government, the most diverse in Israel’s history. He said the new government has brought much-needed stability to Israel’s political system and is likely to last at least another 18 months which is “like an eternity.”
Israel “was exhausted by four years of political stalemate and nothing was getting done — so something had to give,” he said. The new government, he noted, includes proponents and opponents of Israel’s settlement policies in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), as well as including for the first time an Islamic party.
“The government is working because its guiding principle is that ‘We can agree on 70 percent of the issues — the other 30 percent will have to wait until another day’.” He also said that the focus on the government has largely been on domestic issues, such as Covid, the economy, crime and education — areas where there is general agreement.
On international issues, there is agreement on advancing the Abraham Accords but disagreement on the Palestinian issue which, he said, means it won’t be solved right now. The feeling is “let’s just try to manage this issue as best we can.”
Iran, of course, is a broad concern and there are differences among key government leaders about what approach to take.
However, the over-arching message of the new government, Keinon said, is, “You don’t have to agree with your neighbors ideologically but we are on this boat together.”
That message of being on the boat together despite differences in perspectives also framed the webinar.
Certainly the Parents Circle participants, as a result of their painful journeys, have come to realize this about Palestinians and Israelis, and the Louisiana Jewish Coalition, a new entity made up of Jewish Federations and other organizations, is embracing this approach as well.