Two bereaved parents on either side of the Middle East divide have shared moving accounts of loss and their desire for reconciliation at an event co-hosted by the Board of Deputies.
Israeli Robi Damelin and Palestinian Bassam Aramin both lost children as a result of the conflict in the region.
Mr Aramin told a packed crowd at Hinde Street Methodist Church in central London how his 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot in the back of the head by an Israeli soldier in 2007.
“We paid the highest price”, he said, “We both have ongoing pain and that is what united us. Because it was our kids we have the moral authority to raise our voice and say ‘No more killing’.”
Mr Aramin, who was jailed for seven years as a 17-year-old for throwing a hand grenade at a group of Israelis, said that during his time in prison he decided to watch a film about the Holocaust, expecting to “enjoy it”.
He said: “I wanted to enjoy it – to see someone torture those who wished to kill us.
“But after a few minutes I found myself crying. I did not expect this. I did not think I would see such atrocities.
“I am a simple man. I tried to convince myself it was just a movie. I don’t believe human beings can do this to other human beings.
“In general Palestinians don’t believe in the Holocaust because we do not know anything about it. It is easy to hide if you do not want to know.”
That moment spurred Mr Aramin to complete a degree in Holocaust studies from the University of Bradford in 2011. Quoting Nelson Mandela, he said in order to make peace Israeli’s and Palestinians will have to work together, so no more families would “taste the bitterness of this pain”.
Mrs Damelin, whose 28-year-old son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002, calling on people on both sides to “see the humanity in each other”.
David, a Tel Aviv University philosophy student and a teacher, was called up to serve in the IDF reserves in the occupied territories. A pacifist, he was unsure whether he should serve, but ultimately did so because he did not want to set a bad example to his own students, many of whom were to be called up shortly.
She said: “The most important thing he said before he left was ‘I will treat all around me with dignity, and so will my soldiers’. I learned this later on.
“I knew very soon the man who killed David didn’t kill him because he was David. He killed him because he was a symbol of an occupying army.
“Please don’t think that’s an easy thing so say, but if we are to find a way to reconciliation that is the truth. And that is the truth.”
Mrs Damelin said she told army officers on the day she learned of David’s death that they did not have her permission to kill anyone in his name.
She said: “I was invited to a seminar for bereaved families. And when I arrived I looked into the eyes of the Palestinian mothers and I realised we shared the same pain. And that when we went to bed at night and laid our heads down on the pillow the tears we shed were the same colour
“And I realised together we could be this most extraordinary force to make a difference.”
Hinde Street Methodist Church was selected in a bid to re-build ties between the Jewish and Christian communities after the church hosted a controversial exhibition which aimed to recreate a checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Some in the Jewish community felt it was biased against Israel, with the Board of Deputies saying it put “unwelcome and unnecessary” strain on relations.
Marie van der Zyl, Vice-President of the Board of Deputies, said: “The Board of Deputies began a dialogue with Hinde Street Methodist Church, following their controversial exhibition about Israeli checkpoints. We were impressed with the sincerity and goodwill with which the church engaged in this dialogue, and as well as making some changes to the exhibition, we suggested they partner with the neighbouring West London Synagogue to host one of our first Invest In Peace events."
Mrs Damelin and Mr Aramin were invited to speak at the event on Wednesday jointly co-ordinated by the Board of Deputies and Churches Together, an ecumenical organisation which links major churches in Britain and Ireland.
The pair are both members of the Parents Circle Families Forum, a network of more than 600 families who have lost loved-ones in the conflict. They now travel all over the world, sharing their stories and speaking of their desire for reconciliation.
Journalist Jonathan Freedland, who chaired the meeting, revealed that the pair had asked sit together, rather than on either side of him, which he said was “very telling” of their approach.
Rabbi Helen Freeman, rabbi at West London Synagogue, which is located near Hinde Street Church, described both Mr Aramin and Mrs Damelin as “spiritual giants”, and said that she had been “touched and moved” by their testimonies.
Mrs Van der Zyl said she was delighted by how well the event was received, saying she hoped to see more events held which “bridge the gap” between communities.