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Carleton hosts “The Parents Circle: Voices of Israel and Palestine”

“The Parents Circle: Voices of Israel and Palestine” program began with an opening ceremony on Jan. 14 in Kracum Performance Hall. Following this presentation, the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE), Chaplain’s Office and Office of Inclusion, Equity and Community hosted two student dialogue sessions on Jan. 17 and Jan. 22. They concluded the programming with a closing ceremony on Feb. 11 in Weitz 236. 

Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, Stacy Beckwith, began the opening ceremony by introducing the keynote speakers: members of the Parents Circle Families Forum Laila AlSheikh and Robi Damelin, both appearing over Zoom. Beckwith explained that the Parents Circle is made up of those who “have all lost an immediate family member in the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.” 

A central belief of the Parents Circle is that “losing loved ones will not end until we talk.” “Members of the group want listeners like us,” said Beckwith, “to hear how their views on Israeli and Palestinian relations — past, present and hopefully far more mutually beneficial in the future — have grown out of their personal pain and collective sharing.”

Rev. Schuyler Vogel ’07 told the Carletonian about the importance of hosting the Parents Circle, saying: “Our hope was that [the programming] would deepen people’s understanding of what the conflict meant for people who are as directly impacted as you can get, and yet still able to be in deep and loving relationship with people on the opposite side of the conflict. We wanted [the Parents Circle] to model the possibilities and speak to the possibilities of peace and reconciliation.”

Beckwith also highlighted the importance of learning from how speakers delivered their message rather than only their words: “As you listen and interact with our speakers today, be attuned to how they express what they are saying, how they pace and answer and what they stress with their voices, looks and gestures. All of these hold nuances for us that we likely don’t pick up on in social media’s world of posting, reposting, labeling, doxxing and feeling affected by any of these activities.” 

AlSheikh, the first speaker from the Parents Circle, jumped right into her story of loss that had led her to join the forum. On April 11, 2002, her son woke up in critical condition due to gas bombs released overnight by Israeli soldiers. Because her son was only six months old, he could not withstand the toll of the gas on his lungs. In an effort to get medical attention, AlSheikh tried to take her son to a hospital but was stopped three separate times by Israeli soldiers. By the time her family reached the hospital, “it was too late to save his life.” In that moment, AlSheikh felt “hatred, anger, sadness,” especially at Israelis, who she held collectively responsible for her son’s death. 

The auditorium was silent as AlSheikh continued describing the unimaginable moment of loss. “I try to hug him so tight to warm him [up] enough because I thought maybe he will go back to life but that was the last moment I hugged my son,” said AlSheikh. “From that day, our life was changed forever.”

Following the death of her son, she refused to have any kind of relationship with any Israeli person for 16 years. It wasn’t until a friend invited her to a conference held by the Parents Circle that she interacted with an Israeli person. It was a difficult experience for her: “I didn’t want to be in the same room. I didn’t want to see them. But my friend tried to convince me to just sit and listen.” 

At the conference, AlSheikh witnessed something that “amazed” her. “They talk to each other, they hug each other like family members. And I said to myself, ‘they are so crazy, how could they do that after all these years of killing each other without no mercy?’ I was really touched because that was the first time I looked at them as a human like me, not as an enemy.” After witnessing this moving scene, AlSheikh became engaged with the Parents Circle. She found that the meetings were “not about comparing the pain, not about, say, who’s first or second, who’s good or bad…[instead], it’s about giving a chance for both sides to listen to each other, to understand where everyone came from.” 

A pivotal moment for AlSheikh was when she first shared her story at a Parents Circle gathering. “I spoke about my son in front of Israelis. That was so hard for me. I couldn’t complete the story and started to cry. Then, there was an Israeli woman who came in front of me and she started to apologize. She said to me, ‘Yes, I didn’t hurt you, but the people who hurt you are from my own people. And I’m a mother too. I can understand your pain. I can understand the words that you couldn’t say.’ And she came and hugged me. And both of us started to cry.” 

AlSheikh decided from that day to “be a member in the forum and… travel around the world to spread the message of peace and reconciliation,” motivated by the fact that “we don’t want anyone to be in our situation. Every soul is so precious because God created us to live and to love each other, not to kill each other.”

Damelin, the spokesperson and director of international relations for the Parents Circle, followed AlSheikh’s powerful story with her own insights into the current conflict in Israel and Palestine. “It’s actually a hundred days since the seventh of October. And it’s a hundred days since the hostages have been in Gaza,” she began. Listing the many tragedies, personal and international, Damelin did not mince words in capturing what she described as “the saddest period that I can remember.”

Damelin recalled Vivian Silver, a friend and fellow peace activist who was recently “burned to death in her house in a cupboard.” Describing her as “the most extraordinary person to lead a peace operation,” Damelin expressed struggling to find reason for her death and the senseless deaths of so many others: “This is so unfair. She was such a peace activist. Why does she deserve to die? Nobody deserves to die… Why on earth, how could this happen with such vehement and such violence?” 

Damelin became involved in the Parents Circle after the loss of her son, David, who was killed while on-duty. A student at Tel Aviv University studying the philosophy of education, David was part of the peace movement and did not want to serve in the occupied territories, yet was forced to enlist. “When the army came to tell me that my son David had been killed by a Palestinian sniper,” Damelin recalled, “one of the first things that I said was, ‘You cannot kill anybody in the name of my child.’ It was a statement that was really going to lead to what I would do with the rest of my life.”

“This is not a black and white situation,” Damelin said. “This is a really terrible situation. I’m hoping that by talking to you today, you will start to think about taking sides. What happens when you do that? All it really achieves is creating a situation where you import our conflict into your country and create hatred between Jews and Muslims.” Damelin urged the Carleton community to discuss peacefully and respectfully rather than arguing with each other, saying, “Surely if we can do this, then you can do the same.” 

Voguel concluded the presentation by thanking the speakers before opening up the floor to questions, saying, “We’re so thankful for your presence here even from around the world. You have blessed us with your wisdom and your experience. We sit here with a heaviness from those stories, the heaviness of loss, but also the hope of reconciliation.”

Vogel told the Carletonian he was “glad to offer space to people who have profound experiences of grief and peacemaking, and glad people felt comfortable asking challenging questions to the Parents Circle members.” By creating such a space, the Carleton community was able to “dive into raw profound aspects of human experience and wade into those waters together even if it’s hard.”

The office of Dina Zavala, Vice President for Inclusion, Equity, and Community, created the initial idea for programming about the Israel-Palestine conflict, bringing together the CCCE and the Chaplain’s Office to address student well-being and understanding during this global tragedy. Vogel described how Zavala approached multiple offices at Carleton in an effort to find “a way to deepen our campus understanding of these issues without inflaming them.” The goal of this programming as a whole was to “have some intentional programming around offering students a chance to process what was going on, and to create a space of conversation, learning and reconciliation,” explained Vogel.

Vogel identified the role of the Chaplain’s office as “being where people’s pain is. To see where suffering is on campus, and help people feel held, heard and supported.” Because the Israel-Palestine conflict impacted the “wellbeing of the college itself,” to Vogel it “made sense for the Chaplain’s Office to be engaged in how the campus as a whole processes these experiences.” 

This required leadership attuned to the concerns of students: “The administration tries to respond to what the community is talking and thinking about. The Carletonian let us know that this is an issue that is very important and meaningful for a broad breadth of the Carleton community,” said Vogel.

Carleton’s role is to have a “dual reaction to cases like this,” as it must balance “caring for people who are struggling in these moments” and “taking seriously the responsibility Carleton has as an educational institution,” Vogel explained. “We are all learning as human beings in a very complicated world. We must ask ourselves to grow as people and grow our understanding of the world.”

Zavala approached the CCCE about contributing to the dialogue component of the programming because they teach student workers in the Peace, Conflict and Democracy (PCD) cohort how to host community conversations.

The CCCE provides opportunities for students to engage in social change making through avenues they may not have been exposed to before. In the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, “Zavala heard some students saying they didn’t quite feel able to talk about this as it was a complicated and sensitive topic,” explained Sinda Nichols ’05, director of the CCCE. According to Nichols, the CCCE hoped to address this by having “facilitated space to talk about experiences and how we want to be in community.” 

Nichols recognized that dialogues are just one “important piece in a much larger puzzle” of social change making skills, and that they may not be for everyone. “Dialogue can be frustrating because [people] expect it to lead to decision making, but maybe it’s designed just for exploration,” explained Nichols. “The goals of this dialogue were to create space for students to reflect on and process what it’s been like to try to understand and act on what’s going on in Israel and Palestine. [It was] designed to be a processing space and a learning space. And we knew there were students who weren’t going to be looking for that, not what they wanted or needed. And it seemed like it was still worthwhile to create that space for students who were looking for it. Dialogue doesn’t solve all the problems.” 

During her time as a student, Nichols experienced how Carleton is “really good at helping students figure out how to intellectually engage with the world in terms of theories, frameworks and histories of topics.” While Nichols appreciates that, she believes holistic understanding needs to go further, to address the emotional aspect of these tragedies as well: “I know there’s lots of room and focus for what we know with our brains. But it’s important for there to be spaces to feel and understand and know what’s going on in those ways, too.”

At the closing ceremony, Vogel highlighted major themes covered in the student discussions, including fear of cancel culture, feelings of guilt and shame as the “real” conflict was occurring far away, how to battle feelings of hopelessness and struggling to find meaningful ways of activism. 

Carleton also welcomed back speakers Damelin and AlSheikh at the closing ceremony. Damelin described a vigil at Georgetown University that she had recently attended. At this vigil, there were no flags, no signs, only candles. Describing the event as “moving,” Damelin encouraged Carleton and other institutions to do the same. Damelin asserted that “flag waving” was not helpful. 

“Please be aware of the human side of this horrible war. People are dying every day and I can’t figure out why… Just be a part of telling the story of people, of me, of Laila,” Damelin concluded. The best solution to the conflict, Damelin said, was to engage in respectful dialogues in an effort to recognize those across the divide as human beings, just like yourself. She encouraged students: “Take all your politics and ideas and put it on a chair next to you. Just speak from the heart.”

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Mileana Borowski, Managing Editor
I am a junior Political Science major who loves to write! I take midday showers, have a professional stunt double (shout out to my identical twin), and I love my stuffed animals maybe a little too much. I have a cactus named The Cliffords and a plant named Francis. If you're having a conversation with me for longer than thirty seconds and I haven't mentioned my dog, please check in because something is probably wrong. Mileana was previously News Editor, Bald Spot Editor and Design Editor.

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