Speaker: Robi Damelin

Resisting Revenge to Embrace Humanity and Peaceful Co-existence

On March 3, 2002, Robi Damelin’s world shattered. A Palestinian sniper shot and killed ten Israelis, including several soldiers, at a checkpoint near the Palestinian occupied territories. Among those killed was her 28-year-old son, David, an active member of the peace movement. Her heart raw and weeping, Robi’s first words were: “Do not take revenge in the name of my son.” Somewhere below the grief, the values of coexistence and tolerance, with which she’d raised her two sons, had been summoned, and she knew even in the acuity of that moment that exacting vengeance would merely fuel the cycle of violence. With the same clear-sightedness, she graced David's grave with a quotation by the Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran: "The whole earth is my birthplace and all humans are my brothers.” These words foretold the mission that would soon become her life.

Born in South Africa during apartheid, Robi was raised in a fiercely progressive family who vocally opposed the government’s policies (she described an uncle who defended Nelson Mandela during his first treason trial, and a distant cousin who marched with Mahatma Gandhi against discriminatory policies in South Africa). In 1967, Robi moved to Israel with the hope of “saving Israel” during the Six-Day War. But the war had ended, so she volunteered to work in a kibbutz and learned Hebrew. She worked for The Jerusalem Post, got married, and had two sons — Eran and David. She dreaded that they would eventually have to serve time in the army, as was mandatory for anyone in Israel who turned 18.

As Robi ran a public relations firm that worked with companies like National Geographic, the History Channel, and Unilever, David was called to the reserves, which is when tragedy struck. In the wake of David’s death, Robi couldn’t bear “business as usual” and closed down her office. “It is impossible to describe what it is to lose a child,” she said. “Your whole life is totally changed forever. It’s not that I’m not the same person I was. I’m the same person with a lot of pain. Wherever I go, I carry this with me.”

This same pain, she realized, was shared by victims’ families on both sides of the conflict and could be a powerful catalyst for healing together. Three months after David’s death, Robi attended a demonstration and spoke to more than 60,000 people about her son and her hope for Israel to vacate the Palestinian occupied territories. She made an impression upon the Parents Circle – Families Forum, or PCFF, a grassroots organization of some 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who lost loved ones to the conflict, fostering dialogue, mutual understanding, and reconciliation.

“It took me time to understand,” she reflected, “to look at the differences in temperament and culture, and become much less judgmental. I think David was a much more tolerant person than me. I learned a lot of lessons from him, and the pain of his loss created a space in me that was less egocentric -- that I know what's best for everybody.” The PCFF would soon become Robi’s refuge and her path to a lifelong journey of self-discovery and activism. She would become the spokesperson of the PCFF and their Director of International Relations, speaking worldwide with a Palestinian partner.

A little over two years after David was killed, Robi learned that David’s killer had been captured. Robi was aware that her role in communal reconciliation work would lack credibility unless she could walk the talk. After much soul-searching she wrote a letter to the sniper’s family, seeking dialogue as a first step toward forgiveness. Her carefully drafted letter presented David as she knew him, as a deep thinker, a compassionate student leader, an advocate of peace, an opponent of Israeli settlements, and a reluctant soldier. It also presented the work and objectives of the PCFF. Her hopes of receiving a swift, constructive reply, however, were dashed. The scathing reply she eventually received two and a half years later merely sought to justify the killing. Clearly, the sniper, like so many perpetrators of violence, was still trapped in a spiral of hatred.

Undeterred, Robi traveled back to her homeland of South Africa to learn and seek inspiration from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s efforts after apartheid, wondering if similar tactics could move Israel toward a just resolution to the Middle East conflict. In 2012, this story of her journey into her past to work toward a better future was movingly told in the documentary One Day After Peace.

Robi has received numerous awards, including being one of four Women PeaceMakers of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice and the Woman of Impact award by Women in the World. She has regularly contributed to The Forward, Haaretz, and the Huffington Post, and she is a regular speaker to thousands of Israelis and Palestinians at various universities, parliaments, and numerous international events.

“Nothing is easy in this journey,” Robi says. But she remains tenacious in her personal pursuit. “Peace means human dignity, I think. I would sense a state of peace if I lived in a moral country where people are equal and respect other people's humanity.” The stories, Robi believes, are what will change society for both groups. "Narratives and personal stories are the basis of most of the work that we do. In fact, it's always a factor in whatever we do, and you'd be amazed how even the hardest of hearts are affected by hearing a story."

Please join Aryae Coopersmith in conversation with this courageous mother, peacemaker, and humanitarian. 

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