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Interfaith group urges Arab, Israeli reconciliation
Washington Jewish Week / December 10, 2009

By Larry Luxner

In March 2002, Robi Damelin's 28-year-old son David, a left-leaning peace activist and officer in the Israel Defense Forces, was murdered by an Arab sniper at a checkpoint in the West Bank.

The following month, Mazen Faraj's 62-year-old father — who had gone out to buy groceries — was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during a violent confrontation with Palestinian militants in Bethlehem.

On Sunday, the Jewish mother from South Africa and the young Palestinian from the Dheisheh refugee camp stood on the bima at Washington's Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, sharing their painful stories.

"We're not just two kooks that came out of the Middle East with strange ideas. There's a purpose in what we're doing," Damelin told an audience of 220 Jews, Christians and Muslims, most of whom paid $15 each to attend. "It's very important not to be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, because you're not helping either of us. It would be much better to find a solution."

Said Faraj: "My father will never come back again, but I would never take revenge, because my cause as a Palestinian is a just cause. It's not about revenge and killing, it's about hope. And if I lose hope, I will die."

The activists' joint appearance at Sixth & I was among the highlights of a four-hour program of music, poetry and speeches organized by Yes We Can: Middle East Peace (YesMEP), a nonprofit organization that aims to "build bridges for a just and secure peace" between Israelis and Palestinians.

"We support President Obama's initiative for a just and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on a two-state solution," said Paul Verduin, one of the YesMEP's founders. "We believe that the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel, and a mutually satisfactory agreement regarding Jerusalem, will not only advance the interests of the United States, but would also provide security for Israelis, dignity and prosperity for Palestinians and a lasting peace for both nations."

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Shipler, who covered the Arab-Israeli conflict for the New York Times, was master of ceremonies for the event, which featured a narrative drama by Israeli-American actress Noa Baum; a performance of Hebrew and Ladino songs by Argentine cantor Ramon Tasat and a demonstration of traditional Arab music by master oud player Shawkat Sayyad, among other things.

The 24-member Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church Choir engaged the audience in a singalong, while Rabbi David Shneyer, spiritual leader of the Kehila Chadasha and Am Kolel communities, sang and played Jewish liturgical music on his guitar.

The highlight of the afternoon was a reggae, jazz and rock concert by White Flag Project, a joint Palestinian-Israeli rock band. But two of the band's Arab members weren't there; one didn't get his U.S. visa in time, and the other was prevented by Hamas from leaving the Gaza Strip.

Outside, a KSA-TV news crew from Saudi Arabia interviewed one of the Palestinian speakers on the steps of the synagogue, while downstairs by the door, vendors on folding tables sold "White Flag" T-shirts made in Honduras and emblazoned with peace messages in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Paul Monteiro, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, said he was honored to attend the event on behalf of the Obama administration.

"This is a critical issue for us, and as you know, our president has been serious about making real progress in this area," said Monteiro, who was national deputy director of religious affairs for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. "So much effort has gone seemingly nowhere, but this constituency sees hope. As people of faith, I want you to know that, no matter what you may read in the newspapers, it is possible.

"You remind us what love looks like. We already have so many examples of what hate looks like," he added. "Remember everything you have heard today, but more importantly, remind your neighbors there is a constituency that wants peace and will work for it. Our faith motivates us not to give up."

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