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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Ofer Shinar

Ofer Shinar studied and subsequently taught law and human rights at Tel Aviv University after his mandatory service in the Israeli army. In 2001-2002, he studied with South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation leader, Alex Boraine, at New York University. He returned to Israel to help the Bereaved Families' Forum explore the idea and process of reconciliation and to serve as an independent advisor and researcher on Transitional Justice. Today, Ofer is writing his Doctoral Dissertation at the Federmann School of Public Policy and Government at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem while teaching at both Hebrew University and Sapir College in Sderot.

  • Where are you from and how did you get involved in the peace work you are doing?

    I grew up in a leftist home, a moderate one I think, and I became very political when I was a teenager. I participated in all sorts of political movements. I feel it's interesting how views very, very slowly change, because when I was in the army I spent a year of my life in the Occupied Territories,as a soldier, as a fighter, during the first intifada. I opposed it, but it didn't bother me so much, I was one of those who felt that it was better that I was doing it than somebody else. Then I went to the university. I think that the thing that really changed me was studying law in Tel Aviv University, which was, and still is a very politically conscious faculty. The studies are oriented toward social values and the meaning, the hidden meanings of the law. Critical Legal Studies is very prevalent there. It helped me a lot to see things differently, and I also did a degree in Philosophy. So it was very important for me to understand things and to conceptualize things that I saw before. I ended up doing human rights work as a student at the Human Rights clinic at Tel Aviv University Law Faculty. Clinics are now very common in the States because you don't have internships so as a student you usually want to 'jump on the bandwagon' because it's great to do some actual work while still at law school. Here [in Israel] it wasn't so common in my day. Now it's much more common here; you have a yearlong internship after your studies in order to become a lawyer. I was one of the first students to experience that because Tel Aviv University was one of the first places where clinical legal education started, and it was very important for me. After I finished my studies and internship in a well-established commercial law firm, I was offered a job as a clinician in Tel Aviv University. By some miracle I ended up with the job. I had no experience, but it was a very good schooling experience for me as a young lawyer. I had to teach human rights, so in a way it forced me to think hard about our ability to change society as members of the legal profession. That was the main thing we discussed, how we, as students, as lawyers, can change things, and what's the impact of law, of legal work, what are the limits of what we can do? I was very interested in what's called "rebellious lawyering." It's a way of thinking that demonstrates that lawyers can do much more than they are "supposed" to do, and they can use their tools in different ways to promote change.

  • What do you mean by "rebellious lawyering--" you mean more activist?

    Much more activist. Let's say there are questions—lawyers ask themselves whether they should get arrested while protesting, how much should they participate with their clients, what is the limit? I took on a lot of cases for people with mental disabilities. I decided to go all the way, to be an extreme lawyer, and to teach lawyering in a very different manner. It was very overwhelming, very interesting. Obviously what I always "preached" is not that my students should all be engaged solely in Pro Bono1 activities, but that they should try to do some good work as lawyers, try to see things differently. In a way, that was the most important thing that I have done that led to what I'm doing now because it taught me about the limits of being a lawyer. Then I went to New York University, I received a scholarship from New York University to be a public service scholar, which is a new program, usually for lawyers that are human rights activists in Third World countries. Ten lawyers participate every year, and they have to have a certain amount of experience. I was, I think, one of the youngest in my class. It was an eye-opening experience, and I was very fortunate to meet professor Alex Boraine,2 who was the co-chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa,3 and I ended up working under him throughout the year and later receiving a fellowship from NYU to work with his organization, the International Center for Transitional Justice4 after I finished my studies. I discovered, reading the Oslo Accords, that they are very legalistic. Legal thinking has failed us throughout the process. This is the best example of the limitations of legal work. Lawyers can only go so far. You can make a contract and treaties, but changing the perception of people is so much more complicated and demands so much more than legal work. One of the things that was eye opening for me was Boraine's reaction. We discussed, obviously, what was happening in the Middle East and he said, "You know that Uri Savir,"5 he was one of the architects of the Oslo Accords-- "in his book talks about how they decided jointly, the Palestinians and Israelis, not to do anything with the past, just to draw a line in the sand and to move to a better future without negotiating the past." And that was overwhelming, given that I'd just spent a year studying what was done in Sri Lanka, in Argentina, in South Africa, in Rwanda—all these places where people negotiated the past in different ways were in sharp contrast to what was done here with regard to the Oslo process. For me it was very clear that I should give up my lawyering skills for a bit and try to do something else. I returned to Israel about two years ago, more than that, and spent all the time working on, thinking about and writing extensively about reconciliation and transitional justice. I've done several things, I've written quite extensively but I haven't published anything because I don't want reconciliation to be moved into the media as "the new kid on the block" and to give it fifteen minutes of glory and then say, "oh it failed," and "I'm sorry, reconciliation is not for us." That's the big risk. And one of the things I truly believe, taking it directly from the work of George Lakoff, who is a scholar, a linguist at Berkeley, who has done a lot of work on politics and political speech, that there are some concepts which you cannot just speak about. You have to spend a lot of time making sure people realize them because they are so complicated, and reconciliation is one of them. I spent the last three or four years talking and thinking and dreaming of reconciliation, and it's still really in the very first stages for me personally, I'm not talking about anyone else. But I do feel that there's something important here. My work with the bereaved parents came about because I was searching for an organization that could instigate it. And I was sure there was none. I was talking with many Palestinian and Israeli NGOs,6 most of whom I knew already, and people were saying to me, you know it's great but...

    • 1Latin for "for the good." In the legal profession, it refers to volunteer legal work for good causes.
    • 2(b. 1931) - South African politician and activist, who was instrumental during South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. See, http://people.africadatabase.org
    • 3The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was the post-Apartheid body established to help examine and uncover the recent history of Apartheid as a step towards national healing. The period of Apartheid featured a racialized hierarchy set in the law, in which racial groups were kept separate and the black African majority was treated as inferior. Through various committees, the TRC investigates the past, offers programs to help restore "victims' dignity," and provides means of amnesty for wrongdoers. See, official website, http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/
    • 4See www.ictj.org/aboutus.asp
    • 5(b. 1953). Member of the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament).
    • 6Non-governmental organization.

  • What were some of the questions people had when you were approaching organizations with ideas for a truth and reconciliation process? What were some of their hesitations?

    I was looking for a partner, I was looking for someone who could take it up and do something with it. The obvious source, I went straight to a Christian Palestinian organization based in East Jerusalem. Remarkable people, and they are talking about reconciliation, but the first thing they told me is, "first of all you have to agree with us on the political solution." I told them reconciliation is the way to allow people to agree to a two-state, or another solution, and we cannot force people to arrive at this conclusion: We tried, and it failed. We have to get people into the mindset. That's where it failed with that organization. And there are other organizations that are not talking about reconciliation because it is so novel, and because they are mostly involved in more traditional human rights monitoring and legal action. The people I talked to were supportive and said to me, "it's wonderful work but it's not our work, we do something else entirely." And I know that, they are correct. There are other kinds of human rights/peace NGOs who are working to document the atrocities and the violations and whatever, and it's very important, but they stick to the present, and in a way, it's like, you can chase the wind, but you have to do something else, you can only go so far by documenting - documenting will not prove effective in changing the feelings and perceptions that underlie our more rational conceptions of the opposed side to the conflict as well as the reasons for the conflict itself. I've recently been to a conference on soldiers' testimonies in which Dr. Daphna Golan Agnon1 was one of the participants. She was one of the founders of B'Tselem. In the final session she said, "You know, we don't need more testimonies. We really don't need more information; people know what the problems are. We need something else." And she is talking about the need for reconciliation. I didn't find a partner, and I was on the verge of starting my own organization, which I didn't want to do for many different reasons—I thought it wasn't the way to go. Finally I came up to the Parents Circle - Bereaved Families Forum. I knew them well, but for some reason I wasn't so sure whether they "fit." But they did. The Bereaved Families fit perfectly as a potential organization to lead a reconciliation process because they have the legitimacy of both nations, unfortunately, because of the situation, and they had been talking about reconciliation before. Their message is, 'no more pain, no more killings.' And this is exactly the message of reconciliation.

    • 1Founded B'Tselem and, along with others, Bat Shalom, the Women's Network for Peace. Lori, Aviva "Right to left, but never center " Haaretz, 12/14/04 www.haaretzdaily.com/

  • What message does reconciliation convey?

    The message of reconciliation is, in order for us to have no more killing, we have to negotiate the past, and these people are the perfect partners in both societies to talk about and to negotiate the past. They are the ones who can negotiate past atrocities without lending them to serve as a vehicle for further violence, which is what both sides are currently doing. Both sides' political leaders are using these atrocities in order to instigate further violence. We should use the same tool that is used to ruin chances for peace in order to bring peace. I believe this idea is missing in both societies' narratives right now.

  • What did you see when you were studying other conflicts about how they negotiated the past? What was that process?

    I think what you tend to see, and Alex Boraine talks about a lot, is that the process of reconciliation has to be reinvented every time from the beginning, because each society is so different, and each conflict is so different. And you have to bear in mind that the IsraeliPalestinian conflict is perhaps the most complex, at least one of the most complicated conflicts of our times. So it's going to be an extremely complicated affair to untangle what we have now. Other societies have developed ways that were unique, and if they worked, they were very dependent on the social structure, the values, the narratives, the histories, etc. of that culture. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz1 talks about the importance of narratives and how each society is different from the other because of seemingly slight details that you have to bear in mind. This is why we have to do something different with regard to the Israeli and Palestinian societies.

    • 1(b. 1926) Professor of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University.

  • Do you think there can be some constructive comparisons made between this conflict and others?

    Prominent Israeli and Palestinian peace activists who traveled to South Africa usually came to the conclusion that there is almost no connection between the two conflicts and that you almost cannot take anything from there. People that did spend a lot of time there (many people have studied it and met with Desmond Tutu1 and other prominent figures) came to the conclusion that you just cannot replicate the process there. I think... my understanding is that it's not totally correct. I strongly believe in empathy, I believe in the common ground that is there even below the cultural and religious framework of societies. I think the reason the Palestinian and Israeli societies tend to view bereaved parents with such reverence is because both societies share the most basic value of empathy. It is something that is embedded in our minds and in our hearts. And it was very important for me to read the writings of a political psychologist, one of the leading political psychologists in Israel, Daniel Bar-Tal,2 who was writing on the conflict and writing on the reasons for the conflict. He says that the thing that is missing, are not the physical borders between Israelis and Palestinians, but rather it's the empathy, empathy for the other side's victims. If you do it, if you make this small contribution, you solve the conflict. You can really solve the conflict. If you feel for the other side's victims, you don't want to hurt them because it will hurt you. Empathy is the ability to identify with the other side's pain. If you feel for me, you don't want me to get hurt, it's that simple. It was very important for me to read it from someone who is really a tremendous scholar, someone who spent many years studying and researching the conflict.

    • 1(b. 1931) Former Archbishop in South Africa, and winner of 1984 Nobel Peace prize for anti-Apartheid work. See www.nobelprize.org
    • 2Professor, School of Education, Tel Aviv University.

  • Can you talk more about the reverence you mentioned toward bereaved parents?

    I think it's quite obvious, especially in the Palestinian society I think it's quite easy to see. There is a word for it, shahid. It's different from bereaved-- bereavement is something else in Arabic. Shahid suggests that you have a certain place in society, that you've done something for your society. So in a way, the people who are families of the shahids1 have a special place, a fact I have seen while walking in the streets of a Palestinian village with a member of the Families Forum who lost his two brothers. I could walk there as freely as I do in Tel Aviv because I was with him. He was very adamant about taking me through the village and "showing off," in a way, with his Israeli friend. And there is no way I could have visited this village without him, there is no way, because they're not exactly our buddies. So in a way, it's very tangible, it's something you can really see. Bereaved people in both societies can do things and say things and get away with things and can change people's perceptions in a way other people cannot. This is why The Families Forum should not be a political organization, which means we should not get involved in the traditional process of peace making. Our role is to give voice to the victims who were not heard by the two sides during previous peace negotiations, for victims who refuse to allow further violence to be made in their name. Everyone is political in Israel, you can't be a non-political person, it's part of life here. So if you are very political, it's very hard for you to understand that the framework that you're acting in is not political, and should not be involved in politics. For me it's very clear, the Families Forum should talk about the past. We should talk as little as possible about the present and we should perhaps not talk at all about the future, because this is not our role. Our role is to help people to see the past differently, not as an excuse for further violence. That is extremely important. We should not belittle this role. People think they have to show maps and talk about where the border should be. Don't talk about where the border should be, don't talk about History with a capital "H," talk about your personal story. When people do it - getting back to your question - when [members of the Bereaved Families' Forum] are in schools, high schools, and they are talking about their own personal history, linking it in some ways to the past of both societies, it works, it works tremendously and it doesn't matter if it's Bedouins in the Negev or Israelis in Ramat Ha-Sharon2 which is very upper class, or Jewish people in a very poor neighborhood, or Palestinians. It can work all the time.

    • 1The plural form of "Shahid" is "Shuhadaa."
    • 2A city in Israel just north of Tel Aviv, population 53,000.

  • What do you mean the school presentation "works?"

    "Works" means that it is a miracle. It's nothing short of a miracle. For example, a teacher tells us that the 40 students we are about to do a presentation for are all extremely to the right politically, and that they are all very difficult people. They are getting a person they've never seen before who comes from a very different background, who is 40 years older than them, and after an hour and a half people's perceptions can change dramatically. And you see it in what they write. Some of them say, "Oh it was great." This is not what we are after. We are after people who say, "you screwed up my mind," or "I don't know what to think, I'm baffled," or "you changed my life, I'll never think the same way again about the other side." That's a miracle. That's significant influence.

  • What do the parents from the Bereaved Families Forum talk about when they do school presentations?

    I think that the most important thing is that they are not working with the rational side. It's not the content. It's the feelings that they are able to evoke. They are able to allow people to relieve some of the pain that they feel, because both societies are hurting, it's very difficult to live here. It doesn't matter whether you are Israeli or Palestinian, and whether you are Israeli living in Jerusalem or in a village. People are frightened and people do not want to be frightened. People seek hope; it's human to search for hope. And in a way, when bereaved parents go to a high school and talk about their own pain, and talk about how his own pain allows him to think a little bit about the other side, and how he discovered that other people on the other side are not so different, there is hope, because people can talk, they don't have to be friends but they can talk and realize the other side does not want further suffering, at least many of them. That's a novel concept, and that allows for an emotional breakthrough. Getting back to what Daphna Golan Agnon is saying, it's not the knowledge that is missing. People know, people are aware, but people are frightened and they need something else, which is not knowledge.

  • Do you think this emotional breakthrough is achieved simply by a Palestinian coming to an Israeli school or an Israeli going to a Palestinian school?

    We've done all kinds of things, and you know what, it works almost every time; it doesn't matter whether it's an Israeli or a Palestinian, although it's stronger when you have both sides. We have a short movie, 8 minutes long, 'Tears of Peace,'1 which shows how people from both sides can react to each other, and reactions are very strong, it's about Waxman and Ramadan, two bereaved fathers. It's a good movie to show, it's exactly the thing that reconciliation tries to do. It shows people who do not use their own sorrow to instigate further violence.

    • 1recounts "the personal stories of two fathers, an Israeli and a Palestinian, who lost their sons as a result of the ongoing conflict between the two peoples." www.theparentscircle.org/Pages

  • What's your role in the Forum?

    My formal role is the Director of the Reconciliation Project. It's more complicated because there is no 'Reconciliation Project' as such; we're trying to make each and every activity that we do as reconciliatory as possible. So we're in the process of changing and amending. It's a difficult process. It's not easy.

  • Tell me about the Truth and Reconciliation theater piece.

    The theater piece was done by Yigal Azraty, the Director at the Hebrew Arabic Theater in Jaffa. It was amazing for me to realize that he started to think about reconciliation the same way I did; we were both influenced by a documentary movie made about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.1 The movie is very heartening and it goes to show the amazing power of reconciliation. Yigal started thinking that this is something that is missing in the context of "our" conflict. He is not a scholar, he is a writer and a theater director, but he understood that this is something that is really missing from the Oslo process He is perhaps the best theater director in Israel with regard to narratives and how to translate real life narratives into theater. He tried to do the same with "The Truth and Reconciliation Commission," which is the name of the theater play. It's not a play-- they went to various places in the Occupied Territories and in Israel and searched for testimonies that were strong. Yigal went on to write the testimonies word for word and gave them to the actors. Obviously they've changed because people ask questions [during the testimonies], but in a way, it's like giving testimonies, there's no magic about it. The thing that he has decided to do is to have in each of his shows at least one person who is not an actor but a real, live person who is telling his own story. It's difficult because when people do not know who is who, it's a different and uneasy concept. It has its benefits, and it has its downsides. I personally think that it's too soon. It's too soon because people are still not ready to see the actual thing. You have to gradually build up towards reconciliation and the commissions. But the steps are there. Yigal's theatre group has another play, which is called "Longings." It is wonderful because it can be one of the steps toward reconciliation. It tells the stories of various people, again, true stories of immigrants, Israelis or Palestinians who were deported, who live abroad for several reasons, who came to Israel, but with songs and dancing, with food, with jokes. And it's wonderful to see it, it's very interesting theatrically, and it's much easier on the viewer. It has very strong messages, it doesn't dilute the messages, but in a way you can swallow it, you can digest it.

    • 1Mr. Shinar is referring to Long Night's Journey Into Day, directed by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann. For more information about the film see http://www.unaff.org/2001/f-long.html

  • What is so difficult about the Truth and Reconciliation play?

    In order for it to work, such a process has to be entrenched in political change. This is the transitional justice. In order for it to work, people should know that you are coming, you are spilling your guts out, but you have amnesty, or you have a political change, you have a very dramatic political change. You cannot do something as dramatic as spill your beans without having some political clout. It doesn't work. They do it on stage, but in order for the public to feel the same, there's a very big gap between where we are and where we have to be in order for the general public to accept such a show. But as I said, the group has another play, at least one, which is right there.

  • Do you think an actual commission like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission shouldn't be set up then until after a political agreement has been signed?

    The work done by most of the theorists who write about reconciliation stems from the assumption that reconciliation is a process that starts after a peace accord has been signed. That's the concept that everyone is talking about. Or at least hand in hand, simultaneously. I believe that we have to start with some notions of reconciliation, some gestures, so people can start thinking about it and saying, "there is something that was missing in Oslo, and we want it, it's something good for us." If people feel that, then we might be able to formalize it into a commission or another formal mechanism.

  • What would a reconciliation process look like, concretely?

    With regard to the first steps? I think we need to get the message across that reconciliation is a way for both sides to stop the violence. Reconciliation is good because it gives both sides an excuse to talk and to teach the other side about their own pain, which is something that both sides want desperately. Both sides just want to get the other side... "If only the Palestinians would have listened to us, they would have known about what they are causing us, I'm sure." That's what you get from most rightist views. People do not want to kill the Palestinians; they just want the Palestinians to listen. It's the same with the Palestinians. They are right, if only both sides would have listened, we would have solved the conflict in one day... So that's a concept that is important. I want people to get attached to it; I want people to feel that it is important in their lives, as if it is something that is missing. How to do it... I prefer not to talk about the stages. We have stages and we have concrete plans but I prefer not to talk about them.

  • You talked about bereaved families having a special place in society, but there are certainly bereaved people on both sides who do not share the Forum's message but call for revenge.

    You really cannot mis-empathize. You have no negative empathy. If we are the ones who represent the empathy towards the other side's bereavement, you cannot say, no, it's wrong to empathize. It's just something that is not possible. It's not as if you can be a rightist and a leftist. If you chose not to be a leftist but to say in order to solve the conflict we have to empathize with the other side, it doesn't say how the conflict would actually be solved. I strongly believe that if we can have a reconciliation process that would work, Israelis might be able to live in the territories, no harm done. I don't think it's such a bad thing. The thing is that it's impossible now because there is no reconciliation, because we are missing something. It's not bad in itself. So in a way, for me, reconciliation is not something that has another side which can oppose it, and if you can hear people who are supposedly opposing peace, who are bereaved, they are not really opposing peace, they are just hurt and the main message that they are strongly trying to convey is that "there is no hope, we tried it and we had the Oslo process and we really tried to do something good with the other side but there is no one to talk to." That's something we can talk about. I have no problem with it. I don't want you to feel what I am feeling every day, but I don't see how we just have to kill them because there is no other option. That's what a bereaved person said on the television yesterday. She said, "okay, perhaps it's not the best option, but we have to kill them because there is no other option." The only thing I'm sure is that it's going to be rather easy for such people to be convinced when they see that there is another side. Palestinians, and also Israelis, because you get the same reactions from Palestinians-- we are not one-of-a-kind, and most people in both societies want peace.

  • Some people believe that what you are doing is actually putting them more in danger. How do you convince people that that's not the case?

    I think that there are people with such strong emotions-especially the bereaved-that you may not be able to convince them. You may be able to convince some of them. But someone who is very, very deeply hurt may not be convinced. But I'm not aiming at them. I think what we should do is not aim at these kind of people who are deeply hurt, we shouldn't aim at leftists either, I don't care much about what extreme leftists would say about our project, because they are so far away from the main core of society, and I don't care much about the extreme right's views on our work, we have to talk to the 80% who are the main core of society, the people who just want the conflict to end. In both societies there is a huge percentage of the population who just want it to end. They don't care how, you know, if it will take killing all of the other side, they will do it-- it's not that they want to do it. They wish that there would be a peaceful solution, so given that there are people who will say to you that you are wrong, okay, I can live with that.

  • What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

    There are so many challenges. I don't know how to start. It's extremely difficult. I think it's the most ambitious endeavor ever undertaken by an NGO with regard to the Israelis and Palestinians. I cannot think of something that is more important, I can't think of something that is bigger. The work is difficult: we have no guidance, almost none, because we can have the brightest people on board, and we have them with us, but there is so little you can know and the realities are so complicated.How do you start a reconciliation process when a bus explodes and 15 Israelis are killed? How can you start the process when the IDF kills Palestinian babies, even if by mistake? It's extremely difficult. Perhaps the challenge, rephrasing what I'm saying, is to get people on board to say, okay but we know the situation now is extremely difficult, but there is a way out. The way out is to rethink, re-conceptualize the past in both societies, to get the other sides and to get myself to think differently about the atrocities, and in a way to think differently is also not to criminalize the other side. Transitional justice suggests that you don't prosecute everyone. You try to find another option, because it's not doable. You cannot prosecute each and every member of the IDF because they have participated in the occupation. It won't happen. We have to make some amends, people will have to say they are sorry, and that is something people can deal with. But there is no way we will get Mofaz and Sharon to jail. It won't happen.

  • Have you personally gotten support from your community for what you are doing?

    Uch, community, a difficult word in Israel. I'm not sure what community is. I think I have a lot of support from my friends. I went especially to talk to people who are supporters of Sharon, and people said, you know, you have good ideas, we can relate to that, if something like that [the reconciliation process] would happen. For me that was the most important thing. Obviously people who are really my closest friends are really supportive, but they are supportive of anything that can promote peace. But for me the important thing was to talk to people who are my friends but are still not sure about how to promote peace and whether we can promote peace. Those people say to me, "you know reconciliation is important and reconciliation can help us and we can relate to that and it's important for us that such a process will come about." That's something great for me.

  • Have you encountered resistance to the work you are doing?

    I think there is a lot of suspicion about the process and about the ways to do it. The most common reaction I get from people is that I'm very naïve. And that's true. You have to be extremely naïve in order to do peace promotion, because how can you do it when all other things seem to point to the other way. So I won't relinquish what I'm doing because people are saying I'm naïve, and they're correct, you have to be a little naïve in order to do such things here.

  • What do you mean when you say you have to be a little naïve to do peace work?

    The majority of people are very dismissive of peace; people do not believe that peace will emerge in the next 10 or 20 years. That's 90% of the population, the Israeli and Palestinian population. So when they hear someone say, no, we have the magic word, we use reconciliation and everything will be solved, and we'll all get a Nobel peace prize, people are saying, you're naïve, and okay, that's fine, I can live with that.

  • Comparing what you've seen in other places, what kind of shared understandings do you think have to be in place for a reconciliation process to work?

    That's a big question. I think reconciliation depends on the joint and mutual understanding of our ability to reshape our thinking about the past. People should really try to view the past as not an ominous creature that lurks in the dark, that if we negotiate it we'll end up in jail. Both sides have done horrendous things. So the thing that allows people to continue the violence is the understanding that is really prevalent in both societies right now, that there is no way to negotiate what we've done with the past, that we are all criminals, so the best way is to continue being a criminal. Reconciliation is the magic key, it's the ability to say, you are going to take care of your past, nobody is going to get hurt, or almost nobody. But you have to admit that you've done some things that shouldn't have been done. That's the only thing, and that's something that I believe is not only important to the oppressor, it's the thing that the victim wants more than anything else. In some feminist theories, you get the notion of feminist law and chauvinist law, and especially in rape trials you see how the law is all about punishing the oppressor and not thinking about the woman who was raped. In many instances the woman who was raped wants first of all the acknowledgment that there was an atrocity, something that shouldn't have been done. She wants her narrative to be acknowledged as the truth. That's even more important when you have to realize that there won't be pure justice. Reconciliation is not the way to achieve the kind of justice in which all those who have done wrong will get such and such jail sentences. There's no way it will happen. So it's a weak kind of justice. Perhaps the justice will be weak, but both societies will be much stronger. So we have to really think whether we want justice to be pure and perfect, or whether we have actual people on the ground that we want to live, and even if they've done wrong, we want them to live to be able to forgive themselves and we want others to forgive them.

  • Forgiveness probably means different things to different people. Do you think it's a word or a concept that has any real meaning here?

    I am not a huge supporter of the word forgiveness, because you don't really have to go there. It's perhaps only at the very last stage of reconciliation that you go into forgiveness. And it could be that in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that we get to the forgiveness stage in 20, 25 years, or something like that, because it's such a difficult process. You can look at Argentina, it's taken them 20 years or so, and they are still in the process. It's amazing how long these things take. So talking about forgiveness right now is so early, it's much, much too early. You have people who are members of the organization who feel very strongly that forgiveness has to be... there are people who think differently in our organization. I think it's not that there are opposite sides, it's just a process. You start with no forgiveness, and you may end up with some forgiveness or total forgiveness.

  • What do you think most scares people away from the process of reconciliation?

    People have not yet been scared away because they are still not aware of the option. I think people will be scared of the past; the past is the scariest thing. People will be very suspicious of the mechanism that would allow them to talk about atrocities and admit to them and yet not to be punished. That's something that people will not believe. It's very difficult for people to comprehend it and to agree with that. I remember my own misgivings when I heard about Argentina and other places. You hear about all kinds of atrocities and you have to let go. It's very difficult to let go.

  • How has the conflict affected you personally?

    It has had tremendous impact on my life. Having decided to spend all my time doing work to promote peace and reconciliation is because of the conflict, it's directly related. I haven't done it before. When I was teaching in Tel Aviv University I was doing human rights and labor law, which are very important, but when I was in the States, the second intifada erupted and hell broke loose here. I came to the conclusion, and I still remember a friend of mine from Bangladesh, after I had lectured on mental disability rights and my work in the field, which I'm very proud of, he raised his hand in class and said, "you know, Ofer, it's all very important, but I remember that you come from Israel, and in Israel right now there are more important things to do, and if you have done so well in such areas..." It struck me; the impact was unbelievable. These two or three sentences that he told me changed my life because I said, he's right, and I had to leave everything behind to start anew, because of the conflict.And I cannot describe the experience of hearing a suicide attack; to hear it- it's the worst thing that can happen to you. My girlfriend lives in Jerusalem and I really am very fearful for her life.

  • What is the hardest thing about devoting all of your time to this work?

    I think it's not only that it's very, very frustrating to work for peace in our present times, but it can be very frustrating to work where I'm working, because it can be a very difficult organization to work in, it's a different place, it's very emotional, it's tense, it's difficult to work there. And for me, I'm trying to take it as easy as possible, as the work is very draining emotionally. It's demanding to such an extent that I spend a lot of time playing the piano... I can imagine. The thing that connects everybody there is that they have lost someone. You have their memorial days, you have their birthdays, you have all kinds of issues, you have the news that shatters their life every day, and these are your colleagues and your friends, and you want to help them and you cannot help them. They might think differently about the issues, and they might also say, "perhaps you are right, but I have to say such and such a thing, because this is why, let's say, my daughter has been killed, that's her legacy." What can I say, you know?

  • Have you met people through this work, whom you wouldn't have otherwise met?

    For sure, both in the organization and people I have met because I'm doing what I am doing. Some wonderful people.

  • Have you gone to places in this region that you might not have gone to otherwise?

    Yes, we were supposed to have a seminar in Aqaba,1 but it was canceled. But obviously you are talking about the Occupied Territories, and that's right. As an Israeli, I did go to the Occupied Territories before to research reconciliation, but it's different when you are going to visit people you already know personally.

    • 1Or Al-Aqabah. A coastal city in southwest Jordan.

  • How do you think that Israelis should support the work of the Forum?

    I don't think Israelis should support the work of the Bereaved Families Forum. I think Israelis should react to it. I think we should, as a Forum, learn how to be supportive of our society. The Forum should be the one to allow both societies, it should be a vehicle for both societies, to go through a process. The Forum is not yet there though we are getting closer all the time. It demands a very strenuous internal process from the people in the Forum. I don't want Israelis to do anything for the Forum, the Forum should be the one doing things for the society.

  • Is it the same on the Palestinian side that the Bereaved Families Forum should do things for Palestinian society rather than Palestinians supporting the Forum?


  • What about people outside the region? How should they support your work?

    That's more complicated. I think people outside should be supportive, both financially, and by coming to the conclusion that we are doing something that is unique, which wasn't done before and which is very important and crucial. We now have people in the States who think that the conflict is unsolvable. My hope is that through our work we will be able to convince people that there is a solution. I want people to get back on track, to know that there is hope, to understand that there is a lot to be done. That's very important.

  • Which international audience do you think is most influential here?

    I think given the power of the United States, that's the most important audience by far that we want to reach.

  • What are some of the misconceptions you think people in the States have?

    I think I already answered that. I think when you have President Bush1 not allocating even a single sentence in his recent State of the Union Address2 to the conflict, given that he hasn't spoken at all about the peace process here, the chances are Americans would think there's no way to solve it. That's a misconception.

    • 1(b.1946). Current President of the United States.
    • 2For the text of President Bush's January 20, 2004 State of the Union speech: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/01/20040120-7.html

  • We talked a bit about why previous peace processes failed. Is there anything more you want to say about what was missing in the past?

    I just want to be sure it's clear that it's not that the lack of attention to reconciliation made the Oslo process fail. There were many, many reasons. It's much more complicated. But I think the refusal to attend to the past is what failed it.

  • Who do you think has to take charge of that aspect of the peace process reconciliation?

    I think for a start, we should: the bereaved people.1 I think that the organization shouldn't be the one who takes care of it, because it's such a small organization, but it can spearhead the process, that's the notion.

    • 1By "we should" Ofer means that the Bereaved Families' Forum should be central in the reconciliation process. He is not personally among the bereaved.

  • Can you talk about some of the successes that you've seen?

    I think it's still early to talk about successes. We're only in the early days in regard to this as well, but people are thinking differently, along differently lines. People are coming to the conclusion that there is something they can do which they haven't done before. People are starting to think that they should be aware that they are not political, that they are not oriented toward a certain solution of the process, and people are coming to the conclusion that they are very important to the solution of the conflict, perhaps more than they've anticipated. This is not a social club, this is a very important NGO, perhaps the most important regarding the conflict.1

    • 1Follow-up in November 2004: In regard to the Forum, we've made a lot of internal changes. Our former General Manger and one of the founders of the organization, Yitzhak Frankenthal, has stepped down and Boaz Kitain, the former head of the educational program, becoming our new General Manger. Among other roles, Boaz has been the headmaster of the school in Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, which is a truly unique Arab Jewish community near Jerusalem. We are also working closely with some of the most gifted Palestinian and Israeli scholars specializing, among other issues, in the psychology of the conflict.

  • What does the word peace mean to you?

    That's a strange question. I think I've learned a lot from Roni Hirshenson (from our organization) who says he doesn't believe in the word 'peace.' He says the 'end of the conflict' is a much better way to put it, because peace is such a misguided, misused concept that you really don't have to talk about peace.For me, the only thing I want to do is to have no more people killed. That's the only thing I want. I just don't want them to be killed any more. For me that's peace.