For The Parents Circle – Families Forum, the most high-profile day of the year is Israel’s Memorial Day, when the group joins with Combatants for Peace to hold a joint vigil between Israelis and Palestinians to remember those lost to the conflict. From what started out as a side-project, it’s an event that has grown to become Israel’s second-largest memorial gathering, attracting roughly 200,000 participants — and controversy and condemnation from the right.
“Every year it got bigger and bigger,” Damelin says, “it got more and more difficult to find halls,” Event spaces and performers would often decline, fearing they’d face boycotts for supporting an event which raises up the toll the conflict has taken on Palestinians as well. “It’s not a political gathering,” Damelin says, “it’s to understand the pain of the other.”
Still, that hasn’t stopped the controversy. In 2019, the group had to go to the High Court to overturn a Defence Ministry ban on Palestinians entering Israel for the service. The same year, several dozen protestors yelled “traitors,” “kapos” and “Nazis” at participants. “This is the Memorial Day for fallen IDF soldiers, not terrorists, hopefully God will take you — you leftists, dirty leftists,” one protestor shouted.
Coming Closer Together, While Being Driven Further Apart
When the group started out, they focused on in-person meetings with bereaved parents from Gaza and Israel, including one session hosted by Israeli President Ezer Weizman. “It was quite an extraordinary gesture for the president to invite Palestinians to his home for a meeting at the time,” Damelin says.
But following the collapse of the peace process in 2000 and the second intifada, violence, conflict and increasing barriers between Israelis and the Palestinians forced the PCFF to innovate. “We all became very much cut off,” Damelin says.
In 2002, the families traveled to the United Nations, laying more than 1,000 coffins draped in Israeli and Palestinian flags in New York’s Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. “I want to send a message for all of the leaders to help us to bring them to sit around the table and to start negotiating,” said Ibrahim Bushnak, a Palestinian PCFF leader who lost his nephew in the conflict. “Stop shooting and start talking.”
The same year, the group launched the “Hello Shalom, Hello Salaam” hotline, providing a toll-free number the public could use to reach an operator who would connect Israelis with Palestinians at random and vice versa. “The idea happened by chance — a woman dialed the wrong number and she got a Palestinian in Gaza and then they got into a whole conversation,” Damelin says. “People weren’t calling to say ‘hello darling let’s make peace,’ there were a lot of tough conversations on that line, but a lot of friendships built as well.”
In a demonstration of the system for the Baltimore Sun, Frankenthal called the hotline himself and was quickly connected with a Palestinian man in Ramallah, who he spoke to for half an hour. “He told me he had lost his sister, and I told him about my son,” Frankenthal said. “And he said, ‘Here we are talking. I don’t want revenge, and I don’t feel hatred.’”