"What really connects us is the pain," said Rami Elhanan.
A 58-year-old Israeli, Elhanan lost his 14-year-old daughter to a suicide bomber in the center of Jerusalem. An Israeli soldier killed the father of Mazen Faraj, a 32-year-old Palestinian, in Bethlehem.
Elhanan and Faraj are members of Parents Circle-Families Forum, an organization of antiwar activists drawn together by the loss of loved ones. Now on a speaking tour of the United States, sponsored by Catholic Relief Services, they recently sat down for a talk.
"This sense of pain has an enormous power," Elhanan told us. "It's like nuclear power. You can use it to bring darkness and destruction, or you can use it to bring light and hope. This is what we do, by combining our pain together."
It's hard to be optimistic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Bush's recent Middle East trip highlighted his failure to capitalize on the goodwill generated at the Annapolis peace conference last November. Three key leaders — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Bush himself — are discredited figures who lack the stature and support to push negotiations forward.
But Elhanan and Faraj insisted that ordinary people, Israelis and Palestinians alike, are yearning for peace. Their mission is to galvanize those feelings by traveling and speaking together, telling their stories and breaking through the encrusted stereotypes that dominate thinking on both sides of the border.
"I have to understand the fear of the Jews," said Faraj, "and the Jews, they have to understand my suffering."
The two men have made more than a thousand joint appearances, often at high schools. And while their journeys have taken different routes, they have arrived at the same destination.
Faraj's family was driven out of its home village near Jerusalem 60 years ago, and he was born in a refugee camp on the West Bank. After joining protest demonstrations as a teenager, he was arrested repeatedly by Israeli authorities and spent more than three years in jail, dropping out of high school in the process. "I lost all of my life," he said. "I found myself without a certificate, without anything."
In 1997, he was invited to a meeting in Germany, aimed at starting a dialogue between the two communities, and there he met and talked with Israelis for the first time. "They treated me with respect, they asked me about my name and where I lived," he recalled. "Before, in the Israeli jails, they never asked me, 'Who are you?'"
A peace warrior was born, and even his father's death could not deter him. The "easy way," Faraj said, would have been to seek revenge by killing Israeli soldiers. Instead, he chose "to create something new, a message of a better future for me and my daughter."
Elhanan, the son of a Holocaust survivor, faced a similar choice. After his daughter's death, he was consumed by "an enormous anger that eats you alive from within," but like Faraj, he turned that anger in a positive direction. He went to a meeting of the Parents Circle, "and for the first time in my life, I met Palestinians, coming toward me, shaking my hand, hugging me and crying with me.
"From that moment on, this became the thing that drives me out of bed in the morning," said Elhanan. "I devote myself to conveying one basic message: We are not doomed. This is not our destiny, to keep on killing and dying. We can break, once and for all, this circle of violence."
But that circle is very powerful. Both sides are cursed by memory and grievance, and both are indoctrinating their young people to "sacrifice themselves when they come of age," said Elhanan. "We're poisoning the minds of the kids; we've been demonizing each other for years and years."
Turning to Faraj, Elhanan added: "When (we) step into a classroom, the students see for the first time in their lives an Israeli and a Palestinian calling themselves brothers."
In those classrooms, Faraj is often called a terrorist. Jews tell Elhanan that he should have been blown up with his daughter. Palestinian teachers tell their students, "Don't listen, it will break your will to fight."
"Sometimes I say, I don't want to do it anymore," admitted Faraj.
But then something happens to keep them going.
"If I'm standing in front of a class," Elhanan said, "and at the end there's one kid nodding his head, it's a miracle."
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.