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Love Wins: Stephen Apkon's Thoughts on Love in the Time of War

Stephen Apkon co-directed the very important documentary, "Disturbing The Peace," about a group of Israelis and Palestinians whose mission is to interrupt the cycle of violence in the Middle East and work towards peace. It made such an impact on our audience when it was shown at our Ebertfest Film Festival, that it won the very first Ebert Humanitarian Award in 2016. I have thought about that film every single day since the Hamas attack in Israel on October 7. I reached out to Stephen to ask about the Combatants for Peace. I didn't hear back from him right away, but when I did, I was so impressed with his thoughts that I made the decision with our Editors to publish his essay in its unedited entirety. He presents a well-thought-out and layered view of this very complicated situation. He also incorporates statements from people on both sides of the conflict. What stands out for me through it all are his impassioned observations about humanity, where we are heading as a species, and what role Love plays in the end ... Chaz Ebert

Ebertfest 2016: "Disturbing the Peace Wins First Ebert Humanitarian Award"

Disturbing the Peace: Stephen Apkon Talks to Chaz Ebert

By: Stephen Apkon

Like so many of you, I have been overwhelmed by the images and reports coming out of Israel and Palestine. I haven’t posted much on social media in the last week. It is not for a lack of caring, but rather my heart has been heavy and I haven’t known what to say. I have been filled with deep and profound sadness and grief, and the words hadn’t formed. I didn’t want to just add a few simple lines to something so complicated, or simply repost, and I didn’t want to add to anyone’s pain. I have had to sit with the grief and the pain and let my heart break open for the words to come. 

I condemn, in no uncertain terms, the horrific violence that was brought upon so many Israeli civilians in the attacks by Hamas. There is no justification for this kind of senseless violence and there should never be a justification that comes from some kind of false equivalence. Violence is absolute and not relative. There are no “buts,” only “ands.” It is ALL horrific and I don’t believe the competition for trauma and suffering is ever warranted or helpful. 

My heart also breaks for the images of Gaza being systematically destroyed, knowing the horrific loss of life and the trauma that millions of Palestinian civilians are enduring from the violence of these last days - and it will get worse. It is beyond words and yet we somehow need to find them. 

I will also say that as I look for the words to share, they come to me in short bursts. Like random images in a dream. I struggle to make them coherent and to flow into some sort of narrative, and I have decided to give up. Making them coherent assumes that there is some sort of throughline, or reason I can make out of it all. So I will just share - and apologize in advance if what I say hurts or triggers you. I have seen posts from friends essentially saying “If you don’t stand with Israel then unfriend me.” I want to ask them - “is there room to stand with Israelis and with Palestinians?” Can we stand with humanity? If I offend you, you can of course unfriend me, but I also invite you to share your thoughts and feelings, and maybe we can find a way together - that honors all life. Maybe together we can search - not for justification when there isn’t any - but for understanding, and for feeling the pain of all involved, and perhaps to glimpse a place of hope that lies beyond this nightmare. 

I have been connected to Israel and the region since birth - perhaps before. My father’s family is from Poland and I grew up with the shadows of pogroms and the Holocaust always present. While I grew up in suburban Boston, I was raised in a community and family that held Israel as a shining light - a beacon to the nations, and a place of refuge in a hostile world for Jews. Our holidays and achievements were celebrated by “buying trees” that were planted in our names in the Holy Land. We had tin boxes in which we would deposit our spare change, and proudly bring them to Hebrew school to add to the collective funds that would be sent to Israel. We had Hebrew school teachers with tattooed numbers on their arms, and an understanding that we stood in place of the children they couldn’t have as a result of the atrocities committed against them by Dr Mengele and the Nazis. I have stood with Israel since I could first stand. Yet it is more than that.

At the age of 14, I took off for Israel - a day after the United States Bicentennial. We landed in Israel on July 5th, 1976, and as we landed, the pilot pointed out a plane on the runway and announced that this was the plane that had just returned from Entebbe - with all of the Israeli hostages. We arrived to a national celebration of overcoming terror - with dancing and singing in the airport and in the streets. Israel had miraculously saved so many innocent civilians that had been taken hostage and had once again proven their heroism and strength. The only soldier left behind of course, was the leader of the mission Yoni Netanyahu - Bibi’s older brother. He was a childhood friend of the leader of our trip, and the mix of loss and heroism was profound. It was intoxicating, and my connection to Israel was only strengthened. Yet it is more than that. 

As a husband and father with two young children, we were scheduled to go to Israel for a visit one summer when there were several terrorist bombings. While we listened to family members who urged us not to go, we found a new resolve to be there and planned a year long sabbatical the next year. We endured the chronic stress of suicide bombings, the need for gas masks in the event of Scud missiles carrying chemical weapons, and the ever present bomb shelters in our home, like all Israelis. But I loved being there. Especially for the opportunity to live near our dear Israeli family and their three children (two sons and a daughter) - the oldest, Barak, was just joining the Israeli Navy and working his way through Officers school. There was so much about that year that was beautiful, yet it was more than that. It was also filled with the unspeakable pain of loss. 

Our cousins’ two sons - Barak and Amichai - would ultimately trade their bedrooms across from each other for gravesites that stand end to end in a military cemetery in Israel. Two more victims in a militarized society and world. The loss was and is excruciatingly painful. I know not only the pride, but the cost of a military that protects a Country in constant conflict and risk of attack from its neighbors. Yet there is more than that. 

I became involved in Seeds of Peace - an organization that brings Israeli and Palestinian (and youth from other conflict areas) together to work toward coexistence. We hosted young Israelis and Palestinians in our home, and loved how when they were taken outside of their narratives, 

they found peace and strength in each other. It brought a sense of hope. I traveled to Egypt and Jordan with John Wallach, the Founder of Seeds of Peace, and was in Gaza where we spent a day with Yassir Arafat. He talked about his friend Yitzhak Rabin, who had been assassinated just a few years before. He took us to meet with the Palestinian National Congress. And then he took us to Jabaliya - the refugee camp that was the heart of Hamas and has now been reduced to rubble in the latest bombings. There we saw open sewage lines and the kind of abject poverty that was hard to imagine - just a few kilometers from lush Israeli communities. Arafat’s unspoken message in these visits was clear - you can deal with me, the guy who loved Yitzhak Rabin and believes in the Peace of the Brave, or you can deal with the hardliners of the Palestinian National Congress, or you can deal with Hamas. This was more than two decades ago and little had changed through the last four wars. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Hamas had its roots and initial support from Israel itself. Israel helped finance the Palestinian Islamist movement in the early 1980s as a way to divide Palestinian

efforts which were being led by secularists in the PLO and Fatah. Israel helped create the organization that is sworn to its destruction as a way to undermine Palestinian society itself. 

When I was invited years later to make a film in the Middle East by a family who believed Israel was getting treated unfairly in the media, I had come to the conclusion - after meeting with many individuals and organizations in both societies - that there was nothing new to say about the Conflict, nor was Israel blameless for where things stood. This was until I met the founders of Combatants for Peace, an organization of former enemy combatants that had come together to work through nonviolence. In fact, they were, and are, the only group of enemy combatants working together during an ongoing armed conflict through nonviolence. I remember meeting two of them - a Palestinian who had been arrested at the age of 14 for attempting to kill two Israelis, and an Israeli former military officer and tank commander, who had participated in home destructions among other things before choosing to leave the IDF. I asked them what Combatants for Peace was really about, and Chen, an Israeli, said “we are a community of people taking responsibility for our own creation.” And Suleiman, a Palestinian, said “we are breaking the cycle of violence by breaking our own sense of victimhood.” They knew that there was something beyond the narratives they were born into. They knew there was more than that. 

Disturbing the Peace

This was the beginning of the documentary Disturbing the Peace. I spent much of the next three years with this extraordinary group of former enemies, documenting their efforts to constantly do the hard work of envisioning and embodying what is possible post-conflict. They challenged their own narratives and worked through the fears of their families and communities while they held a place beyond the current reality. They shared their personal stories - not to seek forgiveness, but rather to take responsibility for what they had done and to commit to another way. And they worked tirelessly to end the Occupation which they understood to be at the core of the weakening of both societies and their individual humanity. A few would leave the movement, dejected by the difficulty in believing it was possible, but most have stayed to this day - and each time the violence explodes, they come closer together. During the Gaza War of 2014, while Palestinians were being pummeled with incessant missiles, several of the Palestinian Combatants came to Tel Aviv to stand with their Israeli partners and speak to a rally of almost 10,000 Israelis. 

One of them is Jamil, who is someone I love and admire very much. Jamil was born in a refugee camp in the West Bank, and lived almost half a century in the camp before building a home for his family a few years ago - just outside of the camp. Jamil watched his 14 year old brother killed by the IDF while sneaking out to visit his uncle during a lockdown. He spent time in and out of Israeli prisons during his youth. One day he returned home from work to see his mother crying as she watched the news of a recent terrorist attack in Israel. He asked her why she was crying as it was Israelis who were killed, not Palestinians, and she told him their blood was the same and that the tears and pain of a mother were the same. Her tears for her son and those of the Israeli mothers for theirs. It was at that moment that Jamil committed himself to nonviolence and he would become a tireless member of Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle.

Jamil arrived for the demonstration that night in Tel Aviv, and while the crowd gathered, I was standing in the middle of a large group of counter-demonstrators; Israelis who were screaming “Death to the Arabs,” and calling young female Israeli protesters “prostitutes,” and wishing that they would be “raped by the Palestinians.” I have never been in the middle of so much hatred, and can feel my heart rate increasing and my body tense as I sit here and remember this. I could also feel their pain. My camera was ripped from my hands and thrown to the ground, and while it was broken, I was able to continue filming the demonstration. I filmed both Jamil and Suleiman speaking to the crowd of 10,000 Israelis, courageously standing next to their Israeli partners - for peace and nonviolence. 

During that Gaza War, I also filmed an internet gathering of CFP, when Bassam, the father of a young Israeli girl who had been tragically killed by an Israeli soldier when she was leaving school, talked about needing to feel not only the pain of the Palestinians in Gaza, but the Israelis in Tel Aviv who were afraid of missiles being sent by Hamas. The level of violence wasn’t in any way equivalent in that moment, but he recognized the suffering of all and in that, claimed his own humanity. 

Bassam, Jamil, and many of the Combatants - especially on the Palestinian side - were also members of the Parents Circle Family Forum. PCFF is an organization that was started in 1995 by Israeli and Palestinian families that have lost loved ones to violence. For more than a decade, the Parents Circle has worked with Combatants for Peace to hold a joint Memorial Ceremony, remembering the loss of life for both Israelis and Palestinians. It is one of the most powerful experiences to stand shoulder to shoulder with people on both sides of a conflict that are mourning their loved ones and declaring that there is another way. Each year the Ceremony is met with people surrounding it threatening the participants - both Israelis and Palestinians and working to disrupt it. I have found myself each year I am there, moving from this ceremony, to a memorial gathering for my two young cousins that is steeped also in the desire for peace. The next morning we are packed so tight into a military cemetery that you can’t even move, as we are gathered around my cousins’ gravesites. Many of the Palestinians in Combatants have become dear friends as have the Israelis, and they all offer to come and meet with our Israeli family to offer their support and condolences. 

Disturbing the Peace at Ebertfest 2016

When we brought Disturbing the Peace out into the world, we had so many profound experiences as we traveled with many of the Combatants who are in the film. We were often challenged by audiences who felt that one side was presented as more of a victim than the other. One person even came to a second screening with a stopwatch to keep track of whose suffering got more screen time. We were often asked by people before they saw the film, whether it was pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, and we would always answer “Yes.” In reality, it was neither - it was pro-humanity, recognizing that we all have the ability to be perpetrators as well as victims. We all have the capacity for violence, as well as love and compassion. 

I will always remember what we refer to as our “least tolerant screening,” which was at the Museum for Tolerance in Los Angeles. After the screening we came onstage, with two Palestinians and two Israelis from the film and opened the conversation up to questions from

the audience. The first person who spoke came not with a question, but rather a statement. She looked at Jamil and Suleiman and simply said - “the problem is, that you don’t exist.” In the moment that she was denying their existence and humanity, Jamil inhaled deeply, and met her with both compassion and also clarity and strength. 

It is all beyond the words that I can find here, so let me share some words from friends who I admire and love. Jamil never prepares his remarks when he speaks - whether in front of 10,000 Israelis at a demonstration or at a post-screening Q&A. But he did write the following this week - translated here from Arabic to English. 

I’m not sure how I should start writing this message. I rarely write and I don't like writing. I usually share spontaneously words from the heart, and I’m writing now words from the heart. I write these words while holding back my tears of pain from the horror of what I hear and see. I would love to share with you a moment of mixed feelings of fear of the future. We are going through the most difficult days, full of bloodshed, hatred, revenge, and a glimpse of hope. Yes, there is a glimpse of hope. I send you hugs, and I sympathize with you. Your sadness is my sadness, and your pain is my pain, and we also share hope, whether it is glowing or just a candle flame. 

My dear partners, the Palestinians have previously gone through four wars on Gaza, and today we are witnessing the fifth. Gaza was destroyed. Thousands of victims and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands were wounded. We have always seen support and compassion from you, as well as condemnation and refusal of violence, through protesting in the streets and in the squares against war. We, Palestinians, covered our wounds, buried our loved ones, and stood together side by side to raise our voices loudly. We are against wars. We fight together for freedom and a better future for all of us. 

When I came to Tel Aviv in the 2014 Gaza war, there were approximately 5,000 people killed because of the bombing by airstrikes. I stood tall next to my partners and raised my voice as loudly as possible and said that neither V-16 planes nor heavy tanks will build peace. Television stations were broadcasting my words everywhere in Ramallah and in the Dheisheh camp, our beloved camp. I stood tall and proud with full belief that my choice was the right one. My choice is to end wars. Today, I look at you and I see in your faces that the option of peace has become shaky. The partnership option is not clear. I need you to be strong, to heal the wounds and stand up so that we can continue this journey to finish what we started. We have lost our loved ones, but we will not lose our sanity. We will not lose our humanity. We will not lose hope. I have seen many peace activists on social media sharing that they are on their way to join the army. I do not want to believe this. There is no justification for a person who has believed in an idea for years and years to lose hope in a moment of anger. I told you that I was in the same position. The pain that we both share as Palestinians and Israelis is the pain of humanity. I am a

strong man, and everyone knows me, but I am currently shedding tears, and I do not remember crying except a few times, including when my brother Nasser was martyred. The war will end, and this is inevitable. Whatever the results, there will be another tomorrow. I don't know how to look at you when I know that some of you answered the call of war, the call of hatred. 

My dear partners, I do not belittle the event, but we must be strong with strong faith. Faith is needed not only on ordinary days. Faith is to go against the flow, to see hope and run towards it. At the end of my message, I just want to say that I need you, and I know that you need me. I extend my hand to light the candles of hope. Let us extinguish the flames of hatred, and raise our voices that war is not our choice. I love you all without exception. 

Our dear friend Noa, a treasured Israeli singer and peace activist shared several posts on social media in the past days which were also not scripted: 

This is from my heart. From the deepest place in my heart.We are living a horrible, horrible nightmare - the proportions of which nobody could ever have imagined. This is our 9/11. … The amount of tragedy and horror is unfathomable and the magnitude is only now being revealed because a lot was censored and now we’re starting to realize what happened here. Terrorists invaded the border with Gaza. They came to slaughter and kill and kidnap and rape and burn alive and conquer and take bodies and mutilate bodies and take women and children and babies and old people… The Israeli population is stunned… It’s devastating. 

She goes on to say that between her tears and her anger and frustration, she is trying to find love in her heart. She talks about the hope she feels in the people who have been protesting against the Netanyahu government turning to take care of all Israelis in this crisis. She continues: 

The other things that gives me hope, is that after we’ve counted our dead and buried them and mourned and cried, and after we’ve brought back the hostages because that is terrifying… and after we’ve ousted this horrible government and brought decent people to run this Country, and after we’ve asked all the hardest questions, then the chosen people will have to choose. Who are we? What kind of nation are we? What kind of people? What kind of Country? Who are we? Me, I’ve made the choices already years ago and I continue to make them every single day. I choose peace. I choose solidarity. I choose to end the Occupation. I don’t want to conquer another people. I don’t want their misery. I want their happiness. I know that their well being is my well being. All people are connected. We are one. I choose rights for everybody, from the river to the sea and everywhere in the world. Equal and human rights and dignity and respect. I choose to be a light upon nations. I choose light for

all nations. Is this possible? I believe it is. And maybe from this devastation, this hope will grow - this vision will manifest itself finally, like a baby being born after pain… And if we manage to do all this, then maybe, maybe, maybe, the suffering and the bloodshed, the mothers and fathers and families shattered, and the pain and all of those things will not be in vain. 

Just this morning she posted: 

I’m miserable. I’m grieving. I’m mourning. I feel in deep connection and resonance with this pain inflicted on my people, on my family and on my friends. And I’m furious and I’m in a rage and I’m frustrated and I’m crying and I’m crying and I’m crying. But let me tell you something and this is an important thing for me to tell you. Even in my misery and my pain and my sorrow and my grieving, I refuse to harden my good heart to the pain and suffering of others. I refuse not to see them as human. I refuse to not see their blood as my own blood. Because the moment I do that I become the very monster that has caused my people such suffering. I become my own enemy. And that is the great victory of those that have butchered my people… And I refuse. I refuse to become them… It all comes down to one thing - what you hate don’t do to your neighbor. Love your brother as you love yourself. And so I will not harden my heart, as God be my witness. And victory is mine. 

Disturbing the Peace

Through these last days we have heard of so many people. Vivian Silver - one of the Founders of Women Wage Peace, an inspiring organization of women who have joined together across borders to stand (and march) for peace, and a group we worked with around the release of Disturbing the Peace - was kidnapped and is currently held hostage in Gaza. Two young men who were closely connected to our family have been killed. An Israeli filmmaker who I know lost her nephew when he was murdered. As the war continues there will inevitably be more. There will be more Israelis and more Palestinians. And beyond those killed, scores more will carry the trauma and grief for generations. Vivian’s son Yonatan shares in a post, while his mother remains a hostage somewhere in Gaza, that she “would be mortified by what is happening in Gaza now because you can’t cure killed babies with more dead babies… vengeance is not a strategy.” 

It is hard to imagine how one bears this. It is hard to imagine what it is like for the families of the communities in the South of Israel that bore the brunt of these attacks. It is hard to imagine what life is like for children coming of age in Gaza, which has been under siege for 16 years and has now experienced 5 wars during this time. It is hard to imagine the more than 1 million people displaced in Gaza with nowhere to go and the knowing of what is to come in the days ahead. It is hard to imagine how we move forward - in these days ahead and in the ones that will follow. 

Some people have ascribed the military failure of the IDF in the initial attack as a failure of imagination. I believe that the failure of imagination was the inability of all of us to imagine a

solution over the past many decades that provided security and respect to everyone in the region. The failure of imagination was an Israeli government that continued to build settlements throughout the West Bank, appealing to zealots and undermining the chance for peace and dignity to Palestinians living there - all for their own agendas. Bibi stayed in power to avoid prosecution for multiple acts of corruption by appealing to far right extremists including those in his government who were sworn to the destruction of Palestinians. He was willing to betray and sacrifice his own Country just to stay in power. The failure of imagination was thinking that we were doing anything but creating more hatred and violence. We have all had a failure of imagination to see what is possible and to imagine how to get there, and then act on it. 

I was recently in Israel. For another Memorial Day - moving once again between a joint observance with Palestinians and Israelis in mourning, to my family and their own memorialization of their sons - through songs and tears. And I felt the power of more than a hundred thousand people standing together in Tel Aviv and throughout the Country - protesting the extremist, undemocratic government. In a moment of crisis, it was also a moment of hope. People were standing for the Country their ancestors had died for, and they were standing not with weapons, but with love. And they recognized among other things, the connection between democracy and ending an Occupation of another. It was a moment of hope that continued week after week, and while those people are now turning their hearts toward taking care of so many suffering families, they will return one day soon and stand for their Country, and I will stand with them. I will stand for the Israel that I believed was possible when I was a young boy - a light unto the nations. 

I say this not to be reductionist, or to blame it all on any one thing or one person - so many people brought Netanyahu to power and kept him there. It is all complicated, yet there are a few simple things I know. 

We must not harden our hearts. When we call a people “subhuman,” or dehumanize them, we lose empathy and compassion and we dehumanize ourselves. This is dangerous. When we lose empathy, our capacity for horrific violence and inhumanity grows, and our capacity for kindness, compassion, and love diminishes. Both our capacity for violence and love are essentially human, and are our personal and collective choice. The question then comes down to this - will we or will we not, as individuals and a greater humanity, choose empathy and compassion? Will we choose love? 

I stand with the many human rights organizations, including Combatants for Peace, the Parents Circle Family Forum, and Women Wage Peace who write: 

Hamas’ horrific crimes against innocent civilians - including children, women, and the elderly - have shaken us all, and we are struggling to recover from the unbearable sights and sounds. Some of us were in the Israeli communities on the Gaza border during the assault; many of us have family, friends, and colleagues who endured and are still in the

midst of the harrowing events; and we all know people who were murdered, injured, or abducted. It will take time to fully understand the implications and consequences of Hamas’ heinous attack, for which there can be no justification. 

Most of our teams include Israelis and Palestinians; therefore, some of us have relatives and colleagues in Gaza currently living under the ongoing assault of the Israeli military. Children, women, and the elderly are being indiscriminately attacked with nowhere to hide. Even now - especially now - we must maintain our moral and humane position and refuse to give in to despair or the urge for vengeance. Keeping our faith in the human spirit and its inherent goodness is more vital than ever. One thing is clear: We will never surrender our belief in humanity - even now, when doing so is more challenging than ever. 

Having always opposed the harming of innocent civilians, it remains our duty in these terrible times - as we count our dead on the Israeli side and worry about wounded, missing, and abducted loved ones, and as bombs are being dropped on residential neighborhoods in Gaza, wiping out entire families with no possibility of burying the dead - to raise our voices loud and clear against the harming of all innocent civilians, both in Israel and Gaza. 

We call for the immediate release of all hostages and an end to the bombardment of civilians in Israel and Gaza. Humanitarian aid must be allowed to reach civilian populations, medical facilities and places of refuge must not be harmed, and vital resources such as water and electricity must not be cut off. The killing of additional civilians will not bring back those who were lost. Indiscriminate destruction and a siege harming innocents will not bring relief, justice, or calm. 

As individuals working to promote human rights and who believe in the sanctity of life, we urgently call for an end to all indiscriminate harming of civilian lives and infrastructure. We call for negotiations and all possible action to be taken to bring about the release of the hostages - while prioritizing the civilians held by Hamas. It is the only humane and rational thing to do, and it must be done now. 

Disturbing the Peace

It is impossible to imagine how we move forward, yet we will. Israelis have been obtaining passports for Poland and other places unthinkable only a few years ago, in response to the undemocratic policies of the Netanyahu government. Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors live in Berlin and other parts of Germany. I believe that Israelis and Palestinians will one day find a way to live not only peacefully, but with respect and dignity, with each other on this land. How we get there from this point I don’t know, but I believe it starts within each of us - and our ability to love and have compassion, beyond the suffering and hatred we are experiencing. 

In the end, I come back to two words I encountered while filming in the West Bank. They were painted on the wall that separates Israelis and Palestinians. LOVE WINS.

Many people have reached out to ask what they can do. There are many NGOs working on the ground to provide physical and emotional support for Israelis who are suffering, as well as NGOs trying to get into Gaza to provide humanitarian relief. I would also suggest these three organizations that have been working tirelessly - both well before this tragic series of events and during this time, and will be there tomorrow and the day after as well. I admire all of them greatly and I am providing links to the US friends groups where I can for those who would like to make a donation. Supporting these organizations is standing for a vision of what is possible, and supporting those who are doing the hard work to make it real - even in these times of immense sorrow and challenge. 

Combatants for Peace  

Parents Circle Family Forum

Women Wage Peace

I will leave this with the words of my Palestinian brother Jamil and my Israeli sister Noa - Even in my misery and my pain and my sorrow and my grieving, I refuse to harden my good heart to the pain and suffering of others. I refuse not to see them as human. I refuse to not see their blood as my own blood. I need you, and I know that you need me. I extend my hand to light the candles of hope. Let us extinguish the flames of hatred, and raise our voices that war is not our choice. I love you all without exception. 

Steve Apkon

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