Yulie Cohen (Israel)

“I made friends with a Palestinian deportee and began to see that the so-called enemy were just people like him”

Photography by Brian Moody

Yulie Cohen was a 22-year-old El Al stewardess when, in 1978, she was wounded in a terrorist attack in London which left one person dead and many injured. Two years earlier she had been an officer in the Israeli Army at the time of the raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The raid resulted in the deaths of three hostages and several soldiers at the hands of terrorists. Now, over two decades later, she has written to the British Home Office for the release of the gunman who wounded her in the El Al attack. You can find more information about Yulie and her documentaries at yuliecohen.wix.com.

I wasn’t born a pacifist. I was ten years old when the 1967 war began and Israel was being threatened with elimination. I was always going to do my military service to defend my country. I never doubted our righteousness and was eager to prove myself in a man’s game.

But when I was shot at by a Palestinian terrorist that day in London, it didn’t occur to me that he was the enemy. I could see that he and I were a small part of a bigger game. My grandma spoke Arabic – how could the Arabs be ‘the enemy’.

Even so, after I graduated from University, I joined the army again, this time as a communications attaché. It was through my journalistic activities that I began to see through the myths to the lies that were being told by my own government. It was the beginning of my doubts about the choices we had made as a nation, and about our continued policies of aggression.

My parents were strong Zionists, but my brother rejected their stance. As a 17-year-old he could not handle the clash between his family’s ideals and the reality of life in Israel, so he took a 180-degree turn and became an orthodox Jew. Significantly, the more they challenged him, the more extreme he became.

In 1948 Israel had a just war – we needed a homeland for the Jews. In 1967, we had to defend that homeland. In 1973, war was forced on us. But then it started to collapse. In 1978-9 we had peace with Egypt, but we forgot to change the cassette. We carried on as if we were still at war, even though we were not. The truth – the reality – was not being told. Jordan made peace with us. Egypt, Lebanon, Syria – they all wanted to help us sort out the problem with the Palestinians. But no: we had to keep them as our enemies and ourselves as the victims.

Still, it was not until 1999 that I became really clear in my thinking. I made friends with a Palestinian deportee and began to see that our so-called enemies were just people, like him. I started to learn about the Palestinians, and about my own history too; so much information that I lacked, and information that now allowed me to understand.

And understanding is the starting point. You can’t forgive without understanding. Young people are easily brainwashed: whether it’s to go into the army or to become a terrorist, they are used to settle state interests, not their own, and not mine. I stopped being an agent of the state’s story and started to write my own.

That’s when forgiveness began. It started with the man who shot me. I tried to have a dialogue with him, but he didn’t want that: he had moved on and wanted to leave his past behind. So I began to lobby for his release and still do until today. I realised that it’s not about him – or about us – it’s about me.

We become the victims of ourselves if we don’t forgive because the hate is within us, it doesn’t belong to the other. It’s a process to free yourself from your own suffering.

I wasn’t going to raise my daughters in the way our parents raised us. I could see nothing to live for with that that black-and-white approach that continues to lead people to war. In that way, a terrorist is exactly the same as a soldier: they are both brainwashed. When you see reality in a complex way it’s more difficult, but more interesting and rich.

Once I had felt forgiveness for my attacker, I saw that I also had to forgive my parents for the deceptions they had allowed and were continuing to uphold. Some of my family followed my example, but some didn’t. My brother no longer meets me or speaks to me.

There are moments when I am very lonely, but, for the first time in my life, I am being loyal to myself. For me that is the most important part of it.

Yulie has produced three documentaries, ‘Lev Haaretz’ (2001), ‘My Terrorist’ (2002), and ‘My Land Zion’ (2005).