One has the impression that Israeli Jews, who live in “the West Bank” (otherwise known as “the Territories” or “Judea and Samaria”) live in eternal tension and strife and that there is absolutely no dialogue or cooperation on anything. While this is most likely true, there is an exception to this rule, whereby Palestinians and Jews who live in the Gush Etzion area, south of Bethlehem, have been cooperating for the past few years in a groundbreaking program known as “Roots/Shorashim/ Judor.”
This new organization is the fruit of cooperation by a small group of Palestinians and Jews in that area who have embarked on a profound and personal journey of coming to understand the other through dialogue and cooperative efforts, based on non-violence, mutual respect, and the discovery of each other as human beings. In so doing, they have made deep personal friendships among Palestinians and Jews in the region, and have brought a message of peaceful coexistence and hope to Palestinians and Jews everywhere.
I recently had an excellent opportunity to hear some of the leaders of this new organization speak to a group of visiting high school students from the USA in Jerusalem. They shared their stories — as well as their personal visions for peace — in a clear and compelling way.
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, who lives in the Gush Etzion area, and serves as director of external relations for the organization, spoke passionately about his involvement in this organization. He is a persuasive and powerful speaker, a man with a message and a method. He related in very personal ways how his dialogues with “the other” have changed his life in recent years in unprecedented ways, thus opening him up to the reality of Palestinian existence side by side with Jewish Israeli communities.
He and his Palestinian friends and colleagues have established a new center called Mercaz Karama, The Dignity Center, at the famous (or infamous) main junction in Gush Etzion, very close to where many violent incidents have taken place in recent years. According to Rabbi Schlesinger, “this is the only place in the West Bank where Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews can sit together in dignity.” Palestinians cannot enter his town of Alon Shvut, and Jews don’t enter Palestinian villages, both due to fear. He says that the new center is like a mental health clinic. More and more Palestinians are coming there to encounter the other out of the realization that “we are sick — we have been suffering from fear and trauma for a long time.”
He describes the programs of the new center in a humanistic way:
In our programs, you cross over the line and talk to the other. Once you realize that the other is a human being, this changes your life.
For Rabbi Schlesinger, this dialogue is not just a personal one. It is also an interreligious one:
I believe that religion has to be part of the solution, not just part of the problem. We use religion as a bridge.
Rabbi Schlesinger is candid about his being a religious Jew, a Zionist and a settler, but this does not stop him from encountering Palestinians. On the contrary, during the past 4 ½ years, through hundreds of encounters, he has woken up to the Palestinian story. In the past, he only knew the Jewish story. He admits that for the past 33 years that he has lived in the area, the Jewish story blinded him to the Palestinian one:
I didn’t see the Palestinians. I didn’t meet them. I didn’t hear their narrative. They were invisible. Now I listen to the other — and they listen to me — until it hurts. In Roots, we have concluded that both sides are connected to this land and therefore we have expanded our identity to include two truths. And we have to do something about it. We are trying to create a new way of life in this land which allows room for both of us.
The second speaker was a young Palestinian whom we will call N (he prefers to remain anonymous). N was born in Jordan in 1991 but grew up in Bethlehem. His family originally came from the Arab village of Malchah, next to the new upscale Malchah mall in Western Jerusalem. After the Oslo Peace Process in 1993, his family returned from Jordan to live in Bethlehem, since there was hope that a Palestinian state would be established. In his late 20s, he has already been a Palestinian activist for a long time. He is a third-generation Palestinian living under occupation, and until recently he knew no Israeli Jews, except for soldiers (who usually weren’t in a dialogical mood). In recent years he joined Roots/Judor/Shorashim, as a way to take responsibility for his community.
N is keenly aware of the psychological dimensions of the conflict, especially the fear and the trauma that each side has inflicted on each other. Each side harbors unrealizable dreams:
We still dream that the other side will disappear, and we don’t know the other side.
When N first met Rabbi Schlesinger in 2016, he was profoundly moved by his presentation and decided to join the organization. Over time, he has expanded his identity to include the other side’s as well. He became an active member of Roots:
In the current reality of the conflict and the tension between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank, these courageous peacebuilders who are leading this organization are a refreshing exception to the prevailing rule of hatred and enmity. On the contrary, through both visionary and pragmatic leadership and new initiatives, they are demonstrating on a daily basis the possibilities and benefits of peaceful coexistence.