Roots: Crossing the Israeli-Palestinian divide

With insightful brilliance, if not subtlety, the Torah offers us two different views of Abraham, the founder of Judaism and Western religion.

“Abraham the First” (at that point, he is still known as Abram), is called by God to defy comfortable ethnic, national and familial boundaries; he is to literally uproot himself and plant new roots in an unknown place for the sake of witnessing to humanity God’s radically loving presence that defies, and in fact needs, no boundaries:

“Go forth from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

In our second encounter with him, “Abraham the First”, the “noble nomad of God” who had courageously broken all protective boundaries and self-limiting conventions is now portrayed as “Abraham the Second”: a broken, rootless wanderer driven not by courage but by raw fear, a kind of instinctual cowardice, out of concern for his life:

There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I remain alive thanks to you.” (Genesis 12:10-13)

As the story continues, Sarai is taken (we may safely assume against her will) into Pharaoh’s harem, for which Abraham is richly rewarded.

How can we reconcile these two starkly different images of Abraham? All exegetical attempts notwithstanding, we cannot, nor do I believe that the Torah wants us to, reconcile them. Literary scholars of Torah always remind us that the Torah’s characters are heroic not because they are perfect, but precisely because they are broken, imperfect human vehicles for God’s heroic mission in the world. Hasidic Torah teachers always remind us that the Torah’s narratives are eternal, seeking to instruct each of us in ways that go beyond the actual characters and their tribulations.

What does this most unheroic image of Abraham at his worst come to teach us? To understand this, let’s look closely at this second Abraham: the broken, frightened wanderer who prostitutes his wife to save himself, then profits from the deal. Perhaps not surprisingly, Abraham doesn’t come to terms with his behavior on his own, nor does God criticize him for what he does; it is Pharaoh, a marginal character in Abraham’s story, who with peremptory directness castigates him for his dishonesty and for bringing God’s punishment on his household:

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram. Pharaoh sent for Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Now, here is your wife; take her and begone!” (Genesis 12:17-19)

The scene closes with Pharaoh’s men not killing or enslaving but banishing Abraham and his household from their territory. Abraham says nothing in his own defense, for truly, what is there for him to say? The brief scene of his, Sarai’s and Pharaoh’s interactions exposes the deep flaw in Abraham’s thinking and its horrible effects. His self-perceived vulnerability convinces him that Pharaoh and company mean him harm (this despite not knowing them at all). In the process, he is willing to put his wife’s and his hosts’ welfare at serious risk. It takes Pharaoh, Abraham’s presumed bad guy, to set him straight, by confronting him and calling him out for his dishonesty, irresponsibility and stupidity that almost destroyed the lives of innocent people.

To poorly paraphrase Walt Kelly’s iconic character, Pogo, we have met this version of Abraham and he is us. We all have instincts for self-preservation that we sharpen over the course of our lives. Yet how do we avoid turning those same sharpened instincts into weapons that we use on ourselves and each other, so that we all don’t get badly injured in the process? Specifically, in our conflicts with others, when, if ever, and how, if at all, should we step outside our zones of safety and suspicion, to take the risk of encounter with our (perceived or real) enemies -the “others” – as potential sisters and brothers?

Roots, an outside-the-box Israeli/Palestinian peace organization, is taking some breathtaking risks to address these questions. My community recently was honored to host Roots’ founders and co-directors, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Shadi abu Awwad, as part of their annual American communities’ tour. Roots (in Hebrew, Shorashim, in Arabic, Judur) identifies itself as a grass roots “people-to-people” organization that promotes healing, community and understanding between religious settlers of Judea/Samaria and West Bank Palestinians. The intractable cultural, political, legal and military divides between these two long-time communities-in- conflict makes Roots’ mission formidable at best. The popular, widely accepted wisdom – reinforced by mutual violence and mistrust – is that these two communities won’t solve the problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because they are the problem. However, Shadi and Hanan argue that without genuine dialogue, human encounter and the deepest listening, these enemies will never begin to transcend their fears and get to know each other as people. To be worth more than the piece of paper it is written on, they believe, any future peace agreement must be founded upon actual relationships formed on the ground.

Located in Gush Etzion ( the Etzion Bloc on the West Bank), for the last six years Roots has run the only West Bank based Jewish-Palestinian community center, a summer camp for Jewish and Palestinian kids, open dialogue groups, interfaith study programs and much more. A critical political and moral assumption underlying Roots’ relational work is that the historical narratives of Jews and Palestinians, as well as their deep attachments to the same piece of land, are equally legitimate, authentic, and worthy of each other’s full attention and respect. Where these assumptions lead politically is not a primary focus of Roots’ dialogic work.

Nonetheless, these assumptions, to say the least, are threatening. Many Israeli and Palestinian nationalist narratives abhor the remotest possibility of the other’s legitimacy. Yet the core of this threat is more elementally about fear. To many people, every Jewish settler is inherently (or at least potentially) a gun-toting religious fascist; to many others, every Palestinian is inherently (or at least potentially) a blood thirsty Jew-hating terrorist. Though I am not Israeli, I have been a committed Zionist long enough to have made both facile assumptions during my life. What I have come to understand is that, as dark and enslaving as these stereotypes are, we perpetuate them precisely because they are comforting. Having taken their own painful journeys through fear and hatred into profound cognitive dissonance and fraught self-transformations, Hanan, Shadi, and the entire Roots community understand this paradox all too well. Encounter and relationship building – treating the other as brother –are exhausting and terrifying. Undoing decades of demonization by listening to your enemy with respect and empathy demands a gargantuan leap of faith; this is especially the case absent a genuine peace process that guarantees safety, justice and equality to everyone involved. As I wrote this essay, I imagined family and friends on the right warning me, “Palestinians will never accept Israel’s existential legitimacy as the Jewish state, no matter what we give them or do for them. Do not trust them.” I imagined family and friends on the left warning me, “All of the talk about peace aside, Israel and its settlers will never allow Palestinians the justice and dignity of independence and statehood. Do not trust them.”

I think I understand the anxieties underlying these arguments; yet each presumes a zero-sum righteousness that cannot move people toward even the barest hope for reconciliation. That is why I am increasingly drawn to this third-way approach that Roots advocates. In the absence of serious political vision and good will, in an endless storm of violence and mistrust, a peace initiative like Roots is at least trying to change the tragic narrative that literally strangles Jews and Palestinians. This only happens through the hard work of humanizing encounter between enemies, that most difficult and most sacred of human endeavors. It is counter-intuitive, at least in our current jaded and despairing cultural climate; and at least in the short run, it likely will gain little political traction. However, let’s consider the alternative, what Rabbi Schlesinger calls the hubris of exclusivity, (“only my narrative and my pain are legitimate—I am the weak wanderer, my opponent is the evil Pharaoh)”). This in fact is what now passes for political discourse in much of the West. How’s that been working out for us?

Roots is part of a small but growing number of groups in Israel, America and around the world that seek to restore civility and peace by replacing diatribe with dialogue and rage with relationship building. They challenge us to personal and communal self-transformation by choosing the way of “Abraham the First”. We are asked to live out the call to transcend the comfortable but euthanizing boundaries that hold us back from fulfilling God’s vision for us all: to bless and be blessed by each other.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.
Comments