Last night I had the privilege of attending “A Painful Hope – A Rabbi and A Palestinian Talk Peace,” an event that I wish more could see. Speakers from an NGO dedicated to “fostering a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence, and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians,” came to tell us their story, the region’s story, their organization’s story.
Roots (Shoreshim in Hebrew and Judur in Arabic), like other grassroots peace initiatives and NGOs in Israel, brings together Israelis and Palestinians. But very much unlike those other groups, the people in this case all come from the West Bank, that is, the Israelis are religious Jewish settlers.
For a number of those in attendance, this shattered all stereotypes they had held about settlers. And made them think.
To listen to Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and to Shadi Abu Awad share the stories that prompted their shift in thinking was powerful. They each replaced how they had dismissed and hated the other side with recognition and empathy. And then they pursued that thought.
Roots’ premise is that the best way to a better future is via the respect, understanding and transformation that comes from person-to-person encounters. The joint activities they hold for Israelis and Palestinians include inter-religious exchanges, lectures, cafes, after school programs, children’s camps, women’s photography workshops, youth groups for teens and more. These create neighbors and friends out of strangers and enemies.
Roots works on the assumption “that without meeting the face of the other, we remain as enemies,” explains Shaul Judelman, Roots’ co-director. That means that while person-to-person encounters are essential, they are not the end goal. Engaged citizens who care about each other’s identities and needs are. “Without working for each other’s needs – of rights, security and dignity – we will never build the trust that can restart a peace process.” The bonds participants form means they also feel each other’s pain.
On my way home, I remembered where I had heard of Roots. It was this past summer when the stabbing death of a yeshiva student in Gush Etzion had made the news. First we learned how Dvir Sorek had been on his way back from Jerusalem after purchasing a book to give to a teacher as a present. It was later noted that Dvir had been a member of Roots. I remembered reading how after he was killed by terrorists, Palestinian members of the group wrote a letter to the family in mourning to express their sadness and convey their condolences. The power of personal connections and understanding…
Rabbi Schlesinger and Shadi explained how the Palestinians in the West Bank’s perception of Jews was only as settlers and soldiers, both groups who play a part in the restriction of movement and harsh circumstances of their life. They each also drove home how settlers’ and soldiers’ perception of Palestinians was also driven by fear. Shadi’s point that when people allow hate driven by fear to fester, they are also allowing their own humanity to be taken from them. This nuanced understanding of the toll hate takes is why it so important to get to know one another as individuals.
One of the activities Roots hosts are pre-army academies, so that soldiers can be exposed to settlers and to Palestinians, know their narratives, humanize them. This is important work. I was so moved by what I learned they were doing on the ground, that I’ve already donated to their cause.
There are a good number of groups and efforts that bring people together. While each one is different, what they usually have in common is that they pursue open dialogue while trying to shape a better future.
I contrast that with what is happening in the United States and am at a loss. In one of the more recent incidents of its kind, Hen Mazzig was shouted down at Vassar College while trying to deliver a talk on “The Indigenous Jews of the Middle East: Forgotten Refugees” by Students for Justice in Palestine who were yelling “from the river to the sea.” They did not want dialogue.
A newly released report shows increases on college campuses of disruptions of pro-Israel speakers and of anti-Semitic events. These activities are designed to shut down dialogue, not open it. And therefore, they can never move anything forward. I’ve written before on how conflating pro-Palestinian positions with anti-Israel ones helps no one, but this trend, especially when contrasted with the work of Roots, points to two things: (1) progressive activists need to be taught what true social action actually is; and (2) until and unless they do, the intolerance towards Jews will only increase.
I would much rather follow the example of Rabbi Schlesinger and Shadi Abu Awad, each of whom thoughtfully examined his own behaviors and considered the kind of soul he wanted to have. The Rabbi’s settlement of Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion and Shadi’s town of Beit Ummar were both minutes apart and worlds apart – and were inaccessible to each other. Challenges of getting to know one another existed. And yet they made it happen. Members of Roots understand their humanity is better preserved by trying to build bridges and by seeing their neighbors as human beings. Not by shouting down anyone else…something I wish activists here would understand and emulate.
NOTE: Edited to include the paragraph beginning “Roots’ works on the assumption…”