Israel—The Issue Isn’t Religion, It’s a Fight for Land

I was so excited and honored on Shabbat recently when I attended another event with an organization called Roots-Shorashim-Judur. It is a non-profit that fosters “a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Why do I say honored? In my opinion the two gentlemen who spoke are heroes.

Roots is an organization I’ve followed closely for the past few years and is also mentioned in my book, “Blasted from Complacency: A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel.”

Shadi Abu Awwad and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger

Shadi Abu Awwad and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger

Why was I so excited? Roots is an amazing Israeli and Palestinian Peace (I always capitalize Peace, it’s too important) organization and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger is one of its founders—in my way of thinking, his work is holy. With his partner Ali Abu Awwad, they create a better future for both peoples. Palestinians and Israelis have been meeting and engaging in dialogue with each other since 2014. What would make me drive two hours each way for a 20-minute lecture?

I wanted to hear the latest progress that Roots was achieving. The first new addition was that while Ali wasn’t on the speaking tour this time, his nephew Shadi Abu Awwad was. It was such a pleasure to meet him. His story spoke to my heart as he was a few years older than my son and I thought there but for the grace of God go I. What if we had been born Palestinians instead of American Jews? What would our lives be like?

Rabbi Hanan talked about his path making Aliyah in 1980 when he was 20 until living today in Alon Shvut, Israel. He is an orthodox Jewish rabbi and settler living in what the Palestinians call “occupied territory.” During his career as a rabbi he also has spent time in Boca Raton and Dallas but his home base is in Gush Etziyon.

Timing is everything and it was interesting that about a year before our trip, Rabbi Hanan experienced an epiphany of his own. He had guests in his car and had picked up two hitchhikers along the way. The Texan guests commented that they would never pick up hitchhikers at home. Rabbi Hanan informed his guests that in Israel “we all pick up hitchhikers. We have a common vision, we trust each other.”

But then he realized he was lying to his guests and what’s worse, to himself. What bothered him at the moment was not the fact that he didn’t pick up Palestinians—what bothered him was the fact until then he hadn’t realized that he didn’t. He questioned, could it be that he didn’t see the Palestinians as significant human beings and was blind to their existence? Palestinians weren’t part of his world and that fact made him feel like “there was something rotten in my soul.”

It took a while and he took it as a personal challenge to meet his Palestinian neighbors. But it was difficult to do so because there was complete separation between the two peoples. Eventually he was able to connect with a gathering of 15 Israelis and 15 Palestinians and together with Ali Abu Awaad—within three hours he says his life was changed forever. I could relate to his story—sometimes, unexpected surprises shock you into action—as had my own. Who would have predicted that my life would change positively from being human targets from Palestinian missiles?

Listening to the two sides tell each other their stories had a dramatic impact. Rabbi Hanan said of the Palestinians—“suddenly I realized they are human beings. I realized that they lived there and had a story—their own narrative. I realized that they are suffering and in great pain. Their take on Israelis was that they were colonial occupiers.”

The Rabbi thought of them as Arabs. They thought of themselves as Palestinians with a national identity. He said, “We realized that each side builds their identity upon the nullification of the others’ identity. I say its Eretz Israel and it’s all ours—and they say it’s Palestine and it’s all theirs. I say my connection to the land is the only legitimate connection and they say the same.

“They live in villages all around us but we knew nothing about the way they lived. They had such strange understandings of reality. We began to listen to each other. We listened until it hurt. Not to debate each other, but to listen to whom he says he is—rather than us telling them who they are in both directions.”

“We began to see that each side lives in fear of each other and has amazingly stupid stereotypes and ignorance of the other side . . . They couldn’t believe that I’m afraid of them and I couldn’t believe that they are afraid of us.”

As they listened to each other slowly over time Roots-Shorashim-Judur was born.  Through listening and telling their own stories, they began to understand more about each other beyond assumptions, while maintaining each group’s identity.  Rabbi Hanan admitted sometimes it hurt to listen. The fact that both sides went to bed at night hoping the other side would disappear during the night because the other group didn’t belong there, wasn’t very effective.

Rabbi Hanan said that we saw that we live with the “hubris of exclusivity.” As if my story is the only story, my connection to the land is the only connection—my truth and humanity are the only truth and humanity that exists. We began to listen to each other and realize we have to maintain our identities and expand our identity to include the other. As Rabbi Hanan’s partner Ali Abu Awwad said, he learned from the religious Jews that they would have to fit two truths into one land and into both peoples’ hearts.

It was interesting to me that both men said that the time is not right for a political solution and that ultimately it wouldn’t work, because the people don’t trust each other nor is there empathy for the other. They do believe with time a political solution will be available. But first much healing has to occur of fear, trauma and the ignorance of stereotypes to encourage empathy, listening and legitimizing the humanity of both sides. Healthy identities have to be built to promote the spirit of equality, human rights and dignity.

The Roots’ Dignity Center was built on land dedicated to creating a better future for both peoples. Together classes of Israelis and Palestinians enjoy summer and day camps. They have photography classes where the women take photos of each other’s faces and work on Peace by looking into each others’ eyes (that I’ve also written about in my book). There are after school activities, women’s cooking classes, therapy and trauma groups and interfaith, youth and young adult programing.

The Rabbi summed up their work: “What happens is healing and transformation. People come out of it different and better and in my humble opinion a little bit closer to a Kadosh Baruch Hu (closer to the holy one).”

Next we heard from Shadi Abu Awwad, the 27-year-old Director of programming for probably the most sensitive group—those age16-18. I was thrilled to hear about him and his work. This was the age where so much violence becomes manifested.

Shadi (yes, I’m referring to him by his first name. Why? He is so personable, we’ve spoken several times since, and I suppose I’m getting that old, that it seems right) spoke of his background . . .

He said that he was Palestinian—born in Palestine. It struck me from the outset—same land with a totally different perspective. He admitted that for many years of his life when you said Israel, the only thing he would imagine was a soldier—that kept him in a big jail and controlled his movement. He said that he was not a “free” person.  He admitted he was blind with hate for Israel and Israelis.

He said, “My uncle was murdered by an Israeli soldier. My brother was shot by an Israeli soldier. But the one who saved my brother’s life was an Israeli doctor. That opened my eyes that there is something wrong here.” Previously he hadn’t acknowledged that there are Israelis other than soldiers—he said, “I didn’t give myself a chance to see them.” So he decided he had to look closer at himself and at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He said “Some people say we are Muslims—they are Jews and we are going to hate them and fight them until the end of life—this is what our religion says.”

But that didn’t make sense to his beliefs as a “Believer.” He said, “In order to be a “Believer” you have to have faith in what God created. And to believe in what God created, you have to start with believing in Judaism, then Christianity and then Islam. So it doesn’t make any sense that I would hate people for following a religion that I believe in. I can’t blame people, start to judge them and tell them I hate you because you are a Jew. If I will think that way then I will have to talk to my God and ask “Why did you give them their religion and then brought me to hate them? That doesn’t make any sense. Religion is not something that was created to divide us. And when people use that as an excuse to hate each other that means we have to go back to our holy books and read it again and again and again.” He said that religion can be studied to follow it for your life or to make excuses for your actions—find reasons to do what you want to do.

He said “the conflict is not about religion, but about land. And if you say that the land only belongs to Muslims or Jews or Christians, you will be wrong—the buildings, the streets, the history of that land—every place you go in that holy land will tell you that you are wrong. If you are a Jew, you belong to me, if you are a Muslim, you belong to me if you are a Christian you belong to me. We cannot ignore the history of that land and decide to take it all for us and say it’s only our land. The biggest issue that is taking us away from any kind of solution is both sides refusing to recognize the rights of the other. The route is in front of us but we don’t have the courage to say it.”

Shadi talked about the important uphill battle they are fighting—trying to improve the future for their children. He acknowledged that the war Roots fights can be with each side because they’ve never heard the conflict presented this way. He said, “As a Palestinian, you hear your whole life as you grow up—this is the soldier that wants to kill you—this is the Occupation. This is your life. This is how you are gonna’ suffer. What do we expect from a Palestinian that grows up his whole life living in danger—facing death every day, being in jail? Not being able to move outside of his house. And then when he goes to the checkpoint another youth the same age humiliates him and holds a gun against him. What do we expect from him? So we decide in Roots we don’t want to wait until these two will meet in a checkpoint.

And to grow up as an Israeli—this is our promised land. These people are fighting us, killing us, taking our rights from us living in the land of Israel. If we will keep building a new generation thinking that way, then we are just making this conflict last forever. What do we expect from an 18 year old soldier when you put him in front of a village and you tell him that everyone inside of there is your enemy?   The one who wants to kill your family? Your job is to protect us from these people. Do we expect for him to put down his gun and shake my hand?”

And what he pointed out is that because they don’t communicate with one another in their daily lives, they don’t understand why the other hates them. When they do speak and listen to each other’s narratives, it’s not a contest to see who suffers more. It’s clear that they both are suffering.

Shadi pointed out, “If I’m suffering more than you, than it doesn’t mean that I’m a winner. It means that I’m just more of a victim than you. In the beginning stages of talking he can’t just tell them to forget about their history, hug each other, eat hummus together and live in Peace.”

First you have to express your feelings before they ever can begin to talk about Peace otherwise if they push down their feelings, in 10-20 years they will explode.  Fear of each other is the primary feeling from both sides.

But ultimately Shadi said what has to happen before any negotiations about Israel and Palestine and Jerusalem—the list is important and long, is that they have to stop the bleeding before there will be no one left to quarrel about the land.

At Roots they believe that first they have to save people’s lives and then they have many, many years to talk about land and solving the conflict. There is profound healing that occurs when people are allowed to discuss their feelings in the open without judgment or fear and in the spirit of acceptance.

So you see that’s why I was so excited to hear an update. Seeing Rabbi Hanan again and meeting Shadi was a big bonus—having a young person teaching the next generation that there is another way to succeed in a respectful, nonviolent way—they both were inspiring.

I drove out to see them in the middle of my Kickstarter campaign—I was grateful for those who had supported me, but was concerned that the goal seemed so far out of reach—we only have 9 days to go. Will there be a rally soon? I sure hope so. There still is time and I’d appreciate any support and sharing my campaign with others who care about Israel or transformation

Having the opportunity to hear an update on Roots-Shorashim-Judur once again brightened my days and reinforced my resolve to work on Peace.

Peace, שלום, سلام,

Penny S. Tee

As always, I invite you to Join Me on My Journey . . .