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The Friends of Roots Address the Community Plenary

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger

I come from the Holy Land, but life on the ground is anything but holy. Jews and Palestinians live in geographical proximity, but actually in separate worlds. There is very little connection or interaction between Jews and Palestinians. Between the two sides, one finds ignorance and prejudice, resentment, fear, and hostility. Furthermore, Jews have all the power, and Palestinians suffer from deep institutional neglect and discrimination. People are dying every day because of these conditions. 

For 33 years, I had lived my life there in the Holy Land, but I’d never had real contact with a Palestinian. For me, they were like the gray drab scenery that passes in the background of the movie, my movie, but they’re not part of the plot. They were transparent, or I was blind. I lived as if my story, my Jewish story, was the only story in the land. There was no other story nor other people. Today I know better. After nine and a half years of deep and difficult, painful and productive, challenging and cathartic interactions with my Palestinian neighbors, I know that there are two peoples, two stories in the Holy Land. And to live your life as if there is only one story is to mistake part of the truth for the whole truth. And to do that is very close to falsehood, and I don’t want to be there any longer. 

After nine and a half, about nine and a half years ago, I helped to found Roots, the Israeli-Palestinian grassroots initiative for understanding nonviolence and transformation. Roots created something almost unheard of, a joint Palestinian Jewish community center where local people from the two sides come together almost every day for social, educational, and religious activities. These include photography workshops, music workshops, trauma therapy, interfaith dialogue and study, Jewish and Muslim religious celebrations, playback theater, learning the other’s culture, religion, lifestyle, women’s group, children’s group, youth groups, summer camps, political discussions, etc. 

We also focus on community activism, trying to make Palestinian lives better on the ground by focusing on legal issues, freedom of movement, sewage, building rights, etc. 90 % of the thousands of Israeli Jews and Palestinians who come to our programs have never, ever met the other side. They come with their anger and their fear, with their prejudice and traumas from lives lived in the shadow of violence and attacks. The first thing that happens in our programs is humanization of the other. He or she turns out not to be the demon that we imagined. We discover human beings on the other side. We are surprised that they’re human and we’re often embarrassed that we’re surprised, but we’re still surprised. 

Humanization is difficult. 

At the beginning, cognitive dissonance is created and then unsettling empathy. The process begins almost immediately, but it takes a long, long time to sink in. But that is not the end of it. There’s a second level, which is the recognition of the national identity of the other side. Israeli Jews and Palestinians by and large construct their identities upon the erasure of the other side’s identity. Both sides think they can tell the other side who they are. The Israeli Jews say there’s no such thing as Palestinians. There never was a Palestinian state. You’re just an Arab, so go back to Saudi Arabia who came from. And the Palestinians say that the Quran greatly respects Judaism, but it’s a religion, it’s a faith, it’s not a people, so go back to Eastern Europe where you came from. But after you listen to the other side tell their stories week after week, and month after month, you begin to realize that you know nothing of who they are. You have to listen, and it’s so so hard to listen, and let them tell you who they are, and they may listen when you tell who you are. 

The Jewish Israelis, Palestinians, and Roots have learned that there is such a thing as the Palestinian people, and there is such a thing as the land of Palestine, and Palestinians belong to Palestine. The Palestinian participants and Roots have learned that there is such a thing as the Jewish people, and there is such a thing in the land of Israel, and the Jews belong to the land of Israel. 

And here now is the most excruciatingly difficult, the most gut-wrenching, the most ostensibly traitorous thing. The borders of the historical land of Israel, and the borders of historical Palestine are the exact same borders. Both peoples belong to the same piece of land, and no one is leaving, no people is going anywhere. Our message is that both Jews and Palestinians belong to the same land. We must both recognize the other side’s identity, and the other side’s belonging to the land. We must find a way to fit two peoples into one land, and the way to do that is to first fit two truths into one heart. 

According to our understanding, the political conflict between the Jewish Israelis and the Palestinians is at its core a conflict over identity. In order to solve the conflict we must recognize, we must overcome our hubris of exclusivity, and learn to accept and and recognize the other side’s identity and their rootedness in the land. Through our grassroots people-to-people peacebuilding, 

Roots is preparing the human hearts for a future political settlement founded on equality, freedom, human rights, dignity, and security for both peoples in that little strip of land that we both call home. 

Thank you. Peace be upon you.

Khaled Abu Awwad

I’m Khaled Abu Awwad. I’m also one of the founders of Roots. We came from a country, we call it Palestine, they call it Israel, God call it the Holy Land. I love the name, the Holy Land. From there we came Muslim, Christian and Jewish together as a partner, as a brother to spread the message of peace to everyone in this world that the peace can be, can happen in our area. 

I’m a son of a refugee Palestinian family. The story of my family with this conflict starts since 1948. 1948, we became a refugee family. Me and my brothers, we grown with many questions. Why we are refugees? Where’s our land? Where’s my father? My grandfather’s house. Israel took it. It’s our main enemy. They have no right here. With this we grown. 

1987, the first Intifada. We, as a Palestinian family, became part of the leadership of the Intifada against Israel. And this is close to all of us to be arrested by Israel. 1993, the day that the peace agreement has been signed between us, the Palestinian, and the Israel State. We, the Awad’s family, my family, we accept and we support the agreement. For us, the agreement is that we are two people who have been fighting, and till we sign the peace agreement, now we should close the page of fighting what’s happened, happened. And we should open a new page, a new page that we all live together, side by side, in peace in the Holy Land. This is how we understand the peace. So, we decide to stop all our peace, our activities, political activities, and waiting for the peace to be achieved by our leaders until 2000. 

In 2000, when my brother Yusuf, about 31 years old, had been killed by the Israel Army, the first reaction that we said, we ask, where’s the peace? This is not what we are waiting for. We are waiting to live in peace with each other. Why my brother had been killed? What’s happened? What did he do? And where’s the peace? The story of my brother Yusuf challenged us, like, you have to decide now. Are you going to continue supporting the peace? Are you going back to revenge? What’s your decision? It’s a serious examination for our humanity. 

I’m happy that our decision after a long discussion inside my family, and we are a very Palestinian, serious family, we decide that the one who killed my brother, he don’t know him personally. My brother Yusef, whatever the name of this soldier, they don’t know each other personally. They met with two identity, the Palestinian identity, the Israel -Jewish identity. And this is what make the argue and what cause this violence, how we can change this, how we can have peace. 

The final decision, we said that the peace cannot be achieved by signing a paper. The peace is a process of change inside us. Without this, we will not, without this, we will not have peace. Since that day until now, we as a Palestinian family put all our effort, all our power in our society to allow people from both sides, Palestinian and Israel, to meet each other, not as enemy, not to argue. A meeting based in respect and dignity, listening to each other and together as a partner, trying to find the way to go out of this circle of hatred and violence that took from us a high price from the life of our sons, from our blood, from our happiness, from our future and our generations’ future. This is what we are believing and doing.

Thank you. 

Khalil Sayegh

Good afternoon. 1948, the State of Israel was born. Born, and as a result of the war of creation of Israel, more than 700,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed. One of these families that were forced to leave their homes and cities were my grandparents’ family.

Before 1948, they lived in a city called Mejdel, located in the southern part of Israel, Palestine, today within the border of Israel. In ‘48, they were forced to leave their homes, moving to the Gaza Strip, and they lost their right for their property, they lost their right to return to their cities, and they lost their homes. They lost everything. And I was born to a family in the Gaza Strip, a refugee family that has inherited this trauma of Nakba, of what happened in ‘48. And being born to such a family that suffered in ‘48, what happened, and that are still suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation, has been very formative of my childhood. In Gaza, I never met an Israeli, and I never met a Jew, but I’ve always heard about what I’ve done to my family in 1948, about the destruction of our city, about the confiscation of our property. And these were very real things that affected our social, economical situation in Gaza.

I never met an Israeli, and I never met a Jew, but I felt the destruction and I witnessed the death of the Israeli air forces bombing the Gaza Strip. Living in such a context of total separation, occupation, and subversion, one cannot think of the other as a human being, and how can one do such a thing? And one cannot see the other even worse as a partner for peace. How can it be when all these things are happening? I’ve always told myself, these are my enemies. I cannot see them, but as my enemy. And it’s my destiny to pick up arms and fight them until we liberate Palestine, until the last one of them would leave this country because of what happened for us in ‘48 and what is still happening to us today. 

However, it was the words of our Lord Jesus Christ that challenged me to take a step out of my comfort zone.

The gospel of Matthew says, “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecuted you.” Taking these words seriously and taking my faith seriously has pushed me to meet Israel for the first time in my life.  And has pushed me to not only talk to them and get to know them in my own context and in my own lens, but trying to see them as they are. 

Meeting and engaging in dialogue with Israeli Jews has not only turned me to a beast activist who seek peace between Israelis and Palestinians and who still seek the liberation of the Palestinian people, but to understand the other side as they understand themselves, not how I understand them. It also taught me the importance of not disconnecting our interfaith dialogue from temporarily matters.

Yes, as people of faith, we should be discussing things of God, things upon which we agree and we disagree. But moreover, we are also citizens of earthly kingdoms, and most of our conflicts emerge from these earthly kingdoms or over these earthly kingdoms. 

Today in the Holy Land, Christian Muslims and Jews are striving for better religious dialogue. We are searching for a ground of commonality and for ways to disagree peacefully and respectfully. 

Today in the Holy Land, religion is being used by radicals to isolate the other and to exclude the other. The Jewish supremacist ideology that leads some members of the cabinet in Israel has left left no room for anyone but the Jewish people in Israel. As the Minister of Finance, Mr. Smotryj have clearly stated in his decisive plan that Palestinians have no room in this land unless they accept the Jewish supremacy. They either will be expelled or killed but they cannot be equal. But it even gets worse. It’s not only Palestinians are targeted today within the Holy Land but any religious minority between the rivers and the sea.

Yes, the current situation should alarm us to the severe danger. However, it should also encourage us to act quickly to save religion from those extremists who have ejected. That’s why I support the work of roots, where we’re bringing Palestinians and Israelis to each other but especially we’re bringing religious people, traditionalist people who have more tendency towards extremism. It’s only through bringing them together and showing them the other side as they are and broader their understanding of each other and increasing the spirit of tolerance that this is possible.

Lastly, in the grave of injustice and danger happening today in Israel and Palestine let us keep our hope for peace and reconciliation. Let’s demand that there will be into the Israeli occupation and oppression and let us demand that there will be democracy for everyone, Israelis and Palestinians. 

Thank you.

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