Jewish settler, Palestinian activist make an unlikely pair

Shadi Abu Awwad, left, and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger have sought a people-to-people solution to the conflicting narratives of two people on one land with their organization, Roots. (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

Two Christian pastors had come to visit Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger at Alon Shvut, the Israeli settlement where he lived, and he was giving them a tour of the area. As they drove, he picked up one hitchhiker and dropped him off and then another. The pastors commented on how friendly and helpful he was. Schlesinger told them that people of this region take care of each other and that he picked up every hitchhiker he saw.

“But then, just like that, I realized I was lying,” he told an audience at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac. He didn’t pick up all hitchhikers. He just picked up the Israeli ones.

Schlesinger, an Israeli settler who describes himself as “right wing,” went on to found an organization called Roots. His partner in Roots and on this U.S. tour is Shadi Abu Awwad, a Palestinian activist, whose West Bank village Beit Ummar is about a half hour from Schlesinger’s.

Their politics makes them unlikely comrades. So they have sought a people-to-people solution to the narratives of two people on one land. They take Israeli and Palestinian children on day trips together, to explore the history of both the Jews and the Palestinians. They have a center where Palestinians and Israelis can meet and mingle. They told their audience of 150 people on March 14 that they want to set the groundwork, so that when a political solution comes, the two peoples will be ready to accept it.

For the New York-born Schlesinger, living in the West Bank, a place directly out of the Jewish texts, is profound.

“My Jewish identity is bound up with that little piece of land on the map before you,” he said. “Why do I live there? I live there not for political reasons, but for historical ones.”

But that ride with the two pastors made him realize that he had lived on the West Bank for 33 years without meeting a Palestinian. So he decided to try. A friend brought him to an interfaith event.

“And I had a sense that the overwhelming power of my Jewish identity had blinded me to another story,” he said. In that story, the Palestinians “weren’t supposed to be there, so they were invisible. Our [Jewish] identities are based on the nullification of the other’s identity.”

For Abu Awwad, it was his anger that blinded him to Israelis’ humanity. Life under Israeli military occupation makes it difficult to hold nuanced views about Israelis as people, he said.

“I am 27 years old, but I am a 27-year old Palestinian,” he said. “It means I am 27 years under occupation. It means that this life will force you to grow up at a very young age.”

Abu Awwad’s uncle was killed by an Israeli soldier. When his brother was treated in an Israeli hospital, Abu Awwad considered not visiting. When he did, he ignored the Israeli doctor. His brother took him to task: That doctor saved my life. Show her respect.

“So what does it mean?” Abu Awwad asked himself after that encounter. “I hate all Israelis except that one doctor? That’s stupid.”

It was another two years before he agreed to go to a meeting between Israelis and Palestinians. What he heard from both sides, was “I don’t want to suffer anymore,” he said. Now, he sees the situation in shades of gray.

“I am OK to live with [the Israelis],” he said. “But I will never accept the occupation. I am against the settlements, but I am not against the people who live there.”

Abu Awwad is often asked why he even bothers talking to rightwing Israelis like Schlesinger. Aren’t leftwingers who support a Palestinian state and the end of the occupation his natural allies? He tells them: You can’t go around the problem, he said. You have to go to the heart of it.

“What’s controlling the conflict right now is we’re afraid of each other,” he said. “None of us is going anywhere.”

Two questions from the audience illustrated the size of the gap that Schlesinger and Abu Awwad are trying to bridge.

A woman who identified herself as a Palestinian journalist raised in Egypt and with a Jordanian passport asked Schlesinger: How, when she is strip searched and humiliated by the Israeli embassy when trying to gain a visa for travel to Jerusalem, can there ever be trust enough on either side?

“I just want to express my disappointment and sadness that you and so many other Palestinians have to suffer because of us,” he told her.

Another woman, who said she would be turning 90 in a year and a half, asked why the Palestinians call the land “occupied” when it had been given to the Jews by the British.

“I would like to make a distinction between the occupation of the land and of the people,” Schlesinger said. “There is no question that the Palestinian people are living under military occupation.”

Abu Awwad went further. What you are saying is fact, he told the woman, except for one thing: “What they gave, they did not own.”

Peace requires constant work, the two said.

“Listen until it hurts and then listen some more,” Schlesinger said. “It’s really hard work to listen to the other. But you have to do it.”

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