Where Palestinians and Settlers Meet as Equals

Inspired by the maverick Rabbi Menachem Froman, Ali Abu Awwad and Shaul Judelman established Roots, a wooden shack in the West Bank where a large slice of hope is served with the coffee.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Shaul Judelman and Ali Abu Awwad in the West Bank, in a scene from 'A Third Way – Settlers and Palestinians as Neighbors.'Credit: Harvey Stein
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

Somewhere on a little piece of farmland in the West Bank, wedged between a cluster of Jewish settlements in the Gush Etzion bloc, there is a small wooden shack where unlikely friendships are blossoming. Here, Palestinians and settlers are defying the expectations and meeting as equals, with hopes for a better future.

The key players are Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian from Beit Ummar (near Hebron), and Shaul Judelman, an Israeli who grew up in the United States and moved to Israel 14 years ago, spending much of that time in settlements: first to Bat Ayin and, a few months ago, to Tekoa.

The story of what brought them together runs through Tekoa, which was home to Rabbi Menachem Froman (who died two years ago this Friday according to the Hebrew calendar). The out-of-the-box rabbi practiced what he preached: dialogue and connection with his neighbors. He even held meetings with Hamas figures, with whom he found it possible to talk from one religious person to another. The most avid supporters of Froman’s mission and message were bereft when the mystic with the long, white beard passed away in March 2013, following a long struggle with cancer.

The story of his work in the last five years of his life, and an examination of the legacy he left behind, is the narrative that runs through a new documentary, “A Third Way – Settlers and Palestinians as Neighbors” directed by Harvey Stein. Stein, who moved to Israel from New York close to a decade ago, first met Froman in late 2008 to make a small film about him, and was taken with the way he was building bridges in a place full of disconnect.

“I immediately fell in love with him for several qualities he had,” recalls Stein. “He was totally irreverent. I remember him asking me once, ‘What’s a settler?’ Then he made his hand like a claw and went grrr.” In other words, monstrous. “He was able to hold contradictions. He’d say, 'I love my neighbors. My Jewish tradition told me to love my neighbors, and so I do.'”

Froman would sometimes go to great lengths to show that love, something mainstream settlement leaders - and your average Israeli - would consider extreme (or at least bizarre). In one surreal scene captured on film, Froman visits a West Bank mosque that was torched and vandalized by settlers, who also spray-painted insulting messages about the Prophet Mohammed on the walls. Wearing his kippa and tefillin (phylacteries), as he is leaving the mosque Froman stands on the stairs and calls out repeatedly to the Palestinians waiting below, “Allahu Akbar!”

One of them was Ali Abu Awwad. Raised in a politically active family in Beit Ummar, he was a teenager during the first intifada and jailed twice by Israel for stone-throwing. However, after losing his brother to the conflict, he decided to embrace nonviolence and became one of the pivotal members of the Bereaved Families Forum, speaking locally and internationally with Israelis who have lost loved ones, and demanding that both peoples turn a new page.

Many Palestinians who quietly started coming to meetings organized by Froman and his Hasidic followers were impressed by the fact Froman met with Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza in 1998 – as well as Yasser Arafat.

In recent years, though, Awwad grew frustrated with talking only to left-wing Israelis he’d meet at various peace-activist gatherings. “For me, talking to right-wing settlers rather than talking to nice Tel Avivians is the real work. What prevents us from having rights are not the left-wing camp in Tel Aviv. It’s the right wing in the settlements,” Abu Awwad says over a thick coffee in Roots, the center he is establishing with Judelman, Froman’s widow, Hadassah, and several other Israeli and Palestinian activists.

Abu Awwad first met Froman and his wife some seven years ago at Sulha, a gathering of Arabs and Jews whose name is based on the traditional Arab form of reconciliation between sparring parties (such as disputes between families). Abu Awwad liked what Froman had to say but not where he lived. “I told him, 'You’re here trying to talk about peace and reconciliation, but you’re a settler and for me what you’re doing doesn’t make any sense. You’re doing propaganda for settlers, and your physical presence there is preventing us from reaching a solution,'” recalls Abu Awwad.

Froman’s answer was to joke and tease, and then invite Abu Awwad to his house. Despite some reservations, Abu Awwad accepted the invite.

“He wanted to give a religious answer,” says Abu Awwad. “He has created an alternative, saying that land doesn’t belong to anyone – we belong to the land, and so we have to respect the people who live on it.”

Abu Awwad at some point met Judelman, an environmentalist with tangles of long hair that form peyot that could almost pass for dreadlocks. Judelman was a kind of disciple of Froman’s, and what struck him about Abu Awwad was that he was “really listening. And to me, one of the big things lacking in this conflict is listening.”

Meanwhile, an American clergyman also got involved in trying to help Awwad and Judelman build a grassroots peace movement. That man is John Moyle, pastor of missions and social justice at the Oakbrook Church in Reston, Virginia. “He’s coming from a spiritual language – that we are all children of Abraham, and that is such a different framing of the conflict,” says Judelman.

Going public

In January 2014, they decided to found a movement with a do-it-yourself shack, on land owned by Abu Awwad’s family. Since then they’ve been holding meetings at people’s homes around the West Bank – bringing together Israeli settlers and Palestinians. They’ve kept Roots quiet until now, preferring to work out of the limelight. They are currently going public with a speaking and fundraising tour in the United States.

Their message will get a good reception abroad, but it's a harder sell closer to home. “Being called nave is a nice criticism,” Judelman jokes, when asked how some of his fellow settlers see him. “Calling you a traitor or worse – well, you can go from there on. But what’s the alternative? Do we resign ourselves to hatred? This is a project about connecting local people. Listening to most of the plans of the right and the left across Israel, I’m still waiting to hear of a project that is cocreated with Palestinians.”

Most left-wing Israelis with similar dreams of peace and coexistence always ask the same question: If he’s so interested in solving the conflict, why not move back inside the Green Line? Judelman says that’s not the solution.

“We’re past the era of massive population transfers,” he says, noting the expectation that, in any peace agreement, large settlement blocs such as Gush Etzion would be annexed to Israel. “We’re not involved in a political plan – we deal with human beings and breaking down stereotypes. But it can’t be about separation. It has to be about connection,” he adds, noting that the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information proposal released several months ago involves aspects of this thinking.

Stein’s film about their efforts will premiere at various events in the United States in late spring and summer; this will involve showing the film at events organized by synagogues, churches and mosques. Though he will also enter the film into festivals, Stein says his main goal is “impact distribution” – showing the 90-minute film to mixed audiences, followed by a discussion.

Almost seven years after he started the film, Stein says it’s fitting that it is only finished now, when it could have a “happy ending.” (An earlier effort at an Israeli-Palestinian alliance based on Froman’s teachings failed.) “Ali and Shaul and Hadassah were able to overcome the obstacles that [the others] could not," says Stein. "They really regard each other as equals.”