It started with a question at a Shabbat meal. “Have you ever spent time with a Palestinian?” I was presenting my personal perspective on the Middle East conflict and the questioner, who is not Jewish, was sincere. Responding in the negative, I volunteered that it was something I needed to do. In the Torah, we are enjoined over 30 times to love the ger (the other), as we were the other in Egypt. The first step to love is listening, before knowing.
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The opportunity presented itself recently with a trip to Bethlehem, sponsored by Encounter, over the Fast of Esther and the following day. Including Israeli citizens, the visit was limited to Areas B & C, which are under Israeli military control. The experience was not presented as a dialogue, but as an opportunity to listen to the other’s narrative. There were explicit communication guidelines, but we were still strongly encouraged to come with questions.
Over the course of the first day, with limited outdoor activities due to heavy rain, we spent most of our time inside, hearing from speakers. As each one related his/her story, I was moved. But in listening, my Israeli kop (hard head) at some point began filtering, presenting the other side to me, dismissing unsubstantiated facts, hearing an economic or political justification, intermixed with the narrative. The speakers were careful not to overplay the victim card, but it was still there, face up on the table.
It was mid-afternoon, when during any other fast day I’d be napping, that, after hearing from two of three speakers on a Personal Narratives panel, I was challenged, as I really had hoped to be, by a Palestinian activist for peace through non-violence, Ali Abu Awwad. Ali grew up in Halhoul, Hevron Governorate in a politically active family. His mother was a role model for him. Ali became a member of Fatah and was subsequently arrested and convicted of throwing Molotov cocktails, stones and being part of a military cell. He refused to cut a deal by informing on his mother and was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served four years and was released after the Oslo Accords were signed.
On October 20, 2000, eight days after two Israeli soldiers were lynched and murdered by Palestinians in Ramallah, Ali was shot in the knee by a person in a car who hospital workers said had been involved in two other drive-by shootings of Palestinians. After returning from a lengthy recuperation in Saudi Arabia, Ali learned that his older brother, Yousef, had been shot in the head and killed by an Israeli soldier.
Ali’s relationship with his brother was extremely close. How does one deal with such a loss and the impossible pain? Too often, our mutual Israeli and Palestinian tragic narratives are such that the survivor, consumed by rage at the enemy, dies inside along with the victim.
Instead of following what would have been the natural path that he was on, Ali found another way; that of reconciliation and complete rejection of violence as an alternative.
Ali met Robi Damelin, a 65-year-old Israeli grandmother whose son David, while serving in the Israel Defense Forces, was killed by a Palestinian sniper two years after Yousef, Ali’s brother. The connection, which blossomed into a close friendship, was made through Parents Circle, an organization that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost immediate members of their family in the conflict. Ali and Robi have since traveled the world together, sharing their story.
Recently, Ali started an initiative with like-minded Israelis, called Leading Leaders for Peace. The approach, according to its website, is non-violence with “actions that demonstrate our determination to seek a better life and future for both Palestinians and Israelis. We may not have all the answers, but we have a dream of achieving peace, freedom, dignity, and security for all.” One of their projects is A Joint Silent Walk for Peace and Non-Violence in the Middle East, which will take place on March 28 in Tel Aviv.
Ali also has a book, “Painful Hope,” which is about to be published in Arabic, English and Hebrew. He promises it will deal with issues not confronted before concerning reconciliation and non-violence.
One week later, I spoke with Ali by cell phone as he was traveling in the West Bank. He told me more about why he chose his path and from where he draws hope for the future.
“I have chosen non-violence because I didn’t want to be a victim of pain. I needed to find a way to deal with suffering and create hope,” Ali told me, “I believe politically, that non-violence is the best way for Palestinians to achieve their freedom. Our greatest enemy is the fear that Israelis harbor.”
“Reconciliation is very complex. Both sides need to stop a competition of suffering and believing themselves as the only victims,” he continued, “To reconcile is to start life over, to draw a line in the sand and move forward. Suffering on both sides can’t be erased, but we can choose not to be defined by the crimes of the past. There are two steps, two levels on the path; knowing and then understanding.”
As we move from Purim to Passover, may we remember that the purpose of our slavery in Egypt was to know what it means to suffer. It’s part of our Jewish DNA to take that knowledge and then to empathize. Knowing, as Ali said, leads to understanding, and then, as our Torah teaches, to loving the other. Salaam, shalom, peace, if we allow ourselves the permission to dream, can sprout forth from the ground, one relationship at a time.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.