Roots: Update from Israel (May 2015)

On a warm sunny day, we made a right turn at the busy intersection where three Jewish boys were kidnapped and murdered this summer, passed the IDF outpost and the new supermarket where Jews and Palestinians shop together, made a right turn down a bumpy dirt road, and then walked a short distance to a shack in the middle of a field in the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. We were there to meet with Shaul Judelman and Ali Abu Awaad at Roots, a center for non-violent peace building in the heart of one of the world’s tensest areas.

Shaul Judelman, literally translated from an old country language as ‘Shaul a Jewish man,’ was born in Seattle to South African parents. He moved to Israel before the second intifada began in 2000, just as the powder keg was about to explode. He describes his first few years in Israel as a mikveh of fire, a trying test to see if he was really willing to throw his lot in with the Jewish people in Israel. He studied at various yeshivas and with the lateRabbi Menachem Froman and his disciples in Tekoa. Rabbi Froman is well known in the West Bank as an early and committed settler, and an honest, spiritual, courageous, and adventurous peace builder. He met with everyone. When Hamas’ then leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin was in Israeli prison, Rabbi Froman visited him often. They would talk for 15 minutes and praise God together for 45 minutes. Sheikh Yassin once told Rabbi Froman, ‘Your heretics and my heretics will never negotiate peace, but you and I could do it in an hour.’

Shaul sees the Palestinians as a hevrutah partner, study partners who help each other discover the full richness of a text. Just like how hevrutah partners can disagree on interpretations and can see the same text in two very different ways, both are the words of the living God. Just like how Israelis and Palestinians can hold such different narratives about the same land, both are dear truths and must be respected.

For Shaul, Roots helps people see the face of the other. He cited the French Jewish scholarEmmanuel Levinas’ thought that seeing a human face orders and ordains us into giving and serving the other. Forming compassionate connections is key to Roots’ work. One project of theirs creates a network of respected community leaders in each village, Jewish and Palestinian, to serve as ambassadors when tensions flare. Another project brings kids from both sides together for summer camp and after school activities. Roots also has language learning programs, a women’s group, and meetings between families. But some of their most impactful work is unstructured and anecdotal. A few months ago, Ali set up a phone call between an Israeli General and the leader of an Islamist terrorist group in the West Bank. Not too long ago, Shaul introduced a Palestinian farmer who was being harassed by Jewish teenagers to the security chief of the teenagers’ settlement. Now, when the kids come to throw rocks at him, the farmer directly calls the Jewish security chief and he disciplines his village’s kids. Ali and Shaul both like to quote Malcolm X: “What is justice? It’s just us.”

We asked Ali, wearing a Friends of the Earth Middle East shirt, what his ideal political solution is. He said that it is not a full divorce and not a full marriage. That the Jews and the Palestinians would each have a state, because both need to feel in charge, but there would be federal neighborhoods and connections that bound the two together. Shaul commented that peace now often means a separation, that the two warring nations each need their own space, a time out in their own fiercely independent states. Ali said that peace is sometimes a frightening word for people in the West Bank because it can mean forced separation. Shaul noted that the bible happened in the West Bank: In Bethlehem, Hebron, Shechem, and Jerusalem, and not on the Israel side of the green line in Tel Aviv, Rishon L’tzion, or Raanana. And the Palestine in the Palestinian narrative includes Haifa, Jaffa, Acco, Lydda, and Ramle, cities along the coast. When I saw Ali at Roots on Thursday morning, he told a group of American gap year students that the future of the Jewish people is also in the West Bank. Ali and Shaul agreed that peace cannot be a full separation, and they are doing the work to bring the warring spouses together. Shaul says they are environmentalists working for climate change.

I asked Shaul who funds their work. He said that Roots is less than a year and a half old and is just starting to pull together a funding network and submit grant proposals, so he hasn’t been paid since December. Ali and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger will be travelling to the States soon to raise awareness and funds. For more information, click here.

Roots is within view of a ring of Jewish settlements that surround the Palestinian village of Khalid Zachariyah. I’ve visited the village, named after the biblical prophet Zechariah, three times with Encounter since December and most recently last Friday morning while facilitating a gap year trip. Abu Ibrahim, a leader in the village, told us how impossible it is to get building permits from the Israeli military for the village. Most residents live in corrugated iron roofed shacks, the mosque has remained half-built for years, and the constant threat of demolition hovers over the small and illegally built school building. From the top of the unfinished mosque, a 360 degree view shows a ring of Jewish settlements with modern buildings and impressive yeshivas. Some of the gap year students who study at these yeshivas told me the janitors and cooks live in Khalid Zachariyah. Someone always asks Abu Ibrahim this question, ‘Would you like to be part of Israel if it meant full and equal rights as a citizen?’ Every time he answers yes.

On Monday morning, we met three settlers in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, not too far from Roots and Khalid Zachariyah and in view of King Herod’s tomb. One was a software engineer and art gallery owner born in the former Soviet Union, one was a native Israeli teacher, and one was an American born agricultural business owner who was the closest thing I have ever seen to a Jewish cowboy, complete with a long sleeve plaid shirt and a sidearm sticking out of his jeans. Each had lived in Tekoa for a significant amount of their lives, enough to lay down roots and feel at home.

Oren, the American, likened Israel to an abused child who can either blame himself for being abused, or can realize that the abuse is not his fault. He said the problem is not with Israel. There is nobody to make peace with. Natanel, the educator, said that the Israeli left thinks we have a choice, that we can do something to make peace, but it is not in our hands. All three agreed that we are not in a position for conflict resolution, but are in a time of painful conflict management. I asked what they thought of something I heard Ali say, ‘Peace will come when Palestinians abandon anger as an identity, and when Jews abandon fear as an ideology.’ I touched a nerve. The three settlers reacted emotionally, quickly saying that they are not afraid and are not ruled by fear. They rattled off what they are not afraid of: Isis, Hamas, Hezbollah, and all the other threats to them. Bella, the software engineer, said the leftists in Tel Aviv are the fearful ones, because they don’t live in the West Bank and are too afraid to even come visit the West Bank.

Oren spoke longingly for years past, when he could hike from village to village to the Dead Sea, when he could go into Arab villages and welcome Arabs into his. This interaction is not legal anymore, and the separation is suffocating. A few months ago, I met with a settler in Hebron who echoed this pain. Since the Oslo treaty divided the West Bank into three separate spheres of sovereignty in 1994 and the second intifada hardened these quasi-borders, he can no longer enter the 97% of the city that is not Jewish to shop and visit friends. He lamented his isolation from his neighbors. Peace, for him, did not mean a piece of the city, but coexistence as equals.

On Thursday afternoon, I sat in on a panel of three young Palestinian activists outside Bethlehem. One speaker, Fadi, talked about the power imbalance in the conflict. He logically laid out how the economic, military, social, and diplomatic power balances are greatly in Israel’s favor. They are not equal, so he does not approach Israel as an equal. Another speaker, Woroud Abu Awaad (Ali’s niece), seemed to disregard all of Fadi’s evidence, and she stubbornly claimed that she approaches Israelis as equals. I asked her how this is possible, and she answered, ‘I am a human and I know my rights and worth as a human.’