On Wednesday March 14, American-Israeli Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Palestinian activist Shadi Abu Awwad spoke before a packed audience of 150 people at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland. The event, titled “Other to Brother,” was part of a grassroots initiative led by Roots/Shorashim/Judur, an organization that fosters dialogue between Jews and Palestinians living in the West Bank.
Rabbi Schlesinger left New York 33 years ago as a teenager to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel). He and his wife eventually ended up in Gush Etzion, a cluster of 22 Israeli settlements south of Jerusalem in the West Bank.
The rabbi shared that he lives within the Green Line, a distinction which separates Israel’s 1948 borders from those drawn in 1967 for reasons that are historical and not political, he said. The West Bank is where the Jewish people were born from the time of Abraham and Sarah, he said; it is where the Bible was written and most of the Jewish prophets lived, while the cities on the western side of Israel such as Haifa and Jaffa were inhabited by Philistines.
Rabbi Schlesinger believes that the West Bank is integral to Jewish history and identity. “I wanted to be in the center of it, where it all began,” he said.
Rabbi Schlesinger saw Palestinians every day as he drove past hitchhikers and checkpoints on his way home. Like many Jewish settlers, though, Rabbi Schlesinger had never met any of his Palestinian neighbors despite living in an area where Palestinians outnumber Jews nine to one.
“I was blind, and they were invisible ... They weren’t supposed to be there, so they weren’t there. For me, the Palestinians for 33 years were like the gray drab scenery that passes in the background of the movie but is not part of the plot. They were like the background noise on the radio that you try to get rid of looking for your station,” the rabbi said.
Seeking to remedy what he said felt “rotten,” Rabbi Schlesinger went to Merkaz Kerama, a center near Gush Etzion where Palestinians and Jews meet and talk to foment understanding on both sides. The rabbi spoke to a Palestinian young man named Shadi Abu Awwad, whose family members were injured or killed by Israeli soldiers, and for the first time, Rabbi Schlesinger began to understand Palestinians’ pain and fear under what they see as illicit Israeli occupation.
Awwad described meeting Rabbi Schlesinger at Merkaz Kerama four years ago, not long after Israeli doctors saved Awwad’s brother’s life. His brother had been heckling Israeli soldiers until one of the soldiers shot him. To Awwad’s surprise, his brother was grateful to the Israeli doctors who saved his life and urged Awwad to meet Jews at Merkaz Kerama.
As he spoke to the audience at Har Shalom, Awwad stated that the Palestinians’ problems were not limited to the Jews who were building settlements in the West Bank, but to Jews anywhere within Israel because Palestinians had been displaced from cities such as Haifa and Tel Aviv as well. He also talked about Palestinian refugees hoping to return to the land they also call home.
Jewish settlers and Palestinians typically do not communicate out of fear that the other will harm them, and both Rabbi Schlesinger and Awwad cited fear and delusion as major hindrances to the peace process.
From their meetings at Merkaz Kerama, Rabbi Schlesinger and Awwad have found that they share a common objective of increasing talks and understanding between people on both sides.
Awwad and Schlesinger support candid, face-to-face interactions between Palestinian and Israeli citizens — something they feel is often lacking in larger-scale political or administrative efforts to achieve peace.