Seeing the Enemy, Pointing to Peace
Recognizing Each Other’s Humanity
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger is a “Zionist settler” who lives in Gush Etzion. Ali Abu Awwad spent four years in an Israeli prison for belonging to a terrorist group. One would expect these two to be natural sworn enemies.
Yet they have become close friends and co-founders of a peace effort known as the “Roots Project.” The basic idea is to challenge people on both sides to see beyond their learned perceptions and to recognize the humanity of the other.
The story of these two men shows above all the ambiguity of this conflict, and how unproductive it is to idealize one side and demonize the other. It makes us realize that peace can only come when we are willing to accept and embrace this ambiguity.
Ali Abu Awwad’s story
“I have paid the price all my life,” says Ali Abu Awwad. “I wanted to give up being a victim. Do I want to be right or do I want to succeed?”
Awwad’s transformation was not an easy one. Born in 1972 to a family whose members were displaced during the war for Israeli independence, Awwad grew up knowing only the occupation.
“I grew up in a very difficult reality. I would go to school every day, and I never expected to come home. I didn’t think I was capable of coming home. You run into soldiers in the street, with gunfire, with rocks, and all these things only make you more angry. To you, the other side seems like the devil incarnate. All it does is attack you. You don’t think of the other side at all; you’re blind.”
Awwad was affected by another ambiguity of the conflict very early. His mother was a recruiter for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a group that rejected Israel’s existence and was responsible for numerous attacks against Israeli civilians. Yet she was his mother. When he was 10 years old, Awwad’s anger intensified when he saw Israeli security agents beating her; she also spent time in Israeli prisons. Seven years later the First Intifada arrived, and Awwad became one of the rock throwers. He was later arrested for terrorist activity and given a 10-year sentence. Awwad says the real reason he was jailed was for refusing to reveal information about what his mother was doing.
“Once again I felt the sting of injustice. I had dreams, and I had plans for my life. I wanted to travel abroad, to study. I wanted to be a pilot, which for a Palestinian is crazy – I don’t even have a passport. But I lost my dreams, I lost my rights, and I was going to spend 10 years in the same room, in prison.”
Awwad discovered nonviolence after going on a hunger strike so that he could see his mother, who was imprisoned at another location. His visit was granted.
“That was the first time I got something out of the Israelis. But what had more of an impact was the way I had behaved in order to demand my rights: the nonviolent action of engaging in a hunger strike, instead of wielding physical violence. And it dawned on me that maybe there was another way to demand one’s rights – although I didn’t turn into a Gandhi or a Mandela. I realized that my people could gain a lot more by going down that path than by using violence.”
After the Oslo peace agreement was signed, Awwad continued his opposition to violence as a member of the Palestinian security forces.
“Suddenly I had to work against the people I was once associated with, the people who had fought against Israel. So I arrested Palestinians who used violence; I arrested them and interrogated them because I supported the accords and was convinced that it was the right thing to do, to live up to the agreements we had signed. On the other hand, we weren’t able to bring the people to a place where they would define violence as a crime. Violence was still seen as revolutionary action against the occupier. The Palestinians hadn’t been given a state, and the extremists used that fact to prove that there was no peace with the Israelis.”
Awwad found himself in an awkward position. Palestinian participants in the Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation were – and are – seen as collaborators. So he quit the security forces in 1997, when suicide attacks against the Israeli population were escalating. Three years later, during the bloody Second Intifada, things happened to Awwad that pointed him towards his destiny.
On a day in October 2000 Awwad stopped on the shoulder of a road not far from Hebron to change a tire. A settler driving by shot him from his car. Awwad was seriously hurt; his knee had been shattered. He spent weeks in treatment in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. During that time he received more shocking news.
As Awwad now tells it, his older brother Youssef found a group of young Palestinians throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers near the entrance to his village. He yelled at them to stop. The children did so out of respect for him. Thinking the incident over, Youssef tried to drive away – but a soldier began throwing pebbles at his car.
Youssef left his car and an argument ensued. “‘Why are you trying to be a hero? Who told you to get involved?” the soldier asked him. The argument escalated, and the soldier shot Youssef in the head at near-point blank range. The commanding officer reprimanded him, but the soldier protested that Youssef tried to take away his gun.
The news filled Awwad with rage.
“When something like that happens, you’re no longer the person you once were. It’s no longer the same family; your life is no longer the same; you’re full of anger that tears you apart. I knew what it felt like to lose one’s rights, I knew what it was like to stand for hours at a time, and I had experienced abuse. But to lose someone so close… You’re wounded so deeply by it and your humanity is dashed to pieces – into anger, revenge, despair. I considered revenge. I said to myself that maybe revenge would heal my pain. But I also asked myself how many Israelis I would have to kill before I was sated. How many Israeli mothers would have to cry and taste the salt of my own mother’s tears?”
On the other side of the conflict was Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Israeli Jew whose son Arik, in the Israeli army but only 19, had been kidnapped and killed by Hamas a few years earlier. Frankenthal started a group called the Parents Circle Families Forum, whose mission is to bring together Jewish and Palestinian families who have suffered loss. He heard of Awwad’s situation and called him. He wanted to pay Awwad’s family a visit.
Awwad was overwhelmed. He said, showing exceptional empathy:
“I was shocked that such a group even existed on the other side, because they were our victims – we had killed their children. And yet, they were prepared to come visit the home of this hero [referring to his mother], who was considered the devil incarnate when it came to the struggle against Israel. I was shocked when my mother invited them to our home in Beit Ummar… and I was shocked that an Israeli would pick up the phone and ask for our consent to enter our home. Israelis had always been present in our home, but they never asked for permission…. It was the first time in my life that I saw the other side as human beings.”
Witnessing Israeli families suffering the same pain he knew and grieving their losses was a big surprise, since he had formed perceptions of Israelis as hardly human – much like the perceptions many Israelis have of Palestinians.
“An Israeli mother who had lost her son held my mother’s hand and both of them cried wordlessly. It was the first time in my life that I saw the other side as human beings. I saw different representatives of the Jewish people, of Judaism, and of Israelis. It had a huge impact on me.”
In a tragic irony of this conflict, deep grief may be necessary to break the pattern of mutual dehumanization. Neither side can possibly appreciate the way it is seen by the other – until these painful losses are allowed to bring them together. “The hate and anger keep eating at you, so you look for a solution. There can be no harmony until we [each] see the humanity of the other side.”
Awwad has been an advocate for nonviolence ever since.
Hanan Schlesinger’s story
Rabbi Schlesinger also traveled far from his origins. Born in Long Island, as a very young man he moved to the settlement of Alon Shvut, not far from the Green Line. He felt drawn to the land of Israel because of its historic and religious significance: “I wanted to live where it all began.” At first he believed, as did those who had taught him, that the land was empty and just waiting for the Jews to arrive. Later he learned that other people had been living there too. “The Palestinians are invisible. We don’t see the full reality, living in our bubble, because we want to hold on… and hope the Palestinians disappear.”
It took time for these changes to happen. It started one day when an American Protestant minister came to Schlesinger’s home to visit. The minister was on a mission, to meet Palestinians and settlers and bring them together.
“He listened to my story of biblical Zionism and of passionate connection to the rebuilding of Jewish life in the biblical heartland. He heard of my identification with our forefather Abraham, with Isaac and Jacob and with the whole panorama of Jewish history – and then he invited me to a little gathering on a Palestinian farm plot at where Palestinians and Israeli settlers might be able to begin to get to know each other.”
That experience became transformative.
“For three hours or more I chatted with them and ate with them. I looked into their faces from up close, and saw – despite my prejudices – human faces. And I heard stories that were so different from my stories, stories that created strange unfamiliar narratives from the same building blocks as my own narrative, but which I could not reject out of hand. The stories I heard – of deep connection to the land, of exile, of suffering, of humiliation, of loved one lost in the conflict – were authentic and they were real. Never before had I heard such stories. And they affected me deeply.”
Schlesinger was shocked to hear these Palestinians say they were afraid of settlers – his friends. He couldn’t believe it. For him, it was always the other way around. “You say that you are afraid of us? No, we are afraid of you!”
Then after it got dark and only a few were left, Schlesinger heard about an odd Palestinian who was trying to talk to settlers. He felt he had to find him and hear him speak.
“It was offensive, it was jarring, it was challenging, and it made me feel attacked. But he wasn’t angry, and he wasn’t full of resentment or hate. He was telling the story of his life.”
That got his attention, and the two began an ongoing dialogue. Schlesinger invited Awwad to come to his home and speak to a group of his friends. Some of them were shocked, demanding to know why Schlesinger was inviting a “terrorist” to their midst, insisting they had nothing to learn from him. But many came and listened. As Schesinger observed:
“People are not afraid to make negative comments about Palestinians; they are afraid to make positive comments about efforts toward reconciliation, even when they believe in it. There’s a general mindset in which we completely ignore and are blind to the existence of Palestinians as human beings, and anyone who goes against that consensus senses himself to be going up against the accepted truth.”
Awwad eagerly accepted the invitation:
“I said to myself that if these people [settlers] can get to know and understand me, and see me as a human being – and they’re the ones who are criticized and called an obstacle to peace – then maybe we can build a system that’ll enable our politicians to sit together and arrive at some sort of a solution.”
Where does this leave us?
In an article entitled “A Secret Weapon for Peace” Schlesinger makes a number of intriguing observations. The core challenge:
“Yitzchak Rabin was not quite correct. You don’t make peace with enemies. Here in the Holy Land where our lives are so intertwined, such a peace will not hold. Rather, first each side must learn to see at least some truth on the other side. Then we can be transformed from enemies into human beings, and then into neighbors, and when we are neighbors – each genuinely concerned with the good of the other – political solutions become plausible. As we embark upon the process of making the other into our brother, we can make peace.”
The logic is difficult to refute. It is hard to imagine how there can be peace between people with such long-standing and intense mutual hatred. The only way past that hatred is to feel the other’s humanity. This requires tremendous effort on both sides. The tendency to identify with and protect one’s own group is hard-wired in the human brain. But we also have a spiritual nature, which we must call upon to overcome this herd instinct when dealing with the other also as human. The great discovery that both Awwad and Schlesinger made is that when bereavement hits, the other side also sheds tears.
But one may object: “How can Palestinians be expected to empathize with Israelis when they have known them only as occupiers?” To which one can counter: “How can Israelis be expected to empathize with Palestinians when they have known them only as terrorizers?” If either side wants excuses not to engage in this hard process, those will be easy to find. The excesses on one side can always be used to justify the excesses on the other. One has to decide: Does one want vindication, does one want revenge, or does one want peace?
Awwad and Schlesinger show us that the way to overcome hatred based upon real grievances is through the individual encounter. Seeing the individual has the power to take us beyond group perception. The individual is a small thing, to be sure, but it is a starting point. With enough individuals willing to accept the challenge of seeing each other, eventually there might be hope – perhaps in some future generation years away – of finding an alternative to the perpetuation of grievances.
This is the only possible spiritual response to this conflict.
Still harder than we think
Schlesinger articulates very well how difficult it is to change one’s mindset: “It was all new to me because the overwhelming power of the settler narrative had blinded me to another truth…. my whole spiritual world was undermined.”
In this conflict the word “narrative” has acquired a special destructive power. It has come to denote a group myth whose purpose is self-justifying. So often we are asked to choose between conflicting “narratives”: the “settler narrative” based on a claim of Jewish ownership of “Judea and Samaria” (better known as the “West Bank”) as part of historic Israel, and the “Palestinian narrative” based on the libel that Jews stole the land and “ethnically cleansed” Palestinians from it. (It was actually Palestinians and Arab states who tried unsuccessfully to ethnically cleanse the Jews – the Palestinian “narrative” conveniently forgets how each side reacted to the partition resolution.) The respective “narratives” have too often become excuses for each side to tell the other, “I belong here and you don’t.”
Fully coming to terms with this means that the challenge is greater than even Schlesinger realizes. Schlesinger tried to reconstruct his spiritual world around two contradictory truths: the land fully belongs both to Palestinians and to Jews. In “Secret Weapon” he puts it like this:
“I also believe that there will be no solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict until a significant number of Palestinians understand and internalize the simple truth that the Jewish People have a long standing and legitimate connection to all of the Land of Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. And at the very same time I also believe that there will be no solution to the conflict until a significant number of Israelis understand and internalize the fact that the Palestinians have a long standing and legitimate connection to that same land – all of it.
“Both sides have a legitimate claim to all of the land. The claims derive from different foundations but in the end, the same land is both Israel and Palestine (emphasis added).”
At this point we jump into the abyss. If both sides have an equal claim to the same land, all of it, then the natural conclusion is a binational state. But no matter how many bridges we build between individuals, we will not reach a point where a binational state is viable. The cultures are too different, and the history of grievances too long, for such a thing to work. History shows us with an abundance of examples that binational states do not work. They haven’t worked in India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and others. It is even less realistic to expect such a project to work in Israel/Palestine. Especially given the history of Jews living in Arab lands, a binational state would be a prescription for bloodbath. Yet we must get beyond “Jews stole the land” and “Palestinians belong in Jordan” to recognize that both Jews and Palestinian Arabs live in the region and both have a right to be there. Acceptance of this simple truth must replace the battle of competing “narratives” and the unceasing efforts of each one to obliterate the other. Schlesinger is absolutely correct in asserting that Jews and Palestinians are each a distinct people, even though each has tried to deny the peoplehood of the other.
Schlesinger does not call for a binational state, but if “the same land is both Israel and Palestine,” what else can one conclude? We therefore need to go a critical step further. It is not enough for each side to respect the other’s narrative. Each side must give up part of its own narrative. Jews must face the reality that while “Judea and Samaria” may constitute the heartland of biblical Israel, another people is living there now so that claim must be given up. And Palestinians must accept that while some of their ancestors once lived in what today is Israel, they left or were expelled because of a war that they started. It is Israel now and a chance for Middle Eastern Jews to control their own lives instead of living as a persecuted minority in yet another Arab state. “Greater Israel” cannot coexist with the right of return. Both are prescriptions for endless strife. Two contradictory truths cannot coexist. They must be modified by a third truth, that the claims each side still makes must be cut in half, or there will be no peace.
This means, contrary to Schlesinger, that each side must accept that it does not have a legitimate claim to the whole thing. The only way out of this conflict is for each side to accept the other’s right to live right where they are: Jews in Israel and Arabs in Palestine (with members of each group living as citizens of the other state if they so choose). The great danger is that we may have already passed the point where this is possible. The Israeli right, which has dominated Israeli politics for years, has done its best to erase the Green Line, which once separated Israel from the Palestinian territories. I am particularly dismayed by the argument some of my Zionist colleagues make, that the Green Line has no legitimacy because it is merely an “armistice line.” For years that “armistice line” was internationally recognized and protected Israel. Today Israel has no recognizable borders. That can only undermine Israel’s security.
Narratives and conflicting claims are indeed the problem. The settler narrative yearning for return to the complete ancestral Jewish homeland keeps the occupation going, regardless of any security considerations. The Palestinian narrative grieving for a supposedly lost and stolen paradise becomes a demand for the right of return, implying the erasure of Israel and ruining any chance for an agreement. Both claims must be relinquished.
So for the foreseeable future the only way to safeguard the rights of both groups is for each to maintain sovereignty over its own affairs. A partition between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, a good idea nearly 70 years ago, is no less valid today. It is a concession to human frailty, an admission that, for historical and cultural reasons, not everyone may be able to live together. It should still not prevent us, wherever we live, from doing the necessary spiritual work to overcome the divide, even if this work will not bear visible fruit for generations. It has to begin now. As Awwad says, fear – and the hatred that inevitably follows – are our greatest enemy.
Bryant, Christa Chase. “Former Palestinian Fighter Chooses Nonviolence.” The Christian Century, June 23, 2015. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-06/palestinian-former-intifada-fighter-chooses-nonviolence-over-revenge.
Leshem, Elie. “In a Settler’s Living Room, a Palestinian Reaches Out.” Times of Israel, March 4, 2015. http://www.timesofisrael.com/ali-abu-awwad/.
Rosenblatt, Gary. “Unlikely Partners for Peace: An Orthodox Settler and Palestinian Activist Say Reconciliation Begins with Seeing the Humanity of Your Enemy.” The Jewish Week, July 1, 2015. http://thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/gary-rosenblatt/unlikely-partners-peace.
Schlesinger, Hanan. “Journey Towards the Other.” September, 2014.
———. “A Secret Weapon for Peace.” February 6, 2015. http://www.friendsofroots.net/a-secret-weapon-for-peace.html.