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A rabbi, a Palestinian and the seed of peace

by Rabbi Yehoshua Looks | Published on March 24, 2014 in Haaretz

Suffering on both sides can’t be erased, but we can choose not to be defined by the crimes of the past.’

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.

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. 

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