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Speech by Sami Awad the Encounter Gala

by Sami Awad | Published on May 10, 2011

Good evening everyone, it is a true honor to be with you tonight. Thank you for putting me under pres­sure so early.

(1:40) It is an honor for me to say that when Encounter was conceived, six years ago, it happened in my office. Until that point, and until today, I am one who has committed his life to building a Palestinian non-violent move­ment, training in non-violent resis­tance hundreds, if not thou­sands, of Palestinians throughout the West Bank through the orga­ni­za­tion I run called Holy Land Trust. 

Until we met Encounter, myself and my staff had long ago given up on the idea of “dialogue.” Work with Israelis and Jews was not on our agenda. We disdained such efforts as “normal­iza­tion;” normal­izing rela­tions between Israelis and Palestinians while pretending nothing is wrong. Our mantra was, “Enough sitting around a camp fire and singing Kumbaya all night hoping that things would change.” Yes, of course, we did work with some Israelis and some Jews, but these were, what we called, “activists:” the people who were ready to stand with us, on the front lines, in our non-violent demon­stra­tions, who gave us full soli­darity, with us through non-violent resis­tance, strug­gling for our rights and our dignity, of course, along with theirs as well.

If Melissa hadn’t had a long friend­ship with one of my lead staffers, I might not have taken her seri­ously. She got her foot in the door through trust building that took many years. I would later learn that this is a pivotal part of how she oper­ates, strate­gi­cally: earning cred­i­bility through building rela­tion­ships with leaders on all sides who would never find them­selves at the same table but for their trust in her. 

The invest­ment in relationship-building has become Encounter’s culture, and I have watched the staff team she trained do the patient work of building rela­tion­ships with thou­sands of Palestinians, Orthodox Jews and other “strange bedfel­lows,” who have never before been open to each other’s view­points, and trans­forming all our commu­ni­ties as a result.

Back to 2005: Melissa got our atten­tion because she under­stood our story as Palestinians. She wasn’t just some do-gooder American wondering why we can’t all get along. She did not just come and tell us, “if you Palestinians do this, and stop doing that, and if you follow the seven steps of peace-building, then you will have peace!” She, too, had been frus­trated by the inef­fi­cacy of dialogue efforts during the years of Oslo. From the begin­ning, she said to us, that if we want to change the game, we have to reach out beyond the peace camp. We have to reach centrists, we have to reach the Orthodox, the right-wing leaders who actu­ally claim and believe that “there is no partner” on the Palestinian side. 

So she chal­lenged us and said: “What if we brought powerful players in the American Jewish commu­nity to you?”

As an orga­ni­za­tion, and as Palestinians, we had always seen main­stream American Jews as one of the most powerful constituen­cies in the conflict. In early 2005, we agreed to an exper­i­ment. And this exper­i­ment led to where we are today. 

On that first trip – when, actu­ally, it was one of my staffers who made that claim that “there were more Jews [in the West Bank] than any time since the first intifada” – there was a sense for us that we were embarking on some­thing hugely risky, but also very impor­tant. I was pleas­antly surprised to see light bulbs go off in the eyes of the participants. 

Melissa and her team had created an envi­ron­ment in which people were able to take in what they were seeing, and respond respect­fully, rather than get defen­sive. And they were not the usual suspects: they were the sorts of people who’d always been missing from the dialogue world of the 80s and 90s. By the end of that trip, my cell phone was filled with numbers of new friends, and my number was in their phones. And many of them were writing me, asking what they could do, and how they could get involved. 

If I want to summa­rize the six-year journey and the tremen­dous impact this little orga­ni­za­tion has had on Palestinian society, I would summa­rize it in three points. And I would say the same three points might also reflect on the Jewish commu­nity as well.

o The first point is that there was a change in the stereo­types and nega­tive percep­tion of the other. For the first time, for many of these Palestinians, the word “Jew” was not just defined by what certain politi­cians and certain media insti­tu­tions were saying a Jew should be, look like. The same thing, for the first time for many Jews, the word “Palestinian” was not also defined by how certain politi­cian and certain media insti­tu­tions also want you to define a Palestinian.

o The second point was expe­ri­encing compas­sion and a space for listening. And I want to say just one example of this. There’s a game that we play between the Jewish partic­i­pants and the Palestinian partic­i­pants. And it’s called a game but it’s not really a game. You can not but come to crying – tears in your eyes – when you have a circle of joined Palestinians and Israelis and you ask them the ques­tion “if you have lost some­body related to you or a friend of yours in the violence please step in the middle of the circle.” And when a Palestinian girl and a Jewish girl step in side, this is where tears come to your eyes.

o The third point is cele­brating life, and this is what we do. We cele­brate life through culture, through dance, through music, through eating together, through getting to know the other, and their culture and their heritage. 

But perhaps I should just tell you that I have become much more powerful in my under­standing of non-violence through the work with Encounter, because although Melissa convinced me to put my toes in the water by framing the vision as trans­forming of the Jewish commu­nity, I [too] have been changed. As a result of my work with Melissa and the team at Encounter, as many of you know, I’ve trav­eled to Auschwitz; I’ve been there twice. I have eaten my daily bowl of soup and a piece of dry bread while praying with other leaders from around the world in Birkenau. I have trav­eled far in the last five years in under­standing Jewish history, trauma and fear. And so now when I talk about non-violence, its not just about the Palestinian resis­tance: I am talking about a vision that includes my “enemy” and strug­gles for his and her humanity and dignity, just as I ask him and her to recog­nize my humanity and dignity as well. Working with you has changed my life, Melissa.

The core of our common message is about healing: healing through expe­ri­ence, and commu­ni­ca­tion. It is about creating an oppor­tu­nity for looking beyond the expres­sions, forms and struc­tures of violence. It is looking beyond the stereo­types, and it is looking beyond the blaming and complaining about the behavior of the other, about what their inten­tion is, or not, but to ask ourselves, indi­vid­u­ally and collec­tively, with each other and for each other, who do we want to be, in spite of all what the past offers us? What do we want to stand for, for the future? 

Melissa, you and your incred­ible team are so much thanked for the work you have done. You are a true visionary. The French Novelist Marcel Proust once said that “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new land­scape, but in having new eyes”. You have looked to Palestine and to Israel, the oldest land­scape on earth, with these new eyes. You have looked [through] them in a way that no one has done before. And in your looks, you have not just discov­ered the land — you have also discov­ered the people of the land. 

And you have done more than that. You have created an oppor­tu­nity through Encounter for thou­sands, and hope­fully soon – and I say this to you – tens of thou­sands, of more from this great commu­nity coming to see the Holy Land with those new eyes. 

You will not leave us, I know that for sure. So with you, and with Encounter, we move forward in part­ner­ship and friend­ship. I declare to you this day our full commit­ment to creating a future with you, where peace, equality, secu­rity, dignity, respect and trust become inherent values for both our beloved commu­ni­ties and the world.

I want to end by saying that ulti­mately our goal as Holy Land Trust –and I want to speak also on behalf of Encounter – to say that it is not about raising and uplifting two orga­ni­za­tions. Ultimately, my goal is to see that head­line item in the New York Times where it says, “The reason for peace is because the American Jewish Community got involved.”

Thank you very much.

Click here to see a video of the speech. 

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