By Sara Salimi
“How could it be that I’ve lived my life in an area where there are probably nine Palestinians for each Israeli, and for 33 years I’ve never met even one Palestinian?” These are the words of Hanan Schlesinger, an Orthodox rabbi, and teacher who has lived in Israel for 38 years.
A group of about 100 students attended “From Other to Brother” on Monday, an event organized by Terps for Israel, J Street UMD, Maryland Discourse, and Kedma. The panel featured Rabbi Schlesinger and Shadi Abu Awwad, a Palestinian activist from Beit Ummar, a Palestinian town North of Hebron.
Rabbi Schlesinger and Abu Awwad each shared the story of their life, one that was marked by the systematic separation of Israelis and Palestinians on land they both considered home.
The speakers explained that Israelis and Palestinians have been living in a situation characterized by prejudice, ignorance, and stereotypes upheld by fear of the other. This physical and mental barrier has prevented them from coming together and engaging in dialogue. Rabbi Schlesinger and Abu Awwad introduced “Roots” as a possible solution.
Roots began in 2014 as a grassroots initiative focused on solidarity, dialogue and activism between Israeli and Palestinian people. It is the only group bringing the two sides together inside the West Bank. The group has representatives from 28 Israeli and Palestinian towns in the area.
Rabbi Schlesinger recalled the moment when he first attended a meeting with Palestinians. “I saw 15 Israelis and 15 Palestinians talking to each other. That doesn’t happen where I come from,” he said.
After conversing with several Palestinians and later attending Roots meetings with them, Rabbi Schlesinger came to a realization: “I learned that I had been building my Jewish Zionist identity upon the nullification of the other’s identity.”
Abu Awwad could relate. As a 27-year-old Palestinian activist, he shared his story of growing up knowing his family was in danger of being detained or murdered in their own homes. Israeli soldiers killed Abu Awwad’s uncle at a checkpoint at the entrance of Beit Ummar. But in 2004, after Abu Awwad’s brother was shot in the leg by an Israeli soldier, an Israeli doctor in Jerusalem saved his life.
That experience led Abu Awwad to attend Roots meetings with other Israelis and Palestinians. He believes that the conflict is not about religious differences, but about human rights. “We all belong to this land – Muslims, Christians, and Jews. But to live in this land together, not to occupy the other one,” he said.
Rabbi Schlesinger and Abu Awwad met through Roots, and the two of them now encourage students to join the solidarity effort and engage in what they call “people-to-people work.” The group holds nonviolence workshops, summer camps, young adult programs and year-long adult initiatives.
Sam Finkle, a bioengineering student who attended the event, though it was a unique experience to hear from both sides. “I think it’s going to be a good opportunity for people to engage and go a little outside their comfort zones,” he said.
While Roots does not identify as a political movement, it envisions a future where Israelis and Palestinians can live together with open borders and free residency, and with human rights as the centerpiece of all interactions between the people.
Featured Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Sara Salimi/Bloc Reporter.
Sara Salimi is a senior multiplatform journalism major and can be reached at email@example.com.