Why can’t Israeli Jews and Palestinians peacefully co-exist? This question was posed in my last blog during my visit a few weeks ago to the Hebron Tomb of the Patriarchs (Cave of Machpelah). This question incorporates more than 3,000 years of complex Middle East history. Migrations, wars, and religious strife during most of ‘civilized’ human history reveals why there is so much current hatred and suffering in the Holy Land. What history does not inform is how to solve these conflicts and bring lasting peace between the Palestinian West Bank (Arabic-speaking) and the State of Israel (Hebrew-speaking).
My last blog discussed our tour of the Herodian building covering the tombs of the Patriarchs. However, I purposely did not mention an incident that occurred during this visit. After our tour bus arrived at the parking lot next to the tombs, we exited the bus and met our Hebron-based American tour guide. He did an introductory lecture from the parking area steps that led into the building grounds. While he spoke, a young Palestinian man walked around our tour group asking people if they wanted to purchase items that he was pedaling. I was one of the first to be asked and I politely said, “No thank you.” When he saw that there wasn’t a sale, he moved on to the next person.
Our Hebron tour guide stopped his lecture, informed the group that the man was selling his wares, and there was no need to purchase any items. His words were polite but felt derogatory. I tried to concentrate on the lecture, but then I heard commotion behind me. I turned to see our large, middle-aged bus driver confronting the man and yelling angrily at the Palestinian seller. The bus driver then kicked him. Two female Israeli soldiers rushed over, separated the two men, and they angrily parted. The soldiers did nothing to the bus driver who assaulted the Palestinian. Given that the Palestinian man had one arm in a sling and was smaller than the bus driver, it was an unequal fight. I witnessed the hatred between two men, an Israeli and a Palestinian, who did not know each other. To make matters worse, when our tour group returned to our bus after the building tour, our bus driver had a rock in his hand and was again threatening the same Palestinian man.
After lunch, we drove to Gush Etzion in the West Bank. This land was given to the non-profit Shorashim (Roots). Their stated mission is: “At Roots, we envision a social and political reality that is founded on dignity, trust, and a mutual recognition and respect for both peoples’ historical belonging to the entire Land.” Roots is not seeking a political path towards solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is seeking to engage Palestinians and Jews in basic dialogue which leads towards trust and respect. The organization believes that a political solution cannot be achieved without first having civil dialogues.
As a non-Jewish American not living in Israel, their mission seems simplistic. I assumed Jews and Palestinians surely interacted daily, even if they dislike each other. However, I learned that basic interactions rarely occur. West Bank Palestinians live and work apart from Jews. They have their own health systems, governmental agencies, and taxation. Palestinians are not allowed to enter Jewish areas and vice versa. There are no common communities, workspaces, or friendships between Palestinians and Jews. Roots seeks to provide a safe haven and communal dialogue between Jews and Palestinians.
Shorashim began in 2014 at a meeting between students of Rabbi Manachem Froma and members of the Abu Awwad family. Both were tired of the conflicts. After a series of encounters between Palestinians and Jews, Gush Etzion was donated to host Roots conversations and joint community activities. Basic human interaction is the first agent of transformation. Seeing the ‘other’ as human leads to mutual trust.
Two of the Roots leaders spoke to our tour group at Gush Etzion. Noor Alwad is a Palestinian who supported Fatah (previously named the Palestinian National Liberation Movement), the Palestinian political party formerly headed by Yasser Arafat. Noor’s mother was arrested during the first Intifada (1987–1993). He was arrested with his mother during the Second Intifada (2000–2005). His brother was killed by Israeli security forces. While in prison, Noor discovered the writings of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He organized a 17-day hunger strike which forced discussions with his Israeli captors. He decided to join Roots to acknowledge that both Israelis and Palestinians are connected to the land.
Rabbi Shaul Yudelman, a Brooklyn immigrant to Hebron, spoke of his personal transformation. He left his native America to live in the land of the patriarchs. He viewed Hebron as solely Jewish land. Palestinians were occupying Jewish land and needed to travel back to whatever Arab nation they originated. He was invited to meet Palestinians and initially resisted because he felt unsafe with Palestinians. After much reluctance and family turmoil, he attended a conversation with Palestinians. He listened to their stories of Israeli violence, fear of Jews, and suffocating living conditions. Shaul became confused as the Palestinian dialogue conflicted with his Jewish understanding of Palestine. Over time, his views changed, and he joined Roots to advocate for Jewish-Palestinian dialogue.
When I asked our Jewish tour guide’s opinion of Roots, Julie said that it was so needed, but was only a small drop in a large bucket. I reflected on Jesus’ ministry within a divided Jewish nation under Roman rule. A small band of disciples started a non-violent movement that changed the world. It took centuries to blossom, but it did bloom. Only time will tell whether Roots will be small drops of hope in a sea of despair or evolve into a baptismal river of healing. But what about the Muslims who live in the State of Israel as citizens? This will be covered in my next blog.