By Daniel Gordis, Bloomberg
“When your soldiers shoot us at checkpoints,” a Palestinian teenager asked a group of Israelis his age, “is it because they are genuinely afraid, or is killing us more like a sport for them?”
“Aren’t you ashamed,” an Israel teen later asked of the Palestinians, “to be part of a culture that glorifies terror and murder?”
Israeli and Palestinian teenagers hardly ever meet, much less find themselves in a setting where such questions are not only acceptable but also encouraged. The Roots program that brought these teens together, however, is the brainchild of a Palestinian peace activist, Ali Abu Awwad, and is now co-directed by Ali’s brother Haled.
The 47-year-old Abu Awwad is in many ways an unlikely advocate of nonviolence. His mother, active in the Palestine Liberation Organization, was jailed by Israel when he was 10 years old. A brother was later killed by Israeli soldiers, under circumstances that are still contested. Abu Awwad himself spent time in jail for attacking Israeli soldiers during the First Intifada.
What turned him around, he told me when we met at his home, was the sight of Jewish tears. He was attending a meeting of Jews and Palestinians who had lost family members in the conflict, and in the course of the conversation, a Jewish woman wept. The sight, he said, shocked him. Perhaps hyperbolically, he said that it had never crossed his mind that Jews cry, too. It was then, he said, that he decided to devote his life to a different solution to the endless conflict.
The location of the Roots program in the Etzion region, just south of Jerusalem, is intentional and fraught. Gush Etzion (Hebrew for Etzion region), or the “Gush” as it is commonly called, had been populated with Jews before Israel’s creation in 1948. It fell to the Jordanians just days before Israel’s independence, and remained under Jordanian control for 19 years. Almost as soon as Israel wrested it back in the 1967 Six Day War, the children and grandchildren of the men who had died trying to defend it returned to the Gush and began to build.
Today, the Gush is home to a number of Jewish communities. Surrounding these towns (“settlements” in international parlance) are numerous Arab villages. The proximity of their homes notwithstanding — Israelis and Palestinians in the Gush even frequent the same shopping centers — the two populations almost never talk and know virtually nothing about each other. Abu Awwad’s program aims to change that.
A few dozen Jews and Palestinians, all teenagers, meet regularly, their discussions facilitated by translators. All of them encounter resistance, even hostility, from other members of their own community for having agreed to participate. Together, they slowly break down stereotypes.
One Jewish participant, Elnatan Bazak, wrote a Facebook post in August about his two years of participation in the group, claiming that what he had learned to do was to hear another side without weakening his own commitments. “I discovered,” he wrote, “that it is possible to sing and dance … wrapped in an Israeli flag on Jerusalem [Unification] Day, and then to join an interfaith service praying for the city’s peace.” Similarly, he said, he’d learned that it was possible to organize a joint trip to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum, and then, with equal interest, to visit the site of an Arab village that was destroyed in 1948. Those are not the sort of sentiments common — or popular — among many of his fellow settlers.
The program’s leaders are quick to note that its impact extends beyond the few dozen teenagers involved at any one time: It opens the eyes of their families, and then circles beyond. David Palant, the father of one Jewish participant from the settlement of Alon Shvut, noted in an open letter he wrote about the program that when his son “returned from a joint Shabbat near Hadera, and told us that there were Palestinians in the group who had never before seen the ocean, my heart broke.”
Palant described what happened when he attended a Roots program on the Ninth of Av, a deeply nationalist day on which Jews mourn the destruction of the two temples: He heard a lecture by a sheikh from Jaffa and “was deeply impressed by what he said, by things he told about which I had no idea, and I was mortified. How was it possible that in all my years, in the thousands of hours that I had devoted to Jewish and general education … I had never found the time to learn anything about the culture of the people who live next to me?”
In the highly ideological and often monolithic settler community, going public with such a letter requires more than audacity — it is throwing social caution to the wind. Even if in small numbers, Palestinian and Jewish families involved in Roots are choosing to do just that.
This election cycle is a reminder of why such encounters matter. When Yesh Atid, Israel’s centrist party, recently posted its platform online, it stated: “We are not looking for a marriage with the Palestinians but a divorce from them. … Our aim is to create a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside a strong and secure Jewish state of Israel, with strict adherence to security arrangements and freedom of operation for the IDF. The settlement blocs will remain part of Israel. We will not recognize a right of return for Palestinians and Jerusalem will forever remain the united capital of Israel.”
To the majority of Israelis, that stance makes perfectly good sense. To most Palestinians, it is a nonstarter. Given the political stalemate, if relations between the two peoples are to inch forward, it may just be in meetings between adults, and even teenagers, far from the glare of headlines.
“I have another question,” an Israeli teenager asked her Palestinian counterparts at a recent meeting. “Is there anything about our culture that you actually like?”
The Palestinian kids were quiet for a moment, and then they laughed. “We love your music,” they said. Specifically Eyal Golan, an Israeli rock star who sings in Hebrew, but in a Middle Eastern, almost Arabic-sounding style. “We don’t understand the Hebrew; but we listen to him all the time; we know all the words by heart.”