Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger has lived in the West Bank for more than 34 years on land he believes Jews have every right — historically and religiously — to claim as their own.
Ali Abu Awwad is a former member of the Palestine Liberation Organization living just minutes from Schlesinger. Abu Awwad has spent time in Israeli prisons for nonviolent resistance; he believes just as strongly that Palestinians have rights to the same land.
At some point, however, both came to realize the other wasn’t going away and both needed to learn to live peacefully as neighbors.
Despite their many differences, they forged an unlikely friendship and dialogue that months ago led to the founding of the Roots/Judur/Shorashim Center for Non-Violence, Understanding & Reconciliation, with the goal of bringing Palestinians and Israelis together.
On Sept. 7, the two spoke as part of a national tour at Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy.
The program, One Land, Two Worlds, One Painful Hope, was cosponsored by Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen and Temple Emanu-El and the JCC of Middlesex County in Edison, and was funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
Beth Mordecai’s Rabbi Ari Saks told the gathering of more than 100 that the center’s initiative is in keeping with the teachings of Hillel, who advised his students to “love peace and seek peace, love people and bring them closer to Torah.”
Schlesinger, an Orthodox rabbi and Long Island native, is executive director and community rabbinic scholar for the Jewish Studies Initiative of North Texas, and founder and president of the Israel chapter of Memnosyne Institute, a global interfaith peace-building initiative.
Both Schlesinger and Abu Awwad said their own mindsets evolved through their friendship and interaction with people they once feared.
“We live in separate towns next to each other, but we are different people,” said Schlesinger. “Different people collect our garbage. We have different lives. We have different religions. We drive past each other on the roads, but we never, ever see each other.
“For 34 years I saw Palestinian license plates on cars, but I never saw a human being sitting in those cars,” said Schlesinger.
Awwad said there had never been a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, but rather meaningless pieces of paper, handshakes, and hugs. He has toured the world for years advocating nonviolence and telling multi-faith audiences that “the path of Palestinian freedom should run through Jewish hearts and minds.”
“We have no peace plan,” he said. “One of the things that has kept this conflict going is that we are not able to understand the truth of the other side.” He said the process is stalled because “we feel if we accept their truth, our truth is going to disappear. That is fear of knowledge, fear of understanding.”
Schlesinger said like most other Jews in the area, which he referred to by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria, he has never wavered from his belief that his home is part of a greater Israel “given by God to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” However, he admitted, his friendship with Awwad “rocked my foundation.”
Neither speaker outlined any specific political solutions. Schlesinger said he realizes the area is “a political minefield” with regions regarded as, variously, occupied, disputed, in Palestine, in biblical Israel, depending on the party doing the regarding.
“Ali and I live in land with all these different identities,” he said, “and all we can say for certain is that people are dying over that slice of land.”
Awwad’s father was from a village in the area of Bayt Jibrin (now the site of Kibbutz Beit Guvrin) and became a refugee after it was captured by Israeli forces in 1948. His mother joined the Palestine Liberation Organization as a young girl, rising to become “one of the most active women in the political leadership of the PLO.”
When he was 10, his mother was arrested by Israelis as they and his seven-year-old sister tried to cross the border into Jordan. She was released from prison two months later.
“All we knew is that because of the Israelis, my family had become refugees and now I didn’t have a mother,” said Awwad. “But I didn’t know the story of the other side.”
Watching the arrests of family members and feeling demeaned by Israelis, Awwad joined Fatah, the political wing of the PLO, as a teen. His first arrest came at age 17. Later both he and his mother were arrested again, and Awwad staged a hunger strike to exercise the right — which he said was his according to Israeli law — to visit with his mother while they were both imprisoned.
During the Second Intifada, he was shot in the knee by an Israeli settler; his older brother was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier.
While he “would do anything” to bring back his brother, Awwad said, he realized taking revenge through violence would do nothing. He became part of what the New York Review of Books would call a “new generation of Palestinian nonviolent resisters.”
He later attended a meeting of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians. “I saw Israelis crying,” Awwad said. “That was the first time I had ever seen a Jew as a victim.”
Schlesinger also overcame his fear of attending a meeting with Palestinians. Israelis and Palestinians chatted and ate “while our kids played in the dirt together,” he recalled. He wondered what he had been afraid of.
“I have done teshuva, repentance, expanded my horizons, and added more truth to my existence,” said Schlesinger. “With my neighbor, my teacher, my mentor Ali, we are helping to bring two neighboring people to our national truths.”