ONE GOAL OF the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey’s Four Corners of Israel mission was to help participants discover their roots.
Another was to the show them that those roots can be entangled and complicated. To that end, the participants were divided into programs that taught them the complex realities of life over the Green Line in what is called both the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria.
One of those programs is Roots-Shorashim-Judur, the same meaning in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. It is a network of local Palestinians and Israelis who have come to regard each other as partners in a local grassroots model to effect change from the bottom up.
Based on a mutual recognition of each people’s connection to the land, Roots-Shorashim-Judur aims to develop understanding and solidarity between Jews and Arabs, despite ideological differences. Its work focuses on challenging the assumptions those communities hold about each other, building trust, and creating a new kind of discourse around the conflict.
A rabbi and Palestinian tour guide who are neighbors spoke to a busload of visitors from New Jersey at Roots-Shorashim-Judur headquarters in Gush Etzion, 20 minutes south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Rabbi Shaul Judelmen, who moved to Israel from the United States 18 years ago, lives in Tekoa, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. He told how losing loved ones in terrorist attacks used to confirm for him his belief that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. But, he went on, meeting ordinary Palestinians convinced him otherwise.
“Most of us live in a zero-sum game, with fear and anger on both sides,” Judelmen said. “What shapes our perception of each other is how the media portrays things. We are two peoples living very different movies. It blinds us to the ability to be self-critical.”
He said anger and fear lead to hate and deep mistrust that are hard to overcome. Roots-Shorashim-Judur tries to do just that through dialogue, lectures, after-school programs, and summer camps in Hebrew and Arabic.
Noor Awad’s family moved from Amman, Jordan, to Beit Sahour in the West Bank following the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. He said he suffered from being restricted to Arab towns that were cut off from Jerusalem and began thinking about his identity as a Palestinian refugee.
But while studying to become a tour guide, Awad travelled to Israel and for the first time saw Israelis beyond the frame of “occupying soldiers.” After being sent to accompany a group visiting Roots-Shorashim-Judur and learning about the organization, he became a volunteer, speaking to visiting groups about his personal experiences with the conflict.
“When I was 18, I realized my identity is I’m the third generation of an ongoing catastrophe,” he told the mission members. “When I realized this is what I inherited, I decided the situation is complicated and hopeless, and I should find a normal place.
“But a few years later,” he went on, “I asked myself what I would tell my kids about who they are, so I decided I wanted to change the reality.”
Awad said he supports an initiative to have two states with open borders in which Jews and Arabs would be permitted to live anywhere. According to the guidelines of the initiative, Judelmen would be a citizen of Israel and a resident of Palestine; if Awad moved from the Bethlehem area to Jaffa, say, he would be a Palestinian citizen and a resident of Israel.
Mission participant Raina Grossman of Deal said the meeting with Roots-Shorashim-Judur gave her hope that there could be “a potential solution that can arise from humanity listening and being willing to be empathetic and to respect humanity above all else.”
Grossman, a media strategist, said, “Despair is depression without any hope,” but more programs like Roots-Shorashim-Judur could “transform mindsets and win over hearts and minds.”