I had no idea that the day I met Ali Abu Awwad would signal a radical turning point in my life. Until that faithful juncture I had never ever met a Palestinian as an equal. As a soldier at a checkpoint – yes, I had had brief encounters with them. As a homeowner inviting laborers to come to paint or to fix the plumbing – yes, I had welcomed them into my home. But never had we met simply as human being to human being.
Hearing Ali speak – followed by many conversations with him – and meeting so many other Palestinians as well as Israelis who had ongoing friendships with them, cracked open the hard shell that had surrounded my soul. The human contact helped to melt away misconceptions, prejudices and stereotypes. Through a process of reading and thinking, I begin to re-examine so much I thought I knew about Palestinians, about the Israeli Arab conflict, and about my own Zionist self-understanding. Today, although very much still a work in progress, I am a transformed human being. The partial truth of the Palestinian narrative has carved a little niche in my heart and my mind, sharing space with its older brother, the partial truth of my Jewish Zionist narrative and identity.
Ali, my mentor and “rabbi,” always says that when he was younger he used to carry the burden of his nation on his shoulders. Today, however, he carries the burden of both nations on his shoulders. And they are very heavy. Now I carry those two burdens as well.
Ali has given my hope, hope for reconciliation and peace. But it is a painful hope. Painful, because the process of reconciliation means learning that you and your side are not completely right. There is truth on the other side as well. And painful, because peace requires sacrifice. Sacrifice of some of your truth and some of your ideals and cherished dreams.
But there is yet another reason that hope for peace on the tiny sliver of land that both nations call home is painful.
We say at the Passover seder “in every generation they rise against us to annihilate us.” It is as if built in to the fabric of Jewish existence as it plays itself out in this universe. That is the way it is meant to be. It always was like that and always will be, until the era of final redemption. Our conflict with the Palestinian is just one more layer in the age-old Jewish fate. And so we accept it. We grit our teeth, and plod on with a certain satisfaction that we are an authentic link in the chain of tradition. We are one with our forefathers, suffering what we are supposed to be suffering.
And that’s comforting. Even empowering in a certain sense.
But now I see things differently. I see our blunders – and those of the Palestinians – that have brought us to where we are today. I see the mutual blindness, insensitivity, and insularity that are part and parcel of this conflict. I see the fear, the competition of suffering and the culture of victimhood that are preventing us from leaving the past behind and working towards a better future.
I see that things don’t have to be as they are. They could be different. But while hope has been born in my heart, it is a painful hope, because now I know that all this suffering did not have to be and need not continue. It can be different. We can change it. And that is such a heavy responsibility.
Note – Ali Abu Awwad’s book, Painful Hope, will be published in Arabic in 2016. Shortly thereafter, the English and Hebrew editions are scheduled to be published.