Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
For almost three years now we have been trying to get the newest branch of Roots, the one in Samaria between Ramallah and Nablus, off the ground. We have had perhaps 5 or 6 in-person meetings and a few online ones. The two biggest difficulties have been recruiting Palestinian participants and finding an appropriate place to meet.
Last night we seemed to have solved both of those issues, at least for now. We found a non-operating Palestinian restaurant very close to Nablus but outside the city limits that was big enough and happy to host us. And we had over 40 people, at least half of them Palestinians! (I had expected no more than 20, mostly Israelis!)
As participants trickled in, we began to go around the room introducing ourselves. More and more people arrived and we broke to eat a light, buffet-style dinner together. Then came the formal program, which focused on the Jewish holiday of Hanukah, whose celebration just came to a close last week. I gave a short presentation about the holiday, emphasizing certain things that would make the historical events behind the holiday relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (I spoke in Hebrew and the translation into Arabic went very smoothly, as I had already shared my presentation with Noor Awad. He came prepared with the Arabic translation and just read it out loud, with a few of his additional explanations.)
We then broke up into three discussion groups – each with a moderator/translator in which people introduced themselves and related to a series of 8 questions that I had prepared, while of course taking the discussion in some very different directions. Looking around, the groups seemed very intent and focused.
We reconvened at the end of the evening. I asked that a Palestinian and an Israeli from each group share with all of us something from the small group discussions that most resonated with them. One of the Israelis said that he was really challenged by what Noor Awad had shared in the smaller group. Noor had learned about the story of Hanukah years before. He knew of the battle in which the Jewish General Elazar the Maccabee rode his horse under the belly of an elephant carrying one of the enemy Generals, stabbing the elephant with his sword and thereby bringing the animal and its rider down upon him. He sacrificed himself as an act of defiance of the weak against the strong. Noor said that this reminded him of one of his distant relatives, who had stood in front of an Israeli tank during the Second Palestinian Uprising and had shot at it point-blank. The small arms fire did but little damage and the man himself was killed on the spot. The Israeli who related this said that Noor’s comparison really brought him to think … A kind of momentary hush fell upon the room. Perhaps we all had a moment of insight…
This comment brought another Israeli, Yoel Oz, to speak up. He related what he himself had said in his small discussion group. In the Hanukah story, he said, we Jews are the weak against the strong, the few against the many, the defenders of our homeland against the Greek foreigners. The Palestinians, he said, probably have the same experience, except that according to their narrative, they are the weak and we Jews are the strong, they are the defenders of their homeland against us who they perceive as foreign invaders…
From half of a sentence that Yoel had said in the small discussion group, I got the impression that he had thought that his insight of his was actually what I had been hinting at in my original presentation. But it was not. Nothing of the sort had crossed my mind. You never know what insights people will come up with. You never know what you will learn, even when you yourself are the presenter.
This is so central to the peace-building work of Roots: Learning to walk in the shoes of the other. Seeing yourself through their eyes. Experiencing how the other experiences you. Being deeply challenged and even rethinking a bit who you think they are and who you think we are. Discomforting empathy.
I closed the evening and forgot to thank Natalie and Joel and Talal and Noor and Ameer and everyone who had contributed to making the event such a success. As people rose from their seats to leave, a Palestinian woman in a hijab raised her hand and said that she had to say something. She moved forward towards me and related that when she first saw me and Yoel Oz in the room at the beginning of the evening, she was afraid. Settlers with huge kippot upon their heads and long beards do not belong here. They are the enemy. But after she heard us speak she realized that there is nothing to be afraid of. We are good people, and we are all trying to find a way to understand each other and to live together in this land, in peace and harmony.
I had put a lot of effort into organizing the meeting. I had a very long drive home ahead of me. But I knew that it was all worth it.