Jews, Christians and Muslims plan to gather Monday night to hear a rabbi and a Palestinian Muslim describe their deeply personal journeys to the same hotly contested view: Jews and Palestinians should live together peacefully in what Israelis call the West Bank and Gaza, and what Palestinians call Palestine.
Shadi Abu Awwad, who moved to Ohio about four years ago, and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger belong to Roots-Shorashim-Judur, an organization on Israel’s West Bank that brings about 500 area Israelis and Palestinian adults together to promote peace through a grassroots movement.
The group holds weekly interreligious meetings and hosts summer camps for children in the West Bank.
Abu Awwad recalled Jewish Roots members who recently protected their Palestinian neighbors when they were harassed while farming. The two men are touring the United States, stopping at college campuses, synagogues and churches to pursue peace, one conversation at a time.
Abu Awwad and Schlesinger, a New Yorker who moved to Israel when he was 18, will speak at the Ware Center at 7 p.m. for an event sponsored by what looks like a “Who’s Who” of Lancaster religious organizations.
“Most Palestinians and most Israelis don’t have room in their hearts to share this land,” Schlesinger said from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, before a presentation at Wake Forest University. “When we introduce them to someone from the other side, that human contact opens minds, and it’s very hard to continue to hate.
“Palestinians deserve the same rights and the same dignity as Israelis,” he said. “We want to affect enough people” to bring about change.
Abu Awwad, also speaking from Wake Forest, agrees. “It’s not easy to be a peace activist from where I come from,” the Palestinian said. “I was deeply connected to the idea of being a human being before being a Palestinian. Roots is the only organization that talks to the Palestinian identity, to offer us dignity and respect.”
Abu Awwad’s friends don’t share his views, but they haven’t abandoned him.
“They tell me, ‘We’re OK with you as a person but not with what you’re doing,’ ” Abu Awwad says.
Abu Awwad understands. He used to think the same way. “I laugh at them and tell them that’s how I used to think, and how I’m thinking right now.”
In fact, his family participated in the first Palestinian uprising when he was a baby, according to the group’s website. Abu Awwad was still a child, though, when his family members decided instead to work for peace with Israel. In fact, several relatives also work in the Roots organization.
“You have to look at reality,” Abu Awwad said. “Israel is not going to disappear. The history of the land proves we all belong to the land – Muslims, Christians and Jews.”
‘Hubris of exclusivity’
Schlesinger coined the phrase “the hubris of exclusivity” to describe Palestinians and Israelis who oppose peace.
“It’s ‘my side is the only legitimate side, and the other side is fake,’ ” the rabbi explained. “You have to understand that the identity of one group of people doesn’t have to nullify the other side.”
“Violence isn’t the answer,” offered Rabbi Jack Paskoff, who leads Shaarai Shomayim, a Lancaster reform congregation. Paskoff invited the speakers here after learning about Roots two years ago during a congregational trip to Israel.
“I am deeply moved by people who are saying the status quo has failed,” Paskoff said. “They (Roots participants) are not very popular in Israel and the West Bank, but it’s important for us to hear what they’re saying.”
The Islamic Center of Lancaster also signed on as a co-sponsor. “We should listen,” said Lititz engineer Mukaram Syed, a Muslim who speaks for the center. “We want our community to feel like this is an important topic. They are promoting peace. It’s a really good program.”
“The work of Roots really fits into the mission that Elizabethtown College has maintained,” said Amy Shorner-Johnson, the college’s chaplain and a member of The Lancaster Interfaith Coalition. Both organizations will co-sponsor Monday’s event.
“They believe in achieving peace in creative ways,” said Shorner-Johnson, a Christian.
In addition to the larger program Monday night, Schlesinger and Abu Awwad will speak with smaller groups of students at Elizabethtown College and Franklin & Marshall College before heading north to New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
While Roots members must be Palestinians or Israelis, U.S. supporters may join Friends of Roots.
Other local Roots co-sponsors include Lancaster Theological Seminary and LTS Seminarian Community Council, Jewish Community Alliance, Millersville University, Klehr Center for Jewish Life at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster Downtown Ministerium, Samaritan Counseling Center and Temple Beth El of Lancaster.