On Thursday, Nov. 7, Lean Lecture Hall was filled with students and community members to hear from Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, an Israeli settler, and Shadi Abu Awwad, a Palestinian activist. Schlesinger and Abu Awwad are both integral members of “Roots-Shorashim-Judur,” a Palestinian-Israeli initiative founded in 2014. Officially abbreviated as “Roots,” the organization seeks to promote “understanding, nonviolence and transformation” among the two groups through human interaction, discussion and programming. Schlesinger and Abu Awwad are currently touring around the United States on behalf of the organization, speaking to campuses, community centers and places of worship.
Titled “Painful Hope: An Israeli Settler and a Palestinian Activist in Dialogue,” the event featured two speakers, who were brought to campus due to the initiative of Joan Friedman who serves as an associate professor of history and religious studies as well as chair for Middle Eastern and North African studies at the College. The event was made possible as a result of the collective support from the departments of history, religion, global and international studies, Middle Eastern and North African studies and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Additionally, Friedman notes that funds from the Kornfeld Endowment were utilized to bring Schlesinger and Abu Awwad to campus.
Friedman first interacted with Roots during the 2017-18 academic year, when she led a winter break TREK to Israel/Palestine and visited the organization in the West Bank. “When I learned that they were going to be speaking in the U.S.[during]the semester I was teaching my course on the Israel/ Palestine conflict,” Friedman reflected, “I jumped at the chance to bring them here.” Friedman felt it was important to bring Roots to the College not only because as an “institution of higher education … we should all welcome the opportunity to meet and learn from individuals representing a variety of view- points,” but also given the complicated nature of the conflict.
Of this, Friedman notes that due to “the superficial character of most reporting about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to be better informed … These two speakers represent an aspect of the conflict that is rarely seen, which is the extent of grassroots contacts between the two peoples. And within that area of grassroots efforts, this particular organization has a unique character because of its location and its participants,” referring to the fact that the center of Roots is located among both Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages in the Etzion region.
Prior to the dialogue in Wishart, a small group of students were able to have dinner with Schlesinger and Abu Awwad, engaging with the speakers in a more intimate setting. The group was primarily comprised of students who are part of Friedman’s history course Israel/Palestine: Histories in Conflict, as well as members from two of the College’s faith-based organizations, Noor and Hillel.
According to Maggie Dougherty ’21, a global and international studies major who attended the dinner, “having dinner with the speakers was a really rare opportunity, so I was glad to be included. It gave [Schlesinger and Abu Awwad] the opportunity to discuss topics they did not have time for during the public presentation, including the role of the United States and other Arab nations in the conflict.”
Dougherty continued by remark- ing that “both men were funny and personable, and I think the dinner was important for building trust with the students involved. This issue is so highly charged, and I know that I was worried ahead of the lecture about what biases might be at the table.” The conversation at dinner was particularly important to Dougherty due to her concern that the event’s informational poster described Schlesinger as a “passionate Zionist settler,” a concern reflected by other students at the College as well.
Dougherty explained that at the dinner and dialogue, however, Schlesinger emphasized the phrasing that followed this characterization; he describes himself as a settler “profoundly transformed by [my] friendship and exchanges with local Palestinians” whose perceptions of Zionism and the conflict have been “utterly complicated by [my] introduction to the parallel universe” shared by the two communities. “This dinner, as well as the lecture, was really important for students to be able to see that [Schlesinger’s] goal was not to invalidate the Palestinian experience, but to advocate for understanding of the other by citizens on either side,” concluded Dougherty.
Isaac Weiss ’20, another student who attended the dinner, echoed Friedman in that the first-hand accounts were helpful in combating the unreliable reporting often associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On hearing the personal experiences of Schlesinger and Abu Awwad, Weiss noted that “Mr. Shadi Abu Aw- wad had a rather upsetting account about his life in the West Bank, and I certainly feel as if stories like his are often drowned out by our politicians and by the political landscape of the United States. It’s important that we hear both sides, and get a firm understanding of the conflict.”
While agreeing with the importance of hearing from the speakers, Maya Lapp ’20 raised concerns about the way that Roots operates, especially emphasizing a worry that “the discussion-oriented advocacy that Roots promotes in fact impedes true action and reform.” As Lapp explained, “while it is undeniably important to foster trust between the Palestinians and Israelis, and [true] that without trust we cannot build peace, groups like Roots […] focus solely on discussion and away from substantive action focused on ending settlement and human rights violations in Palestine.”
At the dialogue, Schlesinger and Abu Awwad began by addressing the audience individually; they each discussed the ways in which they had been impacted by the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, both emphasizing a deeply-rooted fear of the other’s group. They also touched upon their respective journeys that led them to join Roots; Schlesinger was convinced by an Israeli neighbor to attend a dialogue hosted by the organization, while Abu Awwad’s uncle serves as the Palestinian co-director of Roots. Videos about the history and mission of Roots were woven throughout the night, showcasing initiatives such as after-school programs, summer camps, workshops and religious celebrations which seek to bring together Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank. Schlesinger and Abu Aw- wad’s presentations were followed by questions and comments from the audience, which the two speakers responded to collectively.
When reflecting upon the event, Friedman added that “I’d like to underscore what [Schlesinger and Abu Awwad] said — that this conflict is fundamentally about identities. In other words, all attempts to resolve the conflict must proceed from the recognition that there are two peoples involved, and that the identities of both are rooted in a connection to the Land of Israel/Palestine. All ideological attempts to assert that only one side has a ‘real’ identity as a people, while the other side’s claim to be a people is fake, will only exacerbate and prolong the conflict.”