This post was written by Rabbi Michael Ramberg (RRC, '12) 2014-15 Multifaith Studies and Initiatives Teaching Fellow.
At the start of his talk in the main sanctuary of Germantown Jewish Centre, Palestinian nonviolent peace activist Ali Abu Awwad joked that he has a hard time keeping track of the Jewish holidays. While he had learned the greetings corresponding to Rosh Hashanah—“Shanah tovah”—and Yom Kippur— “Gmar tov”— he hadn’t yet learned a greeting for Sukkot, the holiday we were celebrating when he spoke at GJC on Friday, October 10th, addressing a crowd of more than 100, including Christians and Muslims who regularly participate in programs of RRC’s Multifaith Studies Program.
Ali’s commitment to learning about the culture of his audience (and about Judaism in particular, which many Palestinians understandably associate with their oppression), and his willingness to admit the limits of his knowledge, provided a powerful example of his approach to peace-making. It begins with deeply listening to others in order to humanize oneself and the other side, and continues through the practice of non-violence.
Ali’s personal example of nonviolence particularly moved me. As a young man, Ali refused to take violent revenge against the people responsible for killing his brother. Ali reflected on the practice of nonviolence--its power comes from the power of our inherent humanity. Non violence creates a safe space for the sides in a conflict to see each other’s truth. Contrary to popular perceptions, nonviolence is more powerful than violence.
I was also struck by Ali’s lucid presentation of the contradictions found at every level of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here are a few of them:
- Despite being commonly referred to as “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” there are other nations involved and their role is often not a constructive one
- What the heart wants (revenge against those who have hurt you and/or your loved ones) may be at odds with what the mind wants (a successful solution to the conflict)
- When those outside the conflict take sides (being “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian”) , it doesn’t help achieve a solution, indeed it worsens the problem
- Israelis’ need for security leads them to support the continuing the occupation until Palestinians no longer resort to violence, but Palestinians can’t see the value of peace while the occupation continues
All of these contradictions make a solution to the conflict seem unlikely, but Ali stressed that the solution to the conflict does not lie in ideological purity and clarity. In fact, there are contradictions working in favor of peace, too. Ali told us about the Roots project which he co-directs, a Palestinian center for nonviolence situated between six Jewish settlements on the West Bank. It’s hard for someone who mainly sees the conflict through the lens of American media to imagine Jewish settlers and Palestinians with conflicting claims to the exact same land sitting down together for a civil discussion, but this is precisely what Roots creates. Through this work, there was even a group of settlers, including rabbis, that took part in an interfaith fast for peace in Gaza on the 17th of Tammuz this summer. Ali asserted that a solution to the conflict will be a place where two truths fit, even if they are contradictory. (This reminded me of the wonderful Amichai poem, “The place where we are right.”) So in order to create peace, we must be comfortable with contradictions of this kind.
In reflecting on the opportunity to learn from Ali, I realized that the sukkah itself is a structure of contradictions. It must be solid enough to serve as a home for the duration of the holiday but it must be fragile enough that a strong wind would knock it down. It must have a roof, but the roof must have enough openings that the stars are visible through it. It also struck me that Ali could count among modern day ushpizin—special guests symbolically invited to reside in the sukkah in honor of their contribution to the survival of the Jewish people. I pray that through Sukkot and beyond we may be comfortable dwelling in the contradictions that will advance the cause of peace in Israel and Palestine and learning from ushpizin like Ali Abu Awwad and others.