According to its promotional material, Combatants for Peace was founded in 2006, when “Israeli and Palestinian former fighters, people who had taken an active role in the conflict, laid down their weapons” and established the organization to work to “both transform and resolve the conflict by ending Israeli occupation and all forms of violence between the two sides.”
The organization, which was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, is based on three pillars: non-violence, complete cooperation between its Israeli and Palestinian members, and the honoring of human rights for both Israelis and Palestinians.
“Combatants for Peace is the only organization, worldwide, in which former fighters on both sides of an active conflict have laid down their weapons, choosing to work together for peace and justice.”
On April 29, between 50 and 60 people came to the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center, in Providence, to hear two members of Combatants for Peace, Osama Iliwit and Netta Hazan, share their perspectives.
Iliwit, a Palestinian, agreed to speak with just a few hours notice; he came from Boston after being told that the scheduled Palestinian presenter, Kholud Abud Raeya, had her travel visa to the United States canceled at the last minute. Hazan, a former member of the Israeli army, spoke after Iliwit.
Iliwit’s first image of Jews was three armed soldiers standing in front of his elementary school in Jericho. It took him several years to come to see Jews as anything other than armed and dangerous. Slowly, despite being arrested and thrown into an Israeli prison for attempting to fly a Palestinian flag, he was able to let go of his negative stereotypes and see the humanity in the “other.” Today he is devoting his life to attempting to bridge the abyss between “us” and “them.”
Toward the end of his talk, Iliwit alluded to the frustrations he continues to face with the Israeli bureaucracy: as a West Bank Palestinian, he is permitted to spend the day in Israel, but he is not allowed to sleep there.
“I guess,” he quipped sardonically, but without any evident rancor, “I am considered more dangerous when I am sleeping than when I am awake.”
In many ways, Hazan told a story similar to Iliwit’s. Like Iliwit, over time Hazan learned to overcome stereotypes and to discover the humanity in the “other.” And like Iliwit, Hazan paid a heavy price for working with “the enemy.”
What has made matters particularly difficult for Hazan is that, with a Moroccan father and an Egyptian mother, she grew up among Israel’s Sephardic community, which tends to be Jewishly observant and right-leaning politically. She is secular, mostly non-observant, and politically on the left.
Hazan’s involvement with Combatants for Peace has led to her estrangement from some members of her family, as well as from many former friends and army buddies. But she has the satisfaction of knowing that she is living her life in accordance with her deeply held commitments to non-violence, to dialogue, to cooperation, to building a better life for both Israelis and Palestinians – and she has the joy of becoming close to men and women who share these ideals.
After Iliwit and Hazan concluded their remarks, I presided over the Q-and-A session. I began by asking the two presenters to respond to the 10 or so questions that members of the audience had written on index cards. I read the first question verbatim: “Please speak about the surrounding countries accepting Israel. Please speak about the surrounding countries accepting a Jewish Israel. Do you/your organization think Israel should be a Jewish state?”
Iliwit responded that what other countries do is not his business; his concern is how Israelis and Palestinians can best learn to live peacefully with each other. If Israelis choose to have a Jewish state – provided that such a decision is part of a just and peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that’s fine with him.
As a secular Jew, Hazan expressed little enthusiasm for insisting that Israel be a Jewish state. Like Iliwit, her primary concern is working for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hazan gave voice to her frustration with the restrictions – relating to Sabbath observance, for example – imposed by the religious establishment upon the secular majority.
The final question posed to Iliwit and Hazan asked for their sense of how their respective communities viewed the so-called two-state solution. Both speakers suggested that the majority of their communities approve of a two-state solution in theory; however, such support begins to ebb as soon as the specifics are taken into account – in particular, where the proposed borders are ultimately drawn.
Perhaps the most promising aspect of that Sunday afternoon gathering was that our Jewish community was able to come together in civil, respectful dialogue about profoundly contentious issues. In addition to Combatants for Peace, four other organizations offered their sponsorship: J Street Rhode Island; J Street Brown; The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island; and Temple Beth-El, in Providence.
One of the index cards handed to me for the Q-and-A session expressed the sense of that special afternoon: “No question. Just wanted to say thank you for your sacred work. Thank you for your courage, faith, and inspiration. You are the future of Israel!!!”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.