Roots works toward recognition, respect

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On Nov. 15, as part of the Evenings of Jewish Renaissance, Roots (Shorashim/Judur) representatives spoke via Zoom to Rhode Island Jewish community members about a unique partnership between Palestinians and Israelis who are forging a new definition of peace in the region. Rav Hanan Schlessinger, a self-identifying “Jew, Zionist and Settler” and Shadi Abu Awwad, a Palestinian whose family was at the forefront of the First Intifada, co-led the program. While Schlessinger heads International Relations for the group, Abu Awwad works primarily with the youth group of 15- to 18-year-olds in the organization. Both travel all over the world to spread Roots’ message of reconciliation founded in justice and equality.

Both Schlessinger and Abu Awwad live in the West Bank, which they identify as a place with deep historical ties for both Palestinians and Jews. “When I came home after 2,000 years of exile, I wanted to be in the heartland, where you can feel the pulse of the Jewish people, the history,” Schlessinger explained. “You can find pieces of pottery that our ancestors left 2,000 years ago, and they speak to me, they say ‘we’re a part of you.’ ”

Abu Awwad also stressed the historical connection for Palestinians: “Our connection to the land as Palestinians isn’t about religion, it’s about the history. We didn’t come from any other land.” And, as both men acknowledge, neither group has anywhere else to go.

“Who belongs to this land? When you look at the history of this land, as a Jew, as a Muslim, as a Christian, we all belong to this land. As a Palestinian, as an Israeli, we all belong to this land,” said Abu Awwad. “So why does nobody want to take the first step? Easy question, easy answer.”

Abu Awwad characterizes the hesitance around reconciliation work this way: “The moment you take a step toward a better life, which includes the coexistence of Palestinians and Israelis, you aren’t solving a conflict. You’re creating a second conflict in your life within your own people.”

When faced with this reality and continued skepticism from his community, Abu Awwad said to himself: “Many people don’t want to do it, should I just sit and wait? I can’t. I don’t care what’s going to happen, I’ll take the step.”

Schlessinger and Abu Awwad recounted their journeys to distinguish themselves within a culture of hatred and profound fear of the other, describing how impactful even small exchanges on the human level were to their own growth. Now Roots focuses on reaching the next generations of Israelis and Palestinians, promoting dialogue that doesn’t simply appeal to people on a human level but includes the complexities of their identities, holding space for that discomfort, that “unsettling,” as Schlessinger calls it. Roots continues to do vital and groundbreaking work in the West Bank to ensure that the future of Palestine and Israel is one that turns away from mutually assured destruction, toward mutual recognition and respect.

For more information, head to friendsofroots.net and check out Roots on Instagram @buildingpeace_israelpalestine.

Evenings of Jewish Renaissance, hosted by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and presented by the Dr. James Yashar & Judge Marjorie Yashar Fund at the Jewish Federation Foundation, was held Nov. 14-16 virtually and in-person.

EMMA NEWBERY (enewbery@jewishallianceri.org) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.