Hear in the Holy Land | Gush Etzion
Roots, Rabbis, and Jewish Settlements in the West Bank
As I rode the Jewish bus toward my destination further into the West Bank, we made several stops, all in Jewish settlements. These settlements, as you may well know, are considered illegal by the international community, but here they are nonetheless: clean and crisp and beautiful—and heavily secured by armed forces and barricades.
My skin kind of prickled as we passed through the guarded gateways to each settlement and made our round of stops in the militarily calmed neighbourhoods. One of the folks I met in my travels once compared the experience of driving through a Jewish settlement to feeling like she was passing through The Stepford Wives’ setting.
Some Context | How is it that these settlements even exist?
I mean, they’re illegal for one thing, and they’re the cause of much controversy and trouble for another. These Jewish settlers put up with a certain amount of constant fear—they have the guns and barricades to prove it. So why even bother living in there?
(SN: if you need a refresher on the current Israel-Palestinian political situation—in which Jewish settlements play a massive part—watch the Vox vid at the bottom of my first post.)
Though I’m sure a far longer, far more nuanced answer would better explain it, I’ve gathered from a number of conversations with locals that these residences exist for three main reasons:
- Zionism. Many of the Jewish settlers are Zionists. They believe that God has ordained Israel’s return to the land and that He is putting the entire Promised Land back into Jewish hands. In their minds, this religious belief transcends any man-made politic that tells them they shouldn’t be regaining more of their divinely promised land. Thus, their decision to live in the West Bank is a political act of defiance in the name of their Jewish faith.
- Politics. For some settlers, the reason is more simple, less religious, and perhaps a bit more crude. They think the land belongs to them, God-promised or not, and they want to physically stake more of it for Israel.
- Economics. The Israeli government has strategically made housing in existing and prospective Jewish settlements a whole lot cheaper than housing within Israel’s actual territory. Why the government has done this seems obvious to me, and it brings an automatic grimace to my face; but, in an effort to be fair, there’s a good chance it’s a bit more complicated than I’m tempted to make—so I’ll decline to comment further… All we need to note here is that many Israelis move to Jewish settlements (especially ones a quick bus-ride from the border) simply because it’s more economical. Thus, for many of these folks, their chosen place of residence is neither a religious nor a political statement.
Roots | a Peace Movement Run by a Settler?!?
Back to the bus ride. This was a portion of the trip I had been growing seriously curious about as the day drew nearer. Now that it had arrived, I had boarded the bus for the Jewish settlement Gush Etzion, where I was going to learn more about Roots. Roots is a collaborative peace-building movement facilitated by, and geared toward, both Palestinians and Jewish settlers. Their centre of operations, called Mirkaz Karama, is located on the outskirts of Gush Etzion. (Mirkaz is Hebrew for “Centre”; Karama is Arabic for “Dignity”; thus, in English they call it “The Dignity Centre”.)
My main point of contact leading up to the visit had been Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger. Hanan was a rabbi, a convicted Zionist, a Jewish settler, and an ideological enigma; how, I asked myself, can he be interested in making peace with Palestinians at the same time as all this? I had much to learn.
When I arrived at Mirkaz Karama, I didn’t see what I had expected. It didn’t look at all like what I had expected; it looked pretty nonchalant, and even a bit dilapidated.
What I saw was a small farmstead, complete with a greenhouse and a bunch of open greening crops; a few little rundown buildings alongside a few half-developed ones; a shaded area covered overhead by a raggedy canvas roof; a few couches and chairs…and a playground.
I was a little stumped as to what purpose each of these things serves Roots’ cause. And when I sat down with a group of visitors to hear more about the movement, I hoped to would be illuminated.
Turns out that, even after a good hour-and-a-half session, I still don’t quite get it completely. However, I did learn why this crop of land is so important in and of itself, regardless of what lay on top of it: this property is neutral ground.
By the end of this post, I’m hoping you’ll see the value yourself.
What I Heard…
We heard from two Roots representatives—Rabbi Hanan himself, as well as a young Palestinian named Noor Awad. Each of them shared a bit about their respective journeys, both of which led them to a place where they now strive to build peace nonviolently between Palestinians and Jews.
Noor Awad | Violent to Nonviolent Resistance
Noor’s story was similar to Palestinian stories I had heard prior to his—but of course, it was still his own story with its own personal distinctions. Noor was born a refugee in Amman (Jordan). His family moved to Bethlehem after the Oslo Accord of 1993; while this brought them closer to their homes, they were still refugees, unable to return to the land confiscated from them, which now lay beyond Palestinian borders in the State of Israel.
As a youngster during the various political upheavals between Israelis and Palestinians, Noor nursed a growing conviction that as a Palestinian it was his automatic responsibility to resist the unwanted Israeli governance of his people. In 2006, after arriving at the bloody scene shortly after a close friend of his was shot in the head and killed by an Israeli soldier (Noor reported seeing a “lake of blood” surrounding his friend’s body), Noor was galvanized into reckless action. Though only 16 years old at the time, he and some friends stole a vehicle, got hold of a few guns, and went on their way to spend their anger in bullets on the Israeli guard.
Luckily, someone close to him got wind of their plans and alerted the Palestinian police, who arrested them at the gate. Perceiving Noor’s emotional motivation, the empathetic investigating officer went easy on him and he was released. Regardless, Noor continued to angrily resist the Israeli Occupation, and continually hoped to see someone rise up and cause some retaliatory harm to Israel.
A while later, however, Noor earned a diploma to be a tour guide in Bethlehem. During this process, it was necessary for Noor to study the three Abrahamic Faiths. This was the first time he was forced to seriously consider the Other:
“Now I started to hear, I started to analyze…the narrative of the Other…but from a religious point of view. [I learned about] the connection of the Jews with the Land. And I started to understand that there was a gap in my understanding…when I was exposed to that. I want[ed] to understand their point of view.”
A little later, during one of his rounds as a tour guide, his group had arranged for him to stop for a visit with Roots. Rabbi Hanan was the first Israeli he had ever met—a rabbi and a settler! Noor was very suspicious as Hanan began speaking to his group, but Hanan’s words eventually helped Noor truly hear an Israeli’s heart in person for the first time.
It took a little while longer, and some more journeying with Roots, but eventually Noor came to believe that nonviolent methods—methods that sought understanding rather than retaliation—are the best ways to seek for a solution to the current conflict. Near the end of his time sharing with us, Noor quoted Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian activist and the founder of Roots, saying, “Our rights should be achieved through Jewish hearts, not Jewish bodies.”
Hanan | Dispelling the Fear of the Other
Hanan’s perspective was a new one for me. Hanan is a rabbi and settler who moved to the area around Gush Etzion from American many years ago. He is very enthusiastic about Zionism—during the first ten minutes of his time spent speaking to us, Hanan constantly made connections between the ancient Biblical people of Israel and his own personal goals within Occupied Palestine (he looked at these ties as ordained “Jewish continuity”). His hopes for Israel’s future are broad and optimistic.
And yet, after he passionately made these connections and shared these hopes, Hanan made an all-important confession:
“My sense is that the power of the narrative of Jewish continuity had blinded me my whole life to another story. My sense of Jewish connectedness to this land historically has overwhelmed me and prevented me from seeing the Palestinians. For 33 years, until three years ago, I lived here and I didn’t see anyone but my people. I didn’t know any story but my story. I took no account of someone who looked and thought different than me. They weren’t part of the story. It’s like the Palestinians were for me—and they are for the vast majority of Jews who live here—just part of the scenery in the background.”
After telling us about several events that slowly shifted the paradigm in Hanan’s mind, he shared about how an American pastor orchestrated a meeting between Hanan and a Palestinian.
This scared Hanan half to death. But the feeling, he learned, was mutual.
It’s important to understand that not only do Jewish settlers and Palestinians generally have nothing to do with one another, they are also petrified of one another. Hanan gave us some perspective:
“Listen to some of the facts: we speak separate languages, Jews and Palestinians; we live in different towns and villages; we have different school systems, we have different economic systems; we read different newspapers, listen to different radio stations, different television stations, which means the news we get is completely different, which means the world we live in is completely different; different religions (did I mention?), different holy books; different calendars; we even have different time zones [Palestinians and Jews switch to and from daylight savings on different days]… Let’s say you wanted to meet a Palestinian—which doesn’t happen around here, but let’s say you wanted to meet one—you say, ‘We’re going to meet Sunday at one o’clock in the afternoon’: you might come both on time and not see each other! And that’s a metaphor for how we live around here.”
In general, the two people groups are scared stiff that the other would only try to inflict harm should an encounter actually occur; and this fear is only propagated by the separate nature of everyday life as described above. It’s a common aphorism, after all, that we fear what we don’t know.
Hanan’s meeting with the Palestinian—which happened on the very ground we were all sitting on as he spoke—marked a massive change in direction for him. This change didn’t shift his political convictions, however, nor did it alter the quality or source of his faith; if anything, these things are probably more resolute than before because of it.
This change, if you’ll pardon my over-simplification, was simply a broadening of perspective to a width that allowed room for the Other—in his case, for the Palestinian. Citing important Kabbalist thinker Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), Hanan explained that “there are sparks of truth everywhere” and that, according to the Kabbalah, the human responsibility is “to gather in these sparks of truth into our own souls.” Doing this develops our knowledge of the truth into a fuller and fuller one.
Considering the Kabbalah states that there are sparks of truth everywhere, Kook went on to ask if falsehood does in fact exist at all. His answer: “Falsehood is partial truth masquerading as full truth.”
Hanan’s mission to better understand the Palestinian—and his broader mission to encourage his fellow Jews to follow suit—is motivated by this assertion. The perspective of each people group, Hanan acknowledged, is a partial truth—and so he seeks to bolster his Jewish one with that of the Palestinian.
And wow!—what a motivation. We would all probably do well to heed such a perspective.
Sometime after his life-changing conversation with a Palestinian, Hanan joined up with Roots. He now acts as one of its three chief coordinators.
What does Roots do?
Roots is only two-and-a-half years old, is very grassroots, and almost completely local in mindset. Their mission is quite simple—help local Palestinians and Jews meet one another in order to further inject the powerful variable of shared humanity into the conflict. Hanan quite bluntly stated that political resolutions couldn’t possibly happen yet because the people simply aren’t ready for it; before political solutions can materialize, relational bonds need to be established.
This is why the curious plot of land I visited just outside Gush Etzion is so important; because it is considered neutral ground—belonging neither to the Jew solely nor the Palestinian solely—it is a safe place for both people groups to visit. This is where both Noor and Hanan met one of their Others for the first time, and it continues to be a place where many more like them are treated to the same nerve-racking—but enormously profitable—experience.
If you’re interested in reading more about them, you can visit their website here. You can also view a great Ted Talk from Roots’ founder, Ali Abu Awwad below:
A Personal Reflection
There are a lot of things I don’t hold in common with Hanan—but chiefly (without trying to be too political!):
- I am not a Zionist (the lion’s share of Western Evangelicals are).
- I ultimately don’t believe Jews should be forcibly settling in the West Bank—I don’t believe that God, as revealed through the Old Testament, could possibly support such a means-to-an-end approach to promise-fulfillment (and no, I don’t believe there is such a promise to be fulfilled in the first place).
Amidst these important disagreements, though, I do agree that nonviolence and relationship-building with the Other are the best way forward for practically any conflict.
So, despite these clanging discords, I can still get behind what Roots is doing. And, if I’ve learned anything from Roots, I’ve learned that I should probably get to know more of the people involved before I shout my opinions from even the shortest of rooftops.