A discussion at the University of Indianapolis brought together two unique voices in the quest for peace in the Middle East.
“Painful Hope: A Palestinian Activist and an Israeli Settler Rabbi Talk Peace” featured Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, an Orthodox rabbi and teacher, and Antwan Saca, the director of programs for the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem. The event was a ROOTS initiative sponsored by the University in partnership with the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC).
ROOTS is a unique initiative in Israel’s West Bank that brings together Jewish and Palestinian populations to plant the seeds of peace.
“One of the barriers to peace in the West Bank is truly what ROOTS is trying to combat,” JCRC Program Director Lauren Morgan said, explaining that the two cultures live side by side “but they don’t know their neighbors.” Some of ROOTS’ activities include teaching Arabic to Jewish settlers and Hebrew to Muslim and Christian Palestinians.
Despite widely divergent backgrounds, both speakers described a life-changing realization as they came to appreciate another perspective. Rabbi Schlesinger, one of ROOTS’ founders, is a New Yorker who moved to Israel as a young man, while Saca is a Palestinian whose family worked in the tourism industry.
Schlesinger and Saca provided powerful examples of two communities co-existing without meaningful cultural exchange, and ROOTS’ efforts to provide a remedy. Schlesinger likened the experience to living in two separate universes with different legal systems, media, schools and time zones.
Schlesinger described setting up a meeting for an Israeli woman who wanted to get involved with ROOTS. When he said the meeting would be held in Beit Ummar, a nearby Palestinian town, she responded, “What’s Beit Ummar?” Schlesinger said it was the equivalent of someone from Indianapolis saying they’d never heard of Cincinnati. “They see nothing beyond the fence,” he said.
Saca interacted with Israelis on a daily basis until the first intifadah (Palestinian uprising) from 1987 to 1993, when he witnessed violence for the first time. He described the daily life of checkpoints and military rule, and losing hope after the collapse of the Oslo Accords.
Saca’s rediscovery of activism and the work of the ROOTS initiative energized his efforts to pursue peace. It wasn’t until a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the site of the German concentration camp, when he began to understand Israeli aspirations for statehood.
“I never understood why their need for security was so deep,” he said.
Saca made it a goal to create programs that target community members, not just political activists. He said it’s about bringing both sides together so that they see each other and acknowledge their uniquely traumatic histories. “It’s so hard to hear the truth. They don’t want to listen. Those who stay undergo a process of transformation.”
It is at those moments of transformation that true change happens, both speakers emphasized. The first time Rabbi Schlesinger engaged in dialogue with a group of Palestinians, he described a Muslim woman telling him, “’I can’t believe I’m talking to you because we don’t talk to settlers.’”
“But we kept talking,” Schlesinger said.
Written by Sara Galer, Senior Communications Specialist, University of Indianapolis. Contact newsdesk@UIndy.edu with your campus news.