Op-ed: Dignity in differences, a new perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

On Friday, April 8 Hillel, the Muslim Student Association and Visions of Peace (VOP) hosted Ali Abu Awwad and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger. The two speakers are part of the grassroots organization Roots, which aims to further humanity and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  This event was VOP’s first; VOP is a new Hillel initiative that engages with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by promoting grassroots organizations in which Israelis and Palestinians are committed to working for peace together through business, the environment, education, technology and dialogue.

Ali Abu Awwad is a Palestinian whose experience with the occupying Israeli government, which has included a long stay in military prison, has led him to advocate for non-violent action towards peace.  The most striking moment of Awwad’s talk was his response to a question about the seeming lack of recognition of the Israeli Occupation on Roots’ website. Awwad responded in righteous anger, saying, “My nation is dying every day.” In criticism of peacemakers’ politicking on both sides of the conflict he said, “If you have the courage of a peacemaker, I want you to work on the heart of the problem. Where my kids are dying, there I want your activity … Establishing another peace company—not organization—is not peacemaking.”  He absolutely recognizes the Israeli occupation, yet he sees his activism as above political language and talking heads.  He believes that the separation of Jews and Palestinians fuels continued hatred and misunderstanding. To Awwad, Palestinians and Israelis must work together to bring justice and peace.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger would have once considered himself the oil to Awwad’s water. As an Israeli settler, he originally believed that Jews and Palestinians could not mix with one another. To this day, he presents himself with “three labels: Jew, Zionist and settler.” As Schlesinger embarked on a journey of understanding the systems of oppression in Israel, he came to understand how settlers and settlements impacted the lives of Palestinians and perpetuated their oppression.

Awwad and Schlesinger’s talks moved and surprised me. I was struck by the intense honesty of both speakers. Awwad spoke his truth with strength, stressing the importance of knowing and working with those he once viewed only as his enemy.  The talk’s most powerful moment was when Awwad spoke of the hardships he continually faces by virtue of being a Palestinian and the hope of reconciliation and co-existence that he sees in his organization. Schlesinger identified as a militantly Zionist Israeli settler, but he was willing to point the finger at himself and stress the importance of recognizing the humanity of those on the other side of the conflict.

We created Visions of Peace because we want to bring a new perspective to campus: one that is fresh, different, and useful. We have all heard the conventional solutions proposed by politicians and organizations from different perspectives and approaches that, to date, have not helped the cause of peace. We can learn from the Palestinians and Israelis who live within this conflict every day. If they can work together and find creative, practical ways to co-exist and create grassroots opportunities for understanding, then we have a responsibility to help them through partnership in supporting and promoting their work.

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