Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Roots | WAMC

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Roots

Nov 14, 2019

We all have instincts for self-preservation that we sharpen over the course of our lives. Yet how do we avoid turning those same sharpened instincts into weapons that we use on ourselves and each other, so that we all don’t get badly injured in the process? Specifically, in our conflicts with others, when, if ever, and how, if at all, should we step outside our zones of safety and suspicion, to take the risk of relating to our (perceived or real) enemies -the “others” – as sisters and brothers?

Roots, an outside-the-box Israeli/Palestinian peace organization, is taking some breathtaking risks to address these questions. My community recently was honored to host Roots’ founders and co-directors, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Shadi abu Awwad, as part of their annual American communities’ tour. Roots identifies itself as a “people-to-people” organization that promotes healing, community and understanding between Jewish religious settlers and Palestinians, all of whom live on the West Bank. The intractable cultural, political, legal and military divides between these two long-time communities-in- conflict makes Roots’ mission formidable at best. The popular, widely accepted wisdom – reinforced by mutual violence and mistrust – is that these two communities won’t solve the problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because they are the problem. However, Shadi and Hanan argue that without genuine dialogue, human encounter and the deepest listening, these enemies will never begin to transcend their fears and get to know each other as people. They believe that to be worth more than the piece of paper it is written on, any future peace agreement must be founded upon actual relationships formed on the ground.

Located in the Etzion Bloc on the West Bank, for the last six years, Roots has run the only West Bank based Jewish-Palestinian community center, a summer camp for Jewish and Palestinian kids, open dialogue groups, interfaith study programs and much more. A critical political and moral assumption underlying Roots’ philosophy is that the historical narratives of Jews and Palestinians, as well as their deep attachments to the same piece of land, are equally legitimate, authentic, and worthy of each other’s full attention and respect. Where this assumption leads politically is not a primary focus of Roots’ relational work.

To say the least, this assumption can be quite threatening. Many Israeli and Palestinian nationalist narratives abhor the remotest possibility of the other’s legitimacy. Yet the core of this threat is more elementally about fear. To many people, every Jewish settler is inherently (or at least potentially) a gun-toting religious fascist; to many others, every Palestinian is inherently (or at least potentially) a blood thirsty antisemitic terrorist. Having taken their own painful journeys through fear and hatred into profound cognitive dissonance and fraught self-transformations, Hanan, Shadi, and the entire Roots community understand these fears all too well. Undoing decades of demonization by listening to your enemy with respect and empathy demands a gargantuan leap of faith; this is especially the case absent a genuine peace process that guarantees safety, justice and equality to everyone involved. As I wrote this essay, I imagined family and friends on the political right warning me, “Palestinians will never accept us and our existential legitimacy, no matter what we give them or do for them. Do not trust them.” I imagined family and friends on the political left warning me, “All of the talk about peace aside, Israel and its settlers will never allow Palestinians the justice and dignity of independence and statehood. Do not trust them.”

I understand the anxieties underlying these arguments; yet I am nonetheless drawn to this third-way approach that Roots advocates. In the absence of active political vision and good will on both sides, a peace initiative like Roots is at least trying to change the tragic narrative that literally strangles Jews and Palestinians. This only happens through the hard work of humanizing encounter between enemies, that most difficult and most sacred of human endeavors. It seems counter-intuitive; and at least in the short run, it likely will gain little political traction. However, let’s consider the alternative, what Rabbi Schlesinger calls the hubris of exclusivity, (“only my narrative and my pain are legitimate”). This is what now often passes for political discourse in Israel, America and the West. How’s that been working out for us?

Roots is part of a small but growing number of groups in Israel, America and around the world that seek to restore civility and peace by replacing diatribe with dialogue and rage with relationship building. They ask us to live out the call to transcend the comfortable but euthanizing boundaries that hold us back from fulfilling God’s vision for us all: to bless and be blessed by each other, not as enemies, but as sisters and brothers.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, April 2020)

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