A rabbi begins to uncover a Palestinian narrative

Rabbi  Hanan Schlesinger

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger

by Kathryn Shihadah

with excerpts from “Should it be so hard to condemn the murder of Ari Fuld?” by Hanan Schlesinger (Rabbis Without Borders), My Jewish Learning

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger runs an organization in Israel called Roots - a group of Israelis and Palestinians in search of common ground. Their mission statement, “we envision a social and political reality that is founded on dignity, trust, and a mutual recognition and respect for both peoples' historic belonging to the entire Land,” is big and bold.

Rabbi Schlesinger acknowledges the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative, even if it causes him pain and shame. Such humility, such acceptance, breathes life into a Palestinian. Brothers ought to do this for each other.

It was a relief to read his article - especially since it was shared on Facebook by an Israeli Jew. It was a relief because he acknowledges the possibility of Israeli-Jewish guilt vis-a-vis the Palestinian situation. From the start, he admits that his message is difficult:

This piece may anger many people because it challenges some of our [Jewish] most deeply held beliefs about our own goodness. It is always hardest to see our own fallacies, especially when we have built the edifice of our own self-understanding upon them. At times, too much is at stake to evaluate ourselves fairly…

The appalling murder in cold blood of Ari Fuld (may his memory be a blessing) less than a month ago – he was stabbed in the back in broad daylight while doing his shopping at the mall here in Gush Etzion – touched and enraged many of us. For many people, it was just another confirmation of what everyone already knew: that we cannot trust our Palestinian neighbors. Coexistence is an illusion and every Arab is a potential terrorist.

Instead of jumping to such a conclusion himself, Rabbi Schlesinger entered a dialogue with the Palestinians in his organization. They discussed the possible causes for the kind of desperation that would lead someone to murder. (Note: seeking context is not the same as condoning murder.)

Photo from Friends of Roots FB page

Photo from Friends of Roots FB page

It is staggering to imagine the level of self-control exercised by the Jewish members of the rabbi’s group, to listen to this conversation without judgment. But they have laid the groundwork. They recognize the humanity of everyone in the room.

Here are some of the insights they gained, as Rabbi Schlesinger describes them:

Palestinians feel very strongly that resistance to the assault on their very existence is permitted and necessary…Israel [is] implementing an oppressive, racist legal system against us that makes a mockery of our humanity and tramples our dignity.

It would be hard for many people I know to stay silent even this long. They would want to interrupt: “Israel is not racist,” and “you all are bringing this on yourselves through your violence.” It’s important to not only resist vocalizing judgment, but to resist judgment itself while allowing Palestinians to talk.

Part of Palestinian despair comes from the fact that they are assumed to not have a narrative. Right after Ari Fuld’s murder, I heard comments like, “Palestinians are all raised to hate Jews. Palestinians know they will be heroes if they kill Jews. Palestinians want Israel to be destroyed.”

What kind of burden must it be to go through life knowing that many people see you this way? To them, you are not really human: your life has one objective. And it’s not to raise a family or to make the world a better place.

Rabbi Schlesinger keeps listening:

The State, and the settlers, encroach daily on what is left of Palestinian land, building more and more settlements and exclusively Jewish neighborhoods. Soldiers stand guard over the settlers and abet them in their aggression.  A war of attrition is being waged against Palestine and its people, who are gradually being removed from their land. The possibility of ever establishing a Palestinian state is being killed.

Israeli settlers throw stones at Palestinians in front of Israeli soldiers who watch without intervening.

Israeli settlers throw stones at Palestinians in front of Israeli soldiers who watch without intervening.

In fact, soldiers do enable settler aggression on a daily basis (many examples can be cited). The State has dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in order to build settlements on Palestinian land. Failure to acknowledge these serious injustices create another layer of injustice, and make the possibility of peace remote.

The Palestinian discourse continues:

Do we not have the right to stand up and defend ourselves[?]

(But, we protest, you certainly cannot condone the murder of innocent civilians!)  

Who is an innocent civilian? Every settler is part of a citizen’s army that is doing violence to our land, our culture, our dignity, and our lives each day that passes. 

If this sounds like a sweeping generalization, it is. But in a sense, it is accurate: even though many settlers live on Palestinian land with no evil intent, they are still on the land, and Palestinians are not. Whether each of the 600,000 Israeli settlers is aware of it or not, they are collectively violating Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination.

For those who believe that “Judea and Samaria” (i.e. the West Bank) “belong to the Jews, end of story,” recognize that that is not the end of the story: it’s just half of the story.

Acknowledge the loss that Palestinians have experienced. Allow them to vent awhile longer.

Aisha Mohammed Aravi. (Photo by IMEMC)

Aisha Mohammed Aravi. (Photo by IMEMC)

And many of you [settlers] are literally armed…in nearly every picture of Ari Fuld on social media he has a gun slung over his shoulder and appears darn proud of it.  You Israelis saw him as a swashbuckling hero! Well, he died in the fashion that he lived!

Just last week an innocent Palestinian woman was killed by a rock thrown through the window of the car her husband was driving. Her husband saw the perpetrators, settler youth standing on a hilltop by the side of the road. Our Palestinian interlocutors point to this tragedy as another in a long string of settler violence from which they suffer. 

How can we condemn the killing of Ari when our own people are being killed all the time and Israelis take no notice? How can we recognize your suffering when no one recognizes ours?

(I was unable to find any condemnation of the stoning by Benjamin Netanyahu - or any other Israeli or Jewish leader for that matter). What I did find is a statement by the minister of tourism, claiming that the killing was “a scrap of an incident.”)

Rabbi Schlesinger reflects:

As repugnant – and frightening – as I find these arguments, I have to admit that I empathize with the internal struggle of my Palestinian partners.

So many Israelis and especially settlers, (the closer we are the less we see!) don’t see the violence that we are doing to the Palestinians every day, but I do see it. It is real. Houses are searched and ransacked without a search warrant. Men, women, and children are arrested and held without the due process of civilian courts.

Israeli soldiers recently detained 20 Palestinians from the occupied West Bank. (AFP/ File Photo)

Israeli soldiers recently detained 20 Palestinians from the occupied West Bank. (AFP/ File Photo)

A blanket prohibition is imposed on all building on Palestinian land under Israeli control. Left with no alternative, they build illegally and are promptly served with demolition orders…Thousands of homeowners live with the threat of losing their homes hanging over them and their families…

A whole village – Khan al Ahmar – is being destroyed as I write these words.

Let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge that laundry list of issues. They are real. (They are also the tip of the iceberg - we could add the 270 children in detention, 5,600+ political prisoners, apartheid laws, checkpoints, and snipers taking aim at Gaza, to name a few.)

Palestinians feel their lives, their culture, and their dignity are under constant attack. And they have no recourse and no hope. They feel that they have tried everything and nothing has worked.

(Anyone who thinks that Palestinians have tried only violence needs to do some homework.)

Rabbi Schlesinger explains the payoff of his organization’s ongoing dialogue:

[Palestinians in the group] understand that our [Jewish] presence in this land from the river to the sea, including Judea and Samaria, is not all wrong. They have come to understand that they are not the only victims and that not only they live in fear. They have become deeply cognizant of the complexity and have experienced empathy, without compromising their own identity…Our Palestinian partners are coming to terms with the realization that such violence is both wrong and unproductive.

He adds that the Jews in the organization are also “struggling with our own newfound insights.”

Because the rabbi is speaking from his own privileged perspective - enlightened though it is - I will give him the benefit of the doubt on several points.

  • When he says “our presence in this land from the river to the sea…is not all wrong,” I don’t hear any sense of obligation to right the wrong of settlement-building or apartheid - but I hope that he recognizes that obligation. Nor do I hear an acknowledgement that Palestinian presence in the land is acceptable - but I hope that it is implied.

  • When he says that Palestinians “have come to understand that they are not the only victims and that not only they live in fear,” he makes no reference to the disproportionate nature of Palestinian loss and fear because of the disproportionate nature of the occupation and Israeli military power. I hope he realizes that this is the case.

10-19-18 tank.jpg
  • And his statement about Palestinians realizing that “violence is both wrong and unproductive” is not followed by an acknowledgement that Israeli violence is many times more prevalent and deadly - primarily stones vs. primarily genuine military weaponry - but again, I hope that he is cognizant of the fact.

Schlesinger’s final words:

Dialogue complicates. Which means that, however slowly, it works.

And my final words:

Dialogue is risky business, but true integrity requires a genuine recognition of the other side, followed by genuine soul-searching.

Let’s talk.

And because talking is a luxury that only outsiders can afford, let’s also do something that isn’t so painstakingly slow: let’s end the occupation.

Kathryn ShihadahComment