MILWAUKEE – It’s not every day you get to meet an Israeli settler and a Palestinian who can talk comfortably together, so more than 100 people turned out to hear one such pair speak.
On Wednesday, Nov. 1, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Palestinian Fody Abuayyash, both affiliated with an organization called Roots, spoke at Plymouth Church, 2717 E. Hampshire St., Milwaukee. The event was a program of the church, Friends of Roots and the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
The men didn’t detail any possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they said discussion and understanding are what’s most needed.
The rabbi told the story of when he learned to truly see the Palestinians for the first time in recent years, even though his settlement is surrounded by Palestinian residents.
“I had no idea there was another people in the same land that I call home,” he said. He recalled his attitude: “This is our land. Our rights. We want it to be our state.”
As his eyes started to open, he said, he tried doing a Google search for “Israeli occupation of Palestine” and what he found was startling. Much of it was borderline anti-Semitic, he said, “but some of what I read penetrated my heart as true.”
“At some point I have come to realize that we have another people there and they have a right to be there,” he said.
But Schlesinger is not about to let go of it all, still calling himself a Zionist and pointing out that much of the Torah is connected to Samaria and Judea, lands where many Palestinians now reside.
“I can’t separate Jewish identity from the land,” he said, adding that he feels that he was born there when God spoke to Abraham. A Zionist, he said, is a Jew who understands and is in love with Jewish destiny in Israel.
The men were civil, even comfortable with one another throughout the presentation, but Abuayyash had a different perspective. He lived through both the first and second intifadas before moving to America.
“The land of Palestine is the land of Arabs,” Abuayyash said. “It’s ours and we have the right to claim it and establish our state.”
He was unmoved by Schlesinger’s historic claims on Israel. “The Arabs have been there for thousands of years,” Abuayyash said. “So I think it belongs to us.”
Moderator Andrea Schneider, a professor of law with Marquette University and chairman of the board at Milwaukee Jewish Federation, accepted questions from the audience on notecards. She read and paraphrased a group:
- “What is the work that needs to be done?”
- “How do we see the other?”
- “What would it take to renounce violence?”
The answer, the two men said, is dialogue and getting to know one another.
“He was my enemy five years ago,” said Abuayyash, referring to Schlesinger, a settler originally from New York. Now he considers Schlesinger a friend.
“Living in peace is the goal,” Abuayyash, said, “side by side.”
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Roots is a network of Palestinians and Israelis who have “come to see each other as the partners we both need to make changes to end our conflict,” according to the organization. The group sponsors joint projects and workshops for Israelis and Palestinians. It seeks to create trust and partnership, which it sees as “the societal foundations upon which future political agreements can be built.” More info: FriendsofRoots.net