Presentation by Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger at the Parliament of the World’s Religions
Chicago, August 18, 2023

We come from the Holy Land, but life on the ground is anything but holy these days: Jews and Palestinians live in geographical proximity but actually in separate worlds. There is very little connection or interaction between Jews and Palestinians. Between the two sides one finds ignorance and prejudice, resentment, fear and hostility. Furthermore, Jews have all the power and Palestinians suffer from deep institutional neglect and discrimination. People are dying almost every day because of these conditions

For 33 years I had lived there in the Holy Land but had never had a real conversation with a Palestinian. For me they were only part of the drab, gray scenario that passes in the background of the movie, my movie, but are not part of the plot. They were transparent, or I was blind. I lived as if my story – my Jewish story – was the only story in the land. There was no other story, no other People.

Today I know better. After 9 1/2 years of deep and difficult, painful and productive, challenging and cathartic, interactions with my Palestinian neighbors, I know that there are two Peoples, two stories in the Holy Land, and to live as if there is only one story is to mistake part of the truth for the whole truth.That is very close to falsehood and I don’t want to be there any longer.

About 9 1/2 years ago we founded Roots, the Israeli-Palestinian grassroots initiative for understanding, nonviolence and transformation. Roots created something almost unheard of – a joint Palestinian Jewish community center, where local people from the two sides come together almost every day for social, educational and religious activities. These include photography workshops, music workshops, collective trauma therapy, interfaith dialogue and study, Jewish and Muslim religious celebrations, study of the other side’s lifestyle, culture and language, playback theater, women’s group, children’s program, youth groups, summer camps, political discussions, etc. We also focus on community activism, trying to make Palestinian lives better on the ground by focusing on legal issues, freedom of movement, sewage, building rights, etc.

90% of the thousands of Israeli Jews and Palestinians who come to our programs have never met the other side. They come with their anger and fear, with their prejudices and traumas from lives lived in the shadow of violence and attacks. The first thing that happens is humanization of the other. He or she turns out not to be the demon we imagined. We discover a human being on the other side. We are surprised that they are human like us and we are often embarrassed that we are surprised – but we are still surprised!

Humanization is difficult. At the beginning cognitive dissonance is created, and then unsettling empathy. The process begins almost immediately but it takes a long time to fully sink in. But that is not the end of it. There is a second level, which is the recognition of the national identity of the other side. Israeli Jews and Palestinians by and large construct their identities upon the erasure of the other side’s identity. Both sides think that they can tell the other side who there are. The Israeli Jews say there is no such thing as a Palestinian! There never was a Palestinian State. They are just Arabs, so let them go back to Saudi Arabia where they came from. And the Palestinians say that the Koran greatly respects Judaism, but it is a faith and not a People, so let them go back to Eastern Europe where they came from.

But after you listen to the other side tell their stories week after week and month after month, you begin to realize that you know nothing of who they are. You have to listen – and it is so so hard to listen – and let them tell you who they are, and then they may listen when you tell who you are.  The Jewish Israeli participants in Roots have learned that there is such a thing as the Palestinian People and there is such a thing as the Land of Palestine and that the Palestinians belong to Palestine. The Palestinian participants in Roots have learned that there is such a thing as the Jewish People and there is such a thing as the Land of Israel and that the Jews belong to the Land of Israel.

And here is the most excruciatingly difficult, the most gut wrenching, the most ostensibly traitorous thing – the borders of the historical land of Israel and of historical Palestine are the exact same borders. Both Peoples belong to the same piece of land. And no one is leaving, neither people is going anywhere.

Our message is that both Jews and Palestinians belong to the same land. We must both recognize the other side’s identity and the other side’s belonging to the land. We must find a way to fit two People’s into one land,and the way to do that is first to fit two truths into one heart

According to our understanding, the political conflict between the Jewish Israelis and the Palestinians is at its core a conflict of identity. In order to solve the conflict we must each overcome our hubris of exclusivity and learn to accept and recognize the other side’s identity and their rootedness in the land.

Through our grassroots, people-to-people peace building, Roots is preparing the human hearts for a future political solution founded on equality, freedom, human rights, dignity and security for both Peoples in that little strip of land that we both call home.