Which narrative is right: the Palestinians’ claiming they are occupied refugees on land that historically belongs to them, or the West Bank settlers’ claiming that same land as their own, given to them by God in the Torah?
Can both narratives be right?
That is indeed the position of a network of Palestinian and Israeli grassroots advocates in the West Bank that call themselves Roots. The nonviolent activists look to each other as partners to an ultimate peace and, through dialogue and joint programming, come to recognize their neighbors’ connection to the land as being just as valid as their own.
Two representatives from Roots, Orthodox settler Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Palestinian Christian Antwan Saca, were in Pittsburgh last week to address an audience including Presbyterians and Jews at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a graduate theological school of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) located in East Liberty.
While members of the Presbyterian Church are generally divided in their positions on the Israel/Palestinian conflict, in 2016, the church passed a series of resolutions at its General Assembly against Israel, supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the Jewish state and approving a report that labeled Israel’s “policy trajectory of continued settlements and brutal occupation” as “deeply troubling.”
The program at the PTS, which drew 113 people, was sponsored by the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, in cooperation with the PTS and Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania.
“We wanted to give the Jewish community and the Christian community the opportunity to hear a unique perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that most people haven’t heard before,” said Josh Sayles, director of the CRC. “It’s a perspective that maintains the dignity of both the Jewish and the Palestinian people, recognizes the humanity in all sides and forces everyone to think outside the box.
It was the Jewish Federation’s intention not so much to attempt to come up with a solution to the conflict at this program, but to give people the opportunity to come at the conflict from a different angle.”
Schlesinger, one of the founders of Roots, was raised in New York as a Zionist and made aliyah at the age of 18.
“I didn’t want to be on the sidelines of Jewish history,” he told the crowd gathered at the PTS on Oct. 25. Schlesinger, who lives in the Gush Etzion, a cluster of settlements south of Jerusalem in the West Bank, had his life “completely transformed three and a half years ago when I met a Palestinian for the first time.”
Saca was born in Jerusalem in 1984 to a Christian family from the city of Bethlehem. He is a graduate of the Arab American University of Jenin and has a bachelor’s degree in public law.
Schlesinger described the intensity of commitment that the settlers feel for the land.
“Our Jewish identity is deeply embedded in every fiber in our being,” he said. “We see ourselves as a link in a tradition going back 3,000 years. The land of Israel is an integral part of our identity.”
Saca, in turn, described the victimhood created among his people when “700,000 Palestinians were kicked out of our land, creating Palestinian refugees.”
That victimhood-based identity has led, Saca said, to “resilience, resistance,” and the aim to “achieve rights.”
It was not until three and a half years ago that Schlesinger “realized that the power and righteousness of my identity was so overwhelming, it blinded me from seeing the Palestinian story,” he said.
“Palestinians were like the background noise on the radio. I was blind, but I didn’t know I’d been blind for 33 years.”
Schlesinger saw the light one day when he was driving two friends, pastors, in Gush Etzion, and stopped to pick up a hitchhiker. He told the pastors that he would stop to pick up anyone — and then it hit him.
That was, in fact, a lie, he realized. He would only stop to pick up Jews.
That was what led Schlesinger to try to get to know the Palestinians in the neighboring communities and to create opportunities for others to do the same.
For Saca, though he had been engaged in the nonviolent struggle for peace between the two sides since he was a child, it was not until he began dialoguing with Jews that he came to realize the Israelis’ “argument for security was coming out of the fear the Jewish community has felt over 2,000 years of anti-Semitism,” he said.
Now, through Roots’ joint projects and workshops, Jews and Palestinians can create trust and understanding.
The organization offers activities every day to engage the two populations with each other. Sixty children join together in a youth group that has visited both the Yad Vashem Holocaust center and a destroyed Palestinian village. A women’s study session focuses on both the Quran and the Torah.
Roots is a way to “try to find a way to be reconnected with the land without stepping on the backs of the Palestinians,” Schlesinger said.
While Roots has a political vision, it is not a political movement, stressed the rabbi.
“We are working to create dignity and rights for now,” he said. “We are preparing the human groundwork for a future peace plan.”
The message the activists wanted to leave with the crowd was that it is “OK to be pro-Palestinian, and it’s OK to be pro-Israel,” Schlesinger said. “But we’d like you to be pro-Israel and to be pro-Palestinian at the same time. We are really on the same side — the side of peace and reconciliation.”
The program, Sayles said, was successful in achieving its aim of exposing its audience to a new way of looking at the conflict.
“Almost everybody that I talked to that was unfamiliar with Roots said they had never heard that perspective before,” Sayles said.
Sayles compared the work of Roots to the path that led to the ultimate resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
“So many experts that presidential administrations have sent into the region to try to solve the [Israel/Palestinian] conflict are often people who had experience in the conflict in Northern Ireland,” Sayles noted. “And when you look at the Protestants and the Catholics and their narratives in Northern Ireland, both sides sat down with conflicting narratives that if you believe one, it was impossible for the other to be true. But both sides sat down and said, ‘We’re sick of fighting. Even though our narratives don’t add up, I believe your narrative, and you believe mine. Let’s have peace.’ And I believe Roots is a step in that direction.”
Schlesinger and Saca also met with a group of about two dozen interfaith clergy on Oct. 26 at Temple Sinai. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at