Israeli and Palestinian teenagers hardly ever meet, much less find themselves in a setting where such questions are not only acceptable but also encouraged. The Roots program that brought these teens together, however, is the brainchild of a Palestinian peace activist, Ali Abu Awwad, and is now co-directed by Ali’s brother Haled.
The location of the Roots program in the Etzion region, just south of Jerusalem, is intentional and fraught. Gush Etzion (Hebrew for Etzion region), or the “Gush” as it is commonly called, had been populated with Jews before Israel’s creation in 1948. It fell to the Jordanians just days before Israel’s independence, and remained under Jordanian control for 19 years. Almost as soon as Israel wrested it back in the 1967 Six Day War, the children and grandchildren of the men who had died trying to defend it returned to the Gush and began to build.
Today, the Gush is home to a number of Jewish communities. Surrounding these towns (“settlements” in international parlance) are numerous Arab villages. The proximity of their homes notwithstanding — Israelis and Palestinians in the Gush even frequent the same shopping centers — the two populations almost never talk and know virtually nothing about each other. Abu Awwad’s program aims to change that.
A few dozen Jews and Palestinians, all teenagers, meet regularly, their discussions facilitated by translators. All of them encounter resistance, even hostility, from other members of their own community for having agreed to participate. Together, they slowly break down stereotypes.
The program’s leaders are quick to note that its impact extends beyond the few dozen teenagers involved at any one time: It opens the eyes of their families, and then circles beyond. David Palant, the father of one Jewish participant from the settlement of Alon Shvut, noted in an open letter he wrote about the program that when his son “returned from a joint Shabbat near Hadera, and told us that there were Palestinians in the group who had never before seen the ocean, my heart broke.”
Palant described what happened when he attended a Roots program on the Ninth of Av, a deeply nationalist day on which Jews mourn the destruction of the two temples: He heard a lecture by a sheikh from Jaffa and “was deeply impressed by what he said, by things he told about which I had no idea, and I was mortified. How was it possible that in all my years, in the thousands of hours that I had devoted to Jewish and general education … I had never found the time to learn anything about the culture of the people who live next to me?”
In the highly ideological and often monolithic settler community, going public with such a letter requires more than audacity — it is throwing social caution to the wind. Even if in small numbers, Palestinian and Jewish families involved in Roots are choosing to do just that.
Read the entire story at Bloomberg.