Shaul Judelman is a Jewish Israeli living in the Gush Etzion settlement and he is the coordinator of Roots – a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians which aims to shift hatred and suspicion towards trust, empathy, and mutual support. He sat with Fathom deputy editor Calev Ben-Dor to talk about his journey to non-violent peace activism and his thoughts about the political future. See the interview in this issue of Fathom with Ali Abu-Awwad, Judelman’s Palestinian partner.
Calev Ben-Dor: What events have shaped you and your opinions?
Shaul Judelman: My family migrated to the United States when I was two. We weren’t religious but I always felt a deep attachment to the Jewish people and I remember being involved in demonstrations for freeing Soviet Jewry and bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel. As a young kid I often thought about where we were from, and on a deep level I knew that the Land of Israel was our home; that it was a place where if I was ever down and out, I could come and they would let me in. In the year 2000 I came to Israel in order to experience a Judaism that was connected to the tradition and to the land. But it was also the start of the second intifada, and violence broke out a few months after I arrived.
It was a very intense time. There were bus bombings and suicide attacks and shootings. I lost a cousin and a friend to Palestinian knife attacks. I had come here with hope in the Oslo Accords – and then that hope was dashed. People raise the question whether the violence was ‘terrorism’ or ‘freedom fighting’. While I saw it as terrorism, I was able to understand that, logically, the other side viewed it as freedom fighting. But in 2007 there was an attack on a child in my community in which he was killed by an axe in the back of his head, and after that my politics moved pretty far to the right. I couldn’t understand how Israel was supposed to make peace with people who applauded an attack like that.
It’s true, this is a political conflict. But what maintains the conflict and makes it intractable are human feelings like anger and fear. We’re an emotional people and violence is a very emotionally stimulating thing. There isn’t a home around here that hasn’t lost someone or felt the fear on their flesh – whether that is fear of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) making an arrest in your town or fear of someone throwing stones at your car while driving. Fear and anger takes us to irrational places and makes us defensive, too sure of ourselves and our positions.
Another element in this conflict is despair. 80 per cent of Israelis theoretically support the two-state solution but the same number don’t believe they’ll see it in their lifetime. And this despair applies even to those like myself who can agree with the right of the Palestinians to a state. (We can debate whether Palestinians existed a thousand years ago but this is the reality on the ground now.) Even supporters of Palestinian rights are afraid to create one on the high ground [i.e. The West Bank] given what’s going on in the region. What if Hamas were to gain power there? Are we going to evacuate the settlements and not even get security?
So I don’t trust and I have deep fears. And with that fear comes hatred and stereotyping. Unfortunately one of the fruits of the Oslo Accords is that two generations (of both sides) have no experience of the other than as a soldier / settler / terrorist / murderer. And both sides are sure there is no partner for peace.
CBD: Both you and Ali Abu Awwad have mentioned the anger you had. Yet today you are both engaged in non-violence and in dialogue. What ultimately brought you to Roots?
SJ: In 2007 I was angry and fearful. I felt that our only chance to survive here was to be strong. The challenge that ultimately led me to be sitting here was first presented to me by my Rabbi, Menachem Froman, a settler rabbi from Tekoa (in Gush Etzion). Yasser Arafat once offered him the position of Minister of Jewish Affairs in Palestine! He also met with Sheikh Yassin of Hamas who told him: ‘In Oslo, your heretics and my heretics got together and signed a piece of paper. But you and I could make peace in five minutes.’ I was also influenced by my Judaism. One line from the Talmud – ‘whomever gets angered is as if they had worshipped an idol’ – hit me particularly hard.
Rabbi Froman felt deeply what Judea and Samaria meant. 90 per cent of the Jewish sites in the Bible appear here. Oslo not only didn’t recognise that but gave them away. Rabbi Froman once told Tony Blair that religion is not some dust that can be swept under the carpet but a tiger that will jump out and bite you if it’s not addressed. And Oslo didn’t address it – it touched neither on Palestinian refugees nor Jewish historical claims to this area.
Speaking honestly, as a Jewish Israeli, the map of Israel doesn’t have a big gash (the green line) down the middle of it. And it’s the same for the Palestinians. We need to back up from the politics and see where peoples’ heads are at. Acre and Jaffa are no less Palestine than Ramallah and Hebron in peoples’ experience. Refugees still hold the keys to their homes from 1948. And Shechem (Nablus) and Hebron are a deep part of us. So here we are with two narratives that don’t fit.
When he moved to the West Bank in the mid-1970s, Rabbi Froman said a very powerful thing – that our people’s story of redemption cannot become another people’s story of exile. And he saw that one of the core questions was about religion. Can Islam really make space for a Jewish sovereign entity here? Can religious Jews really allow a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria? Instead of hiding from those issues, it’s important that we bring them out. Let’s look at the roots of the conflict and not be afraid of them because they are uncomfortable.
Through being exposed to Rabbi Froman I tried to channel my growing anger and I found myself involved in grassroots activism. There is a certain simplicity in starting with a local project. I work with local people who at the end of the day have to live right next to each other. As far as we know, Roots is the only joint local Israeli-Palestinian project taking place in the West Bank. According to most analyses, Palestinians and Israeli settlers are the last people who should be talking to one another. But we are questioning some of the givens on both sides. Many politicians say there is no point in speaking to people on the other side. Perhaps what we are doing threatens them.
Not everything is peachy clean. My friend Ali often says that dialogue is not a place to agree but rather a safe place to disagree. We’ve now been doing it for two and a half years, and we are guided by the principle of non-violence.
CDB: What is your aim at Roots?
SJ: We are trying to empower moderate voices. The issue is not the extremists but rather the 80 per cent plus who want to live life quietly but who have no way to express this. When violence happens they don’t want to be a sucker, but they have no way of expressing their feelings in a positive place and so they often allow fear and anger to decide what is possible. But even in the settlements, when we bring Ali to speak, 40-50 people come to hear him. After a heated conversation, 20 of them will still sign up afterwards and want to be involved in Roots. People aren’t fanatics. They don’t realise they have a partner. They don’t think there is a moderate camp on the other side.
My work in Roots looks at what it means to show solidarity. For a political solution one needs to build confidence and trust, and to dispel the feeling that the other side is out to get us. There’s real work to be done and there is huge potential through civil society initiatives. Our politicians are stuck. We need someone to say that there is a partner for peace and we need to go and speak to them.
Our politicians are beholden to the emotions of our people, many of whom live a zero-sum game in which supporting Palestinian rights threatens their rights as Israelis. Most of the Israeli-Palestinian debate revolves around both sides saying the land is theirs. But Rabbi Froman taught that instead of the land of Israel belonging to the people of Israel, it’s the people of Israel who belong to the land. It’s ultimately God’s land, not ours. We don’t own it but belong to it. And belonging rather than ownership is not exclusive.
An additional question is how to achieve security. In the past it was always with clenched fists, with checkpoints etc. But many people in the security establishment realise that we need to give people space to breathe. That’s why the army – despite the public pressure – wanted to expand work permits for Palestinians. That’s a conversation we at Roots promote a lot.
We need to let people know they can be themselves in a way that doesn’t threaten the other side. For example, it’s very difficult for many religious Israelis to hear the word ‘occupation’. Not because I don’t see the injustice at the checkpoints but because when you use the word you imply that we’re not from here, that we’re ‘colonialists’ that stole land that was not ours. There won’t be peace unless Palestinians can say that Israelis belong to this land and Israelis can say the same about the Palestinians – and not just in the West Bank but that Palestinians belong in the whole land. That’s their story, where they are from, how they define themselves. And our people also define themselves as being from the river to the sea. Once we both say that, maybe we can work out a political order. But until we can say that honestly, I’m still living with the existential threat that if they win, I lose.
CBD: What sort of political model do you imagine?
SJ: The mantra of two states for two nations is predicated on separation. The idea is that we can’t get along and that good fences make good neighbours. But I doubt that it will ultimately bring peace because it doesn’t provide any model for reconciliation. In fact it cuts us off from reconciliation and doesn’t provide a shared interest. Many of us are thinking more in terms of a confederation, with cooperation on joint investment and joint administration of areas.
CBD: What do you think your community’s ‘homework’ is?
SJ: Because the conflict is so violent and traumatising, a sense exists that any credence given to the narrative of the other side justifies their positions. But we need to do a better job of getting out of our shells. Uri Ariel [Jewish Home MK] recently visited a checkpoint and criticised them as shameful and I think they are humiliating for Palestinians on a daily basis. People here know that, but they don’t think it’s up to them to do anything about it. We should try and change this.
Another part is addressing hate and stereotypes especially with the young people in our communities. Someone might throw rocks at Palestinian cars or Molotov cocktails, but 99 per cent of us view that as horrific. The way kids speak about Arabs in schools or youth movements is problematic and challenging. The violence against Arabs is growing and we need to recognise where many young people are today – that they have a very clear sense of who their enemy is, yet have no one to expose them to the other’s humanity.
CBD: What happens when you bring these ideas into your community?
SJ: Kids would crank call my home and some people walked out of synagogue when I was leading services. Mind you the main person who walked out was the father of the child who was killed by the axe. We spoke for a couple of hours afterwards and it turned out he had seen something in the media about my views and work which I clarified for him. We see things differently but it wasn’t vicious.
Most of the people who were adamantly against the project still have a conversation with me about it. In Bat Ayin, the settlement I used to live in, there have been a number of people who participated in Roots events. But there is also a group of young people who feel – especially since the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 – abandoned by the army and the state, or who feel the IDF is controlled by leftists. These are kids who grow up with a very strong ideology in extremely parochial surroundings and are convinced that 90 per cent of the world is against them and that it’s down to them to defend themselves. It’s a small group of kids, but it’s a real issue. For a long time many people had their heads in the sand. Part of our homework is for the religious Zionist leadership to emphasise that these sorts of things have no place.