This is a report from board member Phyllis Bernstein, of an event sponsored by a number of her local New Jersey Jewish community institutions:
Nonviolence, open dialogue and compromise are the way to freedom for the Palestinian nation, says Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian peace activist from the West Bank. He lost his older brother to violence during the conflict in 2003, yet chose to promote dialogue and trust over revenge and hatred, after he met others similarly affected at the Bereaved Families Forum.
His talk was co-sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, Bnai Keshet, Congregation Shomrei Emunah and Temple Ner Tamid. He spoke to a full house of 120; it was my first time seeing so many Jews in one place to hear a Palestinian activist. I was gratified the CRC promoted this event and for the high turnout.
It was Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair who helped bring Awwad to our community because of a personal connection. The rabbi met with Awwad in Israel during the summer and said it was the most uplifting event of his entire trip. Awwad is involved with a program that brings Jewish settlers to dialog with Palestinians.
Abu Awwad, 42, is one of a half dozen Israelis and Palestinians whose role in the Bereaved Families Forum and grassroots work with young Palestinians was featured in the 2006 documentary, Encounter Point. He teaches that Palestinians will achieve greater freedom through non-violent action than revenge.
At work on a book, Painful Hope, Abu Awwad joined with Rabbi Hanan Schlessinger and others to form “Roots,” a group based in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank, which promotes dialog and trust between Israelis and Palestinians as the way to peace.
Awwad, born in 1972, grew up within a refugee family in Beit Ummar, a village near Hebron. His mother was an activist and inspired him to be politically aware from a young age. He founded Al Tariq (The Way), which promotes the principles of nonviolent resistance.
Jailed at age 17 by Israel for stone throwing and being a member of a Palestinian political party during the first Palestinian uprising of 1987-1993, Abu Awwad demanded to see his mother who was also imprisoned, and went on a 17-day hunger strike together with 5,000 Palestinian women, to exercise the right — granted by Israeli law — to visit with his mother when both were imprisoned. This experience helped him appreciate the power of nonviolence as taught by Gandhi and others.
During the second Palestinian uprising in 2000-03, Abu Awwad was shot by an Israeli settler and sent to Saudi Arabia for treatment; during his recovery, he got word his brother Yousef, was shot in the head and killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint near his village. While he “would do anything” to bring back his brother, Awwad said, he realized taking revenge through violence would accomplish nothing. He is part a new generation of Palestinian nonviolent resisters.
At that point, he turned to the Bereaved Families Forum, which brings together people from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who have lost loved ones, and began to channel his pain and anger into bridging the divide between Israelis and Palestinians. “I saw Israelis crying,” Awwad said. “That was the first time I had ever seen a Jew as a victim.”
Awwad said the prison was his university because he sat in a circle with other inmates every day to discuss international issues. He also studied politics, psychology, English, Hebrew and came under the influence of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.
After he was released, Awwad worked to transform the Palestinian nation. He said nonviolent movement by the Palestinians would lead the way to freedom. Part of Awwad’s learning was: You don’t attack him physically, you fight his thoughts, his anger, his fear. You don’t fight him as a person, you fight his values. While we cannot forgive the past, he said, we also cannot be stuck in it.
“Violence is not the language. I promise you, violence is the consequences of suffering and fear,” Awwad said. “I refuse to be part of continuation of suffering because I know what it does mean to lose someone.”
Awwad said a lasting solution requires open dialogue and compromises on both sides. “It’s a place for two truths to fit. We want peace. We don’t want to and we can’t keep killing each other,” Awwad said. “It’s the mission of both nations to create peace. It’s not just about politicians, I promise you.”
At some point, however, Jews and Palestinians will come to realize the other wasn’t going away, and both need to learn to live peacefully as neighbors. He concluded his talk by encouraging the audience to participate in the mass movement by writing to their Congressmen and becoming messengers by visiting the Middle East.
“You can do anything. Yes, I will advise you to create a campaign, a joint campaign here,” Awwad said. “It’s so important for you, for us, because your joint voices can be listened, especially for these Congressmen.”
He is currently on a speaking tour in the United States until Oct. 14. We hope to welcome him again on his next visit.
Knowing Ali for 8 years and most recently having served on a discussion panel at a DC talk during his current tour, I can vouch that this is an excellent summation of his thoughts and aspirations. Two corrections: Ali is no longer with the Bereaved Families Forum, which does not exist as such but has morphed into the Parents Circle-Family Forum. He is now most focused on Roots and Leading Leaders for Peace. Second, no credit was given to Encounter, the NY-based organization that brings American Jews to the West Bank to hear the Palestinian narrative. They played a central role in organizing and facilitating Ali’s tour.