Where are the Palestinian Gandhis?

Yisrael Kalman

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The spate of “lone wolf” terrorism against Jews that began last October has further eroded our dream of living in peace with our Arab neighbors. It is easy to scoff at anyone who suggests that we need to continue pursuing peace. Nevertheless, we need to ask ourselves if it is possible to prevent future tragedies without establishing peace. A few decades ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe proclaimed that Israel must establish unquestioned military superiority over the Arabs so they wouldn’t even contemplate fighting us. But he said that was only the first step to creating peace.

Since making Aliya a year-and-a-half ago for the second time in my life, after 27 years in the U.S., I have made “peace” my hobby. I have spoken to many Jews and Arabs (admittedly more of the former than the latter), and almost all of them say they want to live in peace with the other.  However, they almost all say they have become disillusioned. They believe that the other side doesn’t really want peace but rather to engage in murder.

There is no need to argue to this readership that Jews want peace. We are a nation of שלום רודפי. But I have heard many Jews ask, “Where are the Palestinian Gandhis?” The belief is that if such figures existed, we would have achieved peace by now. This is also the question posed by Julia Bacha, a documentary filmmaker, in her excellent Ted Talk titled, Pay Attention to Nonviolence.

The answer to Bacha’s rhetorical question is that there are Palestinian Gandhis – many of them. But we don’t know of them because the media doesn’t pay attention to them. I will be informing you here about one of such individual, Ali Abu Awwad. Before I discuss him, a little background.

How reporters unintentionally foster violence

Bacha makes the well-known psychological point that attention is a powerful tool. We can only influence people if we get their attention. Attention is also what makes the media so incredibly powerful. Whatever they decide to bring our attention to receives power over people’s minds and behavior. They can mold public opinion, influence the decisions of governments and change the course of history.

Unfortunately, as Bacha points out, the media pays much more attention to violence than nonviolence. Niceness–unless it is particularly unusual–is boring. Violence, on the other hand, is always exciting. Violence arouses curiosity, creates fear and inflames passions. People, including news reporters, are drawn to it like moths to a flame.

It is easy to understand why violence draws more attention than nonviolence. The overriding need of all living creatures is survival. Survival requires being acutely attuned to dangers. We don’t need to fear and protect ourselves from nonviolent people.

Social or political activists have discovered that the most effective means of getting massive amounts of publicity is through violence. The media doesn’t care if you’re nice. But if you kill lots of people, they will trample over each other in the competition to get your story out to the world.

Most journalists like to view themselves as passive observers simply reporting on events without influencing them. But they are really much more than that. They often contribute to – or even create – the very events they are reporting on. Most violent social activists would not have carried out their acts if they didn’t think they would attract reporters.

On a personal level, most of the world’s reporters would probably love to see conflicts ending in peace. Unfortunately, by focusing on violence, they have been unintentionally contributing to the initiation of more violence.

Julia Bacha is therefore calling upon journalists to be socially responsible and publicize the work of nonviolent activists. When activists see that nonviolence succeeds in attracting media attention, many more will use it because they would rather live for their cause than die for it–especially if the nonviolent way brings them better results. I am heeding Bacha’s call and bringing attention to the activities of nonviolent activists.

The legacy of Rabbi Menachem Froman

My primary reason for choosing to live in Tekoa, a village in the hotbed of disputed territories, is to help continue the legacy of its rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Froman, who died of cancer three years ago. Considered by many to be a hopelessly–and even dangerously–naïve dreamer, his ideas of living in harmony with the Arabs of the region are the embodiment of the teachings of all men of peace throughout history. While he never achieved his dream during his lifetime and even alienated many Tekoans, he is becoming more influential after his passing thanks to the great number of dedicated disciples he spawned, both Israeli and Arab.  One of these disciples is the Palestinian “Gandhi” I mentioned earlier.

Two necessary traits of a leader

A positive leader must possess two qualities: wisdom and courage. People can be courageous, but if they are pursuing foolishness, they will be destructive. On the other hand, wisdom without courage accomplishes nothing.

Ali Abu Awwad is a tall, handsome, charismatic man who looks younger than his 43 years. He speaks Arabic, English and Hebrew fluently. When listening to Ali, one hears true wisdom. But he also has the courage to speak it. Audience members often ask him whether he is aware that he is putting his life in danger (many Palestinian Arabs see him as a traitor). He responds that of course he does. But he explains that without pursuing his mission, his life is meaningless. When he is done addressing audiences, people immediately want to know how they can help the cause.

Ali’s conversion to nonviolence

I cannot do Ali’s story justice, as it deserves an entire book. He happens to be working on one: Painful Hope. Keep your eyes open for its publication. Meanwhile, you can learn more about him on his TedX Jerusalem biographical page and listen to his talk.

In short, Ali grew up in a family that was involved in violent activism against Israeli occupation. He had served considerable prison time for throwing rocks at soldiers. Far worse, his brother was killed by an Israeli soldier in what began as a verbal spat over respect. 

Ali’s instinct was to get revenge. But he came to realize that nothing good was coming of his anger, and no number of dead Israelis could ever bring his brother back.

He had begun learning non-violent resistance from other Palestinian Arabs while in prison, and discovered how effective a hunger strike could be. He was also deeply moved by meetings between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs who had lost family members to violence between the groups. More recently, he entered into dialog with Rabbi Froman, whom he had seen as an enemy “settler,” yet the rabbi influenced him to view the situation and the solution differently. I suspect he may have been responsible for Ali’s most profound transformation–accepting the possibility and even the need for Palestinian Arabs and the Israelis in Judea and Samaria to work for mutual respect.

One of Ali’s messages, perhaps inspired by Rabbi Froman, is that each side has his truth, but peace will never be established by trying to prove that your side’s truth is superior to the other side’s. The real truth is there are two sides desperately fighting to prove they are right, and that struggle is an integral part of the problem. As Ali says, “You can be right, or you can be successful.”

The definition of real peace

While Ali prefers a two-state solution to the conflict, he says that ultimately it doesn’t matter if there is one state or two or three. True peace can exist only when neighbors respect and trust each other. This requires direct contact between them. Unfortunately, the hostility of the past few decades has resulted in increasing isolation between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, flaming suspicion and hatred. Ali says that when he speaks to young Palestinian Arabs, many of them, after years of PA media incitement, are amazed to discover that there even exist Jews who want to live in peace with them.  I have witnessed their amazement first hand at numerous events at his Shorashim/Judur meeting place in Gush Etzion.

Ali is not waiting for politicians to solve the problems between the two peoples. Politicians quickly become preoccupied with getting the votes they need to stay in power, and a great way to get those votes is by convincing their constituencies that they are fighting hard on their behalf against their enemy.

Instead, Ali pursues local moral leaders as the key to peace, for they–not the politicians–are the ones people actually esteem and follow. It is essential to get these leaders to accept and promote the mission of peaceful coexistence if there is to be a chance for the general population to accept it. Only when they hear their constituents’ voices calling for peace are the political leaders likely to follow.

Ali’s work, as well as that of others promoting nonviolence, deserves to be publicized. Fortunately, it is happening. You can watch a trailer for an upcoming documentary called “At Third Way.” You will get to see Rabbi Froman, Ali and others in action. If you like their work, please spread the word. That is an easy, free way to be involved in trying to promote peace.



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