Finding Common Ground in the Middle East

Israeli and Palestinian present experiences in bridging differences

Noor A’wad speak about the Middle East conflict at Duke Tuesday. Photo by Nathan Dove.

“Humanization is really, really important and really, really central,” Schlesinger told about 75 students, faculty and staff members gathered in the Duke Divinity School Tuesday. “But it’s not the most important thing. There’s another level. The work we do … is coming face to face to the truth that the two sides have totally different identities. That narratives are so different, the understandings are so contradictory, and they’re both true.”

Noor A’wad with Hanan Schlesinger. Photo by Nathan Dove.
Noor A’wad with Hanan Schlesinger. Photo by Nathan Dove.

Schlesinger and A’wad spoke at Duke as part of Provost Alec Gallimore’s new initiative to bring speakers to campus to foster constructive dialogue about the Middle East. They both work with Roots/Shorashim/Judur, a Palestinian-Israeli peace organization advocating understanding, nonviolence and transformation.

A’wad detailed his first meeting with Schlesinger, nine years ago. A’wad is a tour guide in the West Bank, and at the end of one long day of touring with a group of visiting American students he was directed to Schlesinger’s center.  Until that point, A’wad had little experience interacting with Jews. He was stunned to hear the rabbi acknowledge the struggles and existence of the Palestinian people.

“He started to tell us a story, one after another, realizing there was another people here (in Israel). That this land had another name and there were other circumstances,” A’wad recounted. “That there was an occupation, and suffering. That was very shocking. I had two emotions: A feeling of recognition, and a feeling of empathy. I felt the story of my people was being recognized, and he took it a step further and empathized with us.”

The two began to talk, and A’wad eventually joined the Roots organization, where the two have worked since, both in Israel and abroad. They are currently touring American universities; after the visit to Duke, they head to the College of Charleston.

The Hamas attacks of October 7 in Israel haven’t changed the duo’s message, Schlesinger said. But it has changed the level of interest.

“On the one hand, our audience pool has been expanded by October 7 because in the past it was primarily Jewish organizations that invited us, or Christian organizations that have some skin in the game, that have some connection to the Holy Land,” Schlesinger said. “But since October 7 … we have had an outpouring of community organizations, like arts organizations and centers for diversity, that have no skin in the game but want to hear what’s happening and feel the best way is to hear from a joint organization.

“On the other hand, there are many people in America who because they’ve become part of the polarization, they can’t, don’t want to, don’t feel psychologically able to come to a joint space. So, Israeli or Palestinian, they’re on this side or that side.”

A’wad said the peace and tolerance message he and Schlesinger bring to college campuses isn’t always embraced – but that’s okay.

“When we speak on campuses – this is the experience we’ve had thus far – the Jews, or some of the Jews, and Israelis in a way attack Hanan for what he says, and the Palestinians are also upset at me and challenge me and disagree with what I’m saying,” he said in an interview following the Tuesday event. “It’s important for us to talk to all of the people. Not just the younger people on the campuses. We have been talking in synagogues and mosques and other places. We are talking to anyone ready to come and listen to our message.”

The event was presented by the Office of the Provost, Duke Chapel and Religious Life at Duke, and Roots/Shorashim/Judur.

The next event in the Provost’s Initiative on the Middle East will be Tuesday, March 26, at the Nicholas School of the Environment. It will feature Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed, executive director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which was established to advance cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict. He was the highest-ranking Palestinian in the Israeli government from 2013 to 2016.