Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing, and Active Hope in the Holy Land; The Shomer Shalom Interview with Sami Awad

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

Peace mural Shomer Shalom; courtesy

Author’s Preface: Sami Awad is a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, and the nephew of Mubarak Awad, one of the founders of the Palestinian nonviolent movement. [See the interviews we have posted with Mubarak Awad.] When still a boy his uncle gave him the writings of Gandhi, which led to a lifelong commitment to Gandhian nonviolence. Upon finishing his studies in the U.S. he returned to the Palestinian Territories and in 1998 founded The Holy Land Trust, the mission of which is “to create an environment that fosters understanding, healing, transformation, and empowerment of individuals and communities . . . in the Holy Land.” Awad is one of thousands of people in Palestine who resist occupation every day through nonviolent popular resistance. Holy Land Trust works with the Palestinian community at the grassroots and leadership levels in developing nonviolent approaches to Israeli-Palestinian conflict transformation and a future founded on the principles of nonviolence, equality, justice, and peaceful coexistence. Awad has also established the Travel and Encounter Program, which aims to provide tourists and pilgrims with unique religious and political experiences in Palestine, and the Palestine News Network, the first independent press agency in Palestine and a major source of news on life in Palestine today. RLG

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb: Ahlan wa sahlan, Sami. Nonviolent civilian resistance to foreign occupation has been a way of life in Palestinian society. The words sumud (steadfast) and intifada (shaking off) describe the nature of Palestinian nonviolence. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the history of Palestinian nonviolent civilian resistance and the popular struggle?

Sami Awad: Ahlan wu Sahlan, Lynn. Yes. We have a longstanding engagement with nonviolence, which has existed long before our conflict with Israel. Nonviolence is part of our cultural structures and settings, part of our heritage. Nonviolent popular resistance goes as far back as the British mandate. In 1936, Palestinian workers and local committees engaged in a nonviolent strike to demand that the British Mandate put limitations on the influx of Jews into the land because Palestinians were seeking statehood. Palestinian workers and local committees wanted to put a stop to the unregulated transfer of Palestinian owned lands to the Jewish community as well as establish a national government which would be responsible to an elected representative council. At the time, our community felt there existed no structural mechanisms to regulate how Jews entered the country or the sale and transfer of lands. A popular commercial strike had the support of the people who fully participated in it. One outcome of nonviolence during that period, even at a global level, was the beginning of a communal movement expressing itself through nonviolent action.

In response to the war of 1948, and the onset of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, we see a tremendous nonviolent movement taking shape. Nonviolent movements arose not only in response to the occupation of territory, but also to the occupation of mines and farms as well as to Israeli efforts to suppress our cultural expression. After 1967, sumud, steadfastness on the land, was applied to resisting Israeli policies that, in a sense, made Palestinian identity and even the word ‘Palestinian’ itself, illegal. This included criminalizing the use of the flag and its colors (red, white, green and black), the prohibition of all public gatherings, or giving public speeches, and any mention of political aspirations. Steadfastness, sumud, was applied to the naming and keeping of Palestinian identity during those times. We refused to become ‘Arab territories’ which was the intent of Israel’s form of occupation. The word ‘Arab’ covers over our specific identity as Palestinians. Instead, we remained steadfast to our Palestinian identity, which is a form of nonviolent action.

Our steadfastness was expressed with many forms of movement building including protests and demonstrations and the resistance work of unions, farmers, doctors, merchants, laborers, women’s groups and educators. Students in schools and universities maintained the protest movement of that time which eventually led to the first intifada. The First Intifada was, for me, a global example of engaged nonviolence. The Palestinian community felt fully empowered to stand up to the occupation, to take responsibility for its own future by not waiting for the international community to take action, or the PLO, (located outside the territories at that time) to come in and liberate us. Up to the First Intifada, people had been waiting for outside forces to come and rescue us. During the First Intifada the Palestinian community in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem said, “We are responsible for dealing with the cause of our suffering and we’re going to do something about it.”

Empowerment is what nonviolence is all about.

An internal sense of empowerment sparked the Palestinian uprising. There were hundreds of nonviolent tactics employed: protests, demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, home- schooling, home-farming, and refusing to pay taxes (in your hometown, Lynn) in Beit Sahour where people engaged in “no taxation without representation” and refused to pay taxes to the Israeli military. Palestinians in Beit Sahour refused to pay taxes because they had no representation in any political decision-making process affecting their lives. Palestinians throughout the occupied territories suffer tremendously from the lack of political representation in any decision-making bodies that determine policies that affect our lives. I believe empowerment is what nonviolence is all about. The continual empowerment that took place during this first intifada failed to produce a peace process that gained us our national goals, but it did not fail in the realization of nonviolence as a an effective resistance and empowerment strategy.

In the past five years, we are witnessing new life in the evolution of nonviolence in the Palestinian community. This phase of nonviolence, which is being steadily developed, is in response to the failure of the two-state solution and the massive growth of the occupation.

Lynn: When I think about describing Palestinian nonviolence, and this is something I learned from your uncle Mubarak, I think about the amazing hospitality that is so much a part of Palestinian culture. The Palestinian community not only draws upon the tactics of strategic nonviolence, like strikes, boycotts, and refusing to pay taxes, but nonviolence is rooted in the art of hospitality, as well as other forms of Palestinian cultural and community expression. Can you elaborate on the way sumud is a form of nonviolent resistance to the effort to erase Palestinian identity by remaining steadfast to one’s cultural identity?

Sami: A combination of realities impacted the development of Palestinian culture. When Palestinians use the word sumud, we are referring to our long historical commitment to survive on our land, which is an important element of our culture. If we look at the location of Palestine as the crossroads of many nations, and if we consider the historical experiences Palestinians have had that gave rise to the development of Palestinian nonviolence, we are not limited to speaking about the Israeli occupation. We need to consider the Jordanian presence, the British and even the Turkish presence as well. In fact, Palestinians have always been a land and a place where people have suffered foreign occupations. We have lived in these lands for many millennia. Sumud refers to our way of survival at this level. I’ll give an example. A few years ago I took a group of journalists to a refugee camp near Bethlehem. As we were walking through the narrow streets, a woman was sitting outside her home baking bread in an outdoor oven. One of the journalists asked her, “What do you think of ‘the situation’? You’ve been occupied all these years.” Without blinking she looked at him and said, in Arabic, “You know, the Turks were here and they left, the British came and they left, the Jordanians came and they left, the Israelis are here and they will leave as well.” Then, she looked at him and said “Why don’t you come in and have some bread?” That exchange represents an example of the cultural point of view that there’s always hope and momentum for the future. This is part of understanding Palestinian nonviolence.

Martin Luther King reminds us that justice will ultimately triumph, that the arc of the universe bends toward the side of justice and will always resist injustice. I think steadfastness in our culture, that is, sumud, and our customs of hospitality reflect our collective belief that justice will come to the land of Palestine. This is a form of faith.

Lynn: I wish to ask you about the Holocaust and historic Jewish-Palestinian relations. At present, historic Palestine is occupied by the State of Israel. The Holocaust played a huge role in Jewish motivation to establish an exclusive Jewish state based on a demographic majority. Palestinians, however, did not cause or participate in the Holocaust, yet they have become secondary victims of it. The actual history of relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews living in the Holy Land is another story, one with much to teach us about the potential of living peaceably together. The way Jews currently frame Holocaust remembrance perpetuates Jewish fear of Palestinians, a fear born out of a European and not a Middle Eastern experience.

You are a person who builds bridges as well as creates the dynamics of non-cooperation and resistance. How do you relate to Jewish fear? On the other hand, Palestinians fear Jewish Israelis because most of their direct contact is in the context of Occupation. The faces of Jewish Israelis most Palestinians encounter are engaged in military enforcement of checkpoints, home demolitions, confrontation at protests and the like. How do you work with this situation?

Sami: Another part of our culture, and I am speaking about the understanding of the vast majority of Palestinians, is the knowledge that Jewish culture and Jewish history are integral parts of the history and the culture of this land. If we look back throughout the years, back before 1948 during the time of the British mandate, and before that, throughout the millennium, we clearly acknowledge that Jews lived in this land and were an essential part of the political and cultural life and discourses that existed here. The challenge for the Palestinian community begins, not as a result of the Jews who lived here, but as a result of the suffering of the Jews in Europe.

I decided to enter a process to deepen my understanding of Jewish motivation for their current behavior, and see if what Jewish people are doing to us is in response to what happened to them in Europe. What causes the Israelis to treat us as subjects of occupation in our own land? What causes the Jewish community to remain silent when terrible things happen to us, like the Gaza attacks a few years ago when over a thousand people and hundreds of children were killed by massive air strikes? Why did almost everyone turn a blind eye to the death and destruction that was happening there? What exists within this Israeli Jewish mindset that causes these actions to happen?

I do not believe that people are born to harm each other. Something happens that generates this kind of behavior. To understand the Jewish community’s behavior toward Palestinians, I traveled to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. This journey was a very big turning point in my life. I came to understand that what’s being experienced in Israel is the result of a long history of fear, trauma and mistrust that was compounded by the experience of the Holocaust. The world not only neglects this fear, we have actually done the opposite. The world has done everything to entrench and enhance feelings of fear in the Jewish community instead of creating means of liberation and healing for the Jewish community. How? By putting billions of dollars into weapons systems, and by giving tremendous political power to Israel to carry out occupation with impunity, the world reinforces the idea that Jews should be afraid, must be afraid! And who are the subjects of Jewish fear? Israeli Jews are afraid of their neighbors. Fear creates the pattern of belief that Israel’s non-Jewish neighbors will do to them what the Germans did to the Jews of Europe, thereby justifying all kinds of actions. Fear, and a desire to be secure from fear, has enabled occupation. Israel’s security claims justify violence. It’s not a problem if you suppress your neighbors, not a problem if you kill them, not a problem if you deny them rights. And the world is complicit in policies of security and repression. The present day silence of the world over the injustice being done to Palestinians emanates from the guilt caused by the silence of the world to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust. When people are silent about terrible violations of justice for Palestinians, this silence reinforces the idea within the Jewish community that they can act with impunity, that the world will not intervene.

However, that is not what the world should do. Rather, what the world should say is: yes, we care about your security. But we also care about how you’re treating others. We do not accept that human rights violations are permissible for the sake of safeguarding your security, as you claim. This principle, no justification for the violation of human rights, is a universal truth for all people. People who claim that security needs justify suppression and repression and the violation of human rights are in the wrong.

On the one hand, part of nonviolence, is the understanding that nonviolence is about liberation and achieving equal rights. This is something we’re engaged in and are still developing. At the same time, nonviolence is also about liberating those who use violence. Palestinian nonviolence includes liberating Jewish people from their occupation, their trauma and fear. We have to create mechanisms for building trust and respect between Palestinians and Israelis in order to move forward. If more trust isn’t created, there will never be peace in this land. If equality, that is, the recognition of the right of ‘the other’ to live here, not in the political sense but in the human sense, does not exist, then there will never be peace. That is why nonviolence needs to develop into a broader framework, a spiritual framework. We will continue to engage in nonviolent protest and demonstration as we move forward in the cultivation of nonviolent popular resistance. In addition, nonviolence must also address trauma and fear.

The First Intifada is a perfect example of engaging in nonviolence and moving forward and achieving results. Nonetheless, we have to ask, why wasn’t the ultimate goal of establishing peace reached during that time? I believe that a failure to look into core issues of trauma, fear and distrust that existed between the two communities by the political establishment contributed to the breakdown of making peace. Therefore, we have to speak about nonviolence from both the framework of political liberation from the structures of occupation as well as healing from trauma. Successfully applied nonviolence ultimately results in a positive transformation of communities.

Lynn: Part of nonviolence is non-cooperation with policies that uphold oppression and business as usual. You referred to many examples of non-cooperation in Palestine, such as Beit Sahour’s refusal to pay taxes to Israel’s military administration. You also advocate establishing trust building measures that facilitate Jews and Palestinians struggling for justice together. What are the challenges for Palestinians from the occupied territories and Jews getting together?

Sami: The Israeli military government continues to impose harsh restrictions on Palestinians and Israelis who want to meet each other. Israelis are not allowed by their government to enter Palestinian areas and meet with Palestinians. Our Israeli friends, when they come to meet with us and engage with us, are forced to do that illegally. They put themselves at risk of being imprisoned or being fined up to $1500 every time they’re caught in a Palestinian area. This is a real disaster! I look at myself as an activist who seeks to engage with Israelis. I have three daughters. My oldest daughter is 10 years old and it shocks me every time I think about this: she has never met or played with an Israeli child! She has not even seen an Israeli child, or talked with one. The next generation of children growing up on both sides of the separation walls will have zero connections with each other

In a sense, our children are being brainwashed by the delusion that we are eternal enemies. This, for me, is very dangerous. To combat this danger, we are trying to engage in and increase the communication between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. One of the most exciting efforts toward building trust is the effort to bring together Palestinian and Israeli activists to really look deeper into understanding the situation, to research trauma and healing methodologies, and to work together to promote equal civil rights. Together we are considering the core issues of occupation in order to assess ways we can counter it, and transform the conflict. We are looking at the methods, strategies and tactics we’ve used in the past and developing new approaches to help us move forward. But again, as I said before, these meetings are hard to arrange since Palestinians are not allowed to go into Israel to meet their counterparts, and Israeli Jews face fines if they travel to us.

Part of the process we are looking to engage is the reframing what the conflict is about because, even as nonviolent activists, we have been drawn into narrative perspectives and frameworks of understanding established by the occupation. For instance, when religious establishments take the view that this is a religious conflict, those of us who are active in behalf of peace have to address religion in a new way, in a way that builds bridges and not walls.

Lynn: I have a question about the role of Palestinian women and how they contribute to peace making?

Sami: Many families cannot find food for themselves. Large numbers of fathers and sons are imprisoned. Unemployment is high. The stress and the suffering we experience on the economic level create a strain on the community and especially upon women. Women are central to family and community, which is why we at Holy Land Trust are excited about the work we have been doing with women. The Palestinian woman has an historic role in the liberation movement. However, when the so-called Oslo peace process began, Palestinian women were completely marginalized from the process. After the first intifada, during which women played a huge role, the Palestinian authority and the post-Oslo political process marginalized women. Currently, many non-governmental organizations are dedicated to strengthening women’s access to resources within the Palestinian community and are working with women to develop their leadership skills.

One of the programs we currently sponsor is a leadership development program for women. We go and meet with women in their communities and begin a conversation with them about the challenges they face in their communities when they try to exercise some power. Women have a responsibility to honor the voice they have in creating the future of Palestine and in nonviolent social change movements. We understand that women are critical to the dream of freedom. We can’t move forward without them.

Lynn: We’ve talked a lot about transforming trauma into healing. As you think about nonviolence, how do you cope with the daily stress that derives from living under occupation?

Faithfulness to nonviolence means never destroying human life,
never undermining human dignity, never demonizing the other,
and never dehumanizing even your greatest oppressor because
nonviolence reveals that we are all in need of liberation.

Sami: I want to say it’s a combination of spiritual and strategic approaches. It is definitely a slow process to live in a way that confronts injustice while trying at the same time to create inner peace on a daily basis. I believe that humanity is at heart, good, that human beings generally operate with good intentions, and that God’s creation is good. I look at the situation we’re living in as not a normative human situation, but as the result of experiences and realities that Palestinians and Israelis have faced and have not been able to cope with. Our situation reflects the very violent and very deadly interactions we have with each other. Being able to distinguish beween our natural goodness and the distortions in our behavior that arise from violence is where spirituality plays a very important role. I rely upon the whole philosophy of nonviolence to mediate these distinctions. Nonviolence holds that we must never attack people; rather we attack the injustice and strive to dissolve and transform the structures of oppression. Faithfulness to nonviolence means never destroying human life, never undermining human dignity, never demonizing the other, and never dehumanizing even your greatest oppressor because nonviolence reveals that we are all in need of liberation. This point of view is important for my personal wellbeing.

At Holy Land Trust, we emphasize in our leadership and nonviolence training programs the need and capacity to always look towards the future. What is the future you want to create? We learn from the past, we honor the past, we respect the past, and we mourn the past. And then, we focus on how we can create a future that is fully independent from the experiences of the past, which have traumatized us, and really put 100% of our effort to move toward a peaceful future. When you put 100% of your efforts to move toward that future, you can build a strategy to achieve that future that does not include anger, revenge or retaliation. A peaceful future emerges from an authentic search for peaceful coexistence, equality, justice and respectful relationships among all communities. It is not an easy process. When Palestinians and Israelis begin to move in that direction, toward the future we want to create rather than a future filled with retaliation, then I think we can really move forward toward a peaceful future for our children.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sami Awad is currently Executive Director of Holy Land Trust, a nonprofit he founded in 1998 in Bethlehem, and is dedicated to promoting nonviolence, leadership development, healing and transformation in order to pave the way for the peaceful future. Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb co-directs Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence in Stony Point, New York. She coordinates Young, Pacifist and Proud, and Multifaith Peacewalk for The Fellowship of Reconciliation. Lynn is a performing artist and author of essays and books that include Trail Guide to The Torah of Nonviolence; Peace Primer II and She Who Dwells Within: A Feminist Vision of Renewed Judaism. This interview dates from August 21, 2013 and is courtesy Shomer Shalom Network.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi