By Joel Berman, New Hampshire.
The first week of this trip to Israel, my third since the 2014 Gaza war, was brutally depressing. Political positions had hardened. Leaders weren’t talking with one another. Fear and mistrust crept into every conversation.
The Israeli tour guide who led Temple Beth Jacob’s congregational trip three years ago was so unnerved by the recent rash of Palestinian stabbings that she hadn’t ventured into the Old City for months. My Palestinian friends despaired over the ever-creeping annexation of their villages and farms by neighboring Israeli settlements. Hopelessness hung in the air, sapping my spirit.
On November 10th, 2016, my hope returned.
The Combatants are showing the world what the art of peaceful coexistence looks like.
“Combatants for Peace is not part-time. You live it. You breathe it.” The speaker was Larry Lester, a former IDF officer and transplanted Montrealer who came to Israel at age 20 because of his belief in the absolute necessity for a Jewish homeland.
“Combatants for Peace is my message and my life.” added his Palestinian counterpart, Riyad al Halees, a Palestinian ex-militant who’s committed his life to nonviolent resistance against the occupation.
Riyad al-Halees (left) and Larry Lester (right)
I was one of eleven North Americans sitting under a makeshift canopy in a sun-bleached field near the West Bank village of Beit Jala. As delegates of The Compassionate Listening Project, we listened raptly for ninety minutes as Larry and Riyad told us their personal stories and described the mission of Combatants for Peace, a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization whose members believe that lasting peace will only come when each side recognizes the humanity of the other. The organization’s work has generated a 2018 Nobel Peace Prize nomination for its co-founders, Chen Alon and Sulaiman Khatib (featured in top photo).
The Combatants view the fifty year Israeli military occupation of the West Bank as their common enemy. Larry explained: “80% of Israelis don’t understand what the occupation is and the price that both sides pay for its continuation. An Israeli can live ten minutes away from Palestinian villages and not know a thing about what’s going on. Raising awareness is a difficult task because not many Israelis want to look at what’s happening”.
Riyad told us: “Larry is not my enemy. The people who live in Tel Aviv are not my enemy. My enemy is the occupation. My enemy is the settlements. My enemy is [the IDF] thinking every day and night how to put me in jail. My enemy wants to stop my active non-violence against this occupation.”
Riyad continued: “We are Palestinians fighting for our freedom. And they are soldiers who are refusing to be part of the system. They want to show their society there is a Palestinian partner for peace.”
Moved beyond words by their personal stories and stirred by the organization’s heroic work, I vowed to spread their message when I returned to New Hampshire. Steve Apkon, a New York film producer and director, made my task easier by producing the award-winning film Disturbing the Peace, which describes the history and work of this remarkable organization. The film’s website summarizes its story line.
Disturbing the Peace follows former enemy combatants – Israeli soldiers from elite units and Palestinian fighters, many of whom served years in prison – who have joined together to challenge the status quo. The film reveals their transformational journeys from soldiers committed to armed battle to nonviolent peace activists, leading to the creation of Combatants for Peace.
The movie challenges …us to understand the narratives we live within…and decide what role we are going to play in creating a more humane world…and it starts with our willingness to disturb the peace.
Two days after listening to Riyad and Larry, we met in Bethlehem with Sami Awad, the executive director of Holy Land Trust. Sami offered us a powerful metaphor for understanding why the Oslo Accords failed – not because of its stipulations but because it was built upon the existential fears of both communities, separating and segregating each side rather than bringing people together.
Sami compared Oslo with the frame of the Mona Lisa. “When I saw it, I thought, that’s a beautiful frame, but the Mona Lisa is the art. For the last 50 years, the world community has been arguing about the frame. There has to be a frame, but what does the art of peace look like?”
The Combatants are showing the world what the art of peaceful coexistence looks like. Disturbing the Peace offers a glimpse of that fiercely creative and courageous process.
Disturbing the Peace will be shown at Red River Cinema in Concord NH on Sunday, December 3rd at 2 pm. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the box office or online at http://www.redrivertheatres.org/2017/10/disturbing-the-peace/
Following the movie, Chen Alon and Sulaiman Khatib, cofounders of Combatants For Peace and co-nominees for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, will entertain audience questions and comments via Skype.
Joel Berman is a retired family physician who lives in Concord and is a congregant of Temple Beth Jacob.