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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Shlomo Zagman

For most of his life Shlomo Zagman lived in Allon Shevut, an Israeli settlement near Bethlehem. As a youth, he actively supported a political party that advocated deporting Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries, until a religious Jewish mentor convinced him that Israel's continued occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory endangers its future as a Jewish state. Shlomo and his wife left the settlement and moved to a city inside Israel, and Shlomo became a founding member of Realistic Religious Zionism, a group working to encourage religious Israelis to support withdrawal from settlements. Shlomo later left his corporate job to work at Mosaica Center for Inter-Religious Cooperation, promoting interfaith dialogue. Today he manages the field of two-wheeled vehicles at the National Port Authority, is active with Wounded Xcrossing Borders group and is exploring ways to engage in activism to end the occupation. He is featured in Just Vision's documentary, Encounter Point; to view one of his scenes please press here.

  • Please tell me a little about yourself.

    My name is Shlomo Zagman. I live in Modi'in, I'm 32 years old, married to Rachel, and father to Ta'ir and Aviad. I grew up in Allon Shevut, a settlement in Gush Etzion, I lived there since I was five until I was 28. I was born in Brazil, and my family made aliyah in 1976 when I was two. My family arrived in Allon Shevut in 1979; we'd made aliyah three years before that and lived in northern Israel. My father found work in Jerusalem and we looked for housing. Friends in Jerusalem told my parents that they had friends who lived in Allon Shevut and recommended we go see it. I was five years old. I remember the evening we came to Allon Shevut. We visited the friends' house and they told us that their neighbors were going abroad for 2 years, and that their house was for rent. That very same evening my parents went to see the house, and very quickly they became very enthusiastic about the place [Allon Shevut] and the people they met, and we came to live here. I grew up outside the Green Line of 1967, though settlement in Gush Etzion began before the State of Israel was established. Lands were legally purchased there, they were barren then and agriculturally-orientated settlements were founded on them.1 In 1948 Gush Etzion fell2 and since 1967 the rallying cry of the regional council has been "Your children will return to their own land."3 People grow up there with that heritage of clutching to the land, of returning to the settlements, to a land that is ours. There's a path nearby called "Trail of the Patriarchs", it's the path that Abraham took from Be'er Sheva to Mount Moriah4 - you are taught to have a religious bond to living there. When you get older it links to having political awareness and naturally to the National Religious Party and the right-wing parties who regard the return to Zion as a historical process of the return of a people to its land. Despite the problem the Arab population living there poses, [this population] is perceived as an obstacle that needs to be faced, but in no way does it suggest that this process - or this "right" - must be relinquished. 

    • 1The land was purchased in the early 1930s by Shmuel Yosef Holtzman.
    • 2In January 1927, a group of ultra-orthodox Jews from Jerusalem, accompanied by a few Yemenites who had immigrated to Palestine for religious reasons, moved to an area south of Jerusalem on part of present-day Gush Etzion. The community was destroyed when Arab riots broke out in 1929. In the early 1930s the same land was purchased by Shmuel Yosef Holtzman in order to establish a Jewish community in the area between Bethlehem and Hebron. This second attempt to establish a Jewish foothold in this area was once again derailed before any significant Jewish presence was achieved, this time in the course of the 1936 Arab uprising, which led the inhabitants to abandon the area and the destruction of most of what had been built there. Jews again attempted to settle the area between 1943-1947, resulting in the establishment of four Jewish communities, but all four were destroyed in the course of the 1948 war, and the entire area came under Jordanian rule. The loss of these four Jewish communities remains strong in Israeli collective memory and contributes to an ongoing nationalist and religious connection to the modern-day settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. See http://www.peacenow.org/policy.asp?cid=1709
    • 3Jeremiah 31:17
    • 4Also called the Temple Mount . The Temple Mount, located in the Old City of Jerusalem, refers to the area where the First and Second Jewish Temples are believed to have once resided. The location, known as Har HaBayit in Hebrew, is revered by Jews together with the Western (or Wailing) Wall beside it, which is considered the last remnant of the Second Temple. For Muslims, the area of the Temple Mount is known as the Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) and is what makes Jerusalem the third holiest city in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The Haram al-Sharif includes the Dome of the Rock Mosque and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and their holy sites has become a major point of contention in negotiations as both Jews and Muslims greatly revere the area. While Israel maintains sovereignty over the site, the Islamic Waqf runs the site on a day-to-day basis. The Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf ("Pious Endowments") is recognized by Israel as being in charge of the Islamic Holy Sites of Jerusalem, a position that is challenged by the Palestinians. Jordan has been is charge of maintenance of the Haram al-Sharif since 1954. See Struggle for Jerusalem and Tzemachdovid.

  • Why did you leave Allon Shevut?

    After I got married, I began working in Jerusalem, and I drove back and forth every day. I began working in Jerusalem in December 1999 and in October 2000 the second intifada broke out. I had witnessed the first intifada here with its burning bottles, and the second intifada was much more violent, with heavier weapons - I mean on the Palestinian side. I always considered the situation, examined it, examined the different perspectives and tried to understand them. I grew up in an area where people are, of course, right-wing, and Allon Shevut is part of the settlement movement that began in 1967 throughout Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip , and I held those views. My first views are reflected by the fact that the first movement I was active in was Moledet .

  • What changed for you?

    Most political dialogue, in fact most dialogue between people, isn't real or true. People don't want to leave the conceptual frameworks they live in, of the place they grew up in, because they know how to behave within them and how to use them. Broadening your conceptual framework, or trying to move or to accept a new angle or viewpoint, is liable to hurt the concept you have and shake up your world, change your viewpoint and the things you've constructed. We've accepted this for years, so why would we want to be confused? In 2000 I met a religious man who is my age, and there was true dialogue and real friendship between us. For the first time I began seeing things differently. I began to think I had previously been ignoring something that was right in front of me, like making myself blind to certain colors of the spectrum. I'm talking about how I regarded the neighboring Arab population. I knew them not really as a group of people with their own lives, but rather as figures used for work. I saw them at work, as laborers, janitors, I saw them at school, as manual workers, doing the work that my parents and the rest of our parents didn't want to do. Now I've begun to examine the checkpoints , to consider the meaning of the manner in which I pass them and how the Palestinians, do. I've also begun to think about the nature of Zionism and the nature of our struggle to exist in this country. There are all kinds of questions that didn't used to bother me as they do now. Now they have become essential. I had opinions I grew up with and I didn't really ever examine them for myself; I accepted a viewpoint that was created by someone else. My conclusion is that the price that we're paying to hold these lands is so high, it's actually at the cost of Zionist existence in Israel. I think it's worthwhile [to cede them] from a practical standpoint, not from a humanist or forbearing approach.  I don't think my country's army needs to rule a population that lives right next to me. That's the bottom line. I don't think it's right that when I drive to Jerusalem I pass through several checkpoints as though it's nothing, while every Palestinian has to stop for inspection. That's not the Jewish-democratic State of Israel I want to live in. Life here isn't easy, and I don't want to struggle for Israel's existence for the sake of that [military rule]. I changed because I started thinking rationally. I think it started after I considered the priorities and the manner in which we rank our values, having asked myself what takes precedence. The people of Israel's return to their land is important, as is [the people of Israel's] right to the land. These are historical and religious rights, but what is the price for these rights? What is the cost if these rights are fulfilled? Is it worth it? Every fulfillment or every achievement you seek comes with a price tag because you must give something else up. This consideration affected me. Together, my friend, who I mentioned before, and I discussed and analyzed Yeshayahu Leibowitz's position. Yeshayahu Leibowitz spoke out against the Occupation right from the start after the Six Day War. He said that we must withdraw because he saw we were occupying an entire population. The conquest of land in war took place then, as it still does today. Most of the borders worldwide have been determined by wars yet the occupation of people is another matter. Usually, if land is conquered, the civilian population doesn't remain under the conquering force's jurisdiction, rather it remains under the sovereignty of the original sovereign. If you conquer civilians you have responsibilities, they must be annexed to your state; if you gain land, you also gain more citizens. I'm referring to the relation of a democratic state to people, because in a democratic state all are citizens - there are no slaves or second-class citizens, at least de jure. Leibowitz recognized this; he predicted what would happen to a state holding people by force without intending to grant them civil rights, and he wrote about it. Suddenly I understood the viewpoint that we don't need all this land [Judea and Samaria] in order to fulfill the Zionist dream. We don't need to occupy millions under a military regime, because it's not a price worth paying. I connected with people who believe that in terms of priorities and fulfilling values, prefer to give up control over the Territories,   for the sake of not ruling another people. I prefer to live in a smaller country, but a country with borders its people agree on so we know what it is that we're defending.

  • Please tell me about Realistic Religious Zionism and your role there.

    When I made the change in my political view, I met a group of likeminded religious young [Israeli] people. We founded the Movement for Realistic Religious Zionism. Its purpose is to present a religious Zionist position that does not only center on Eretz Israel, rather, it places the Jewish people at its focus. We want to focus on the kind of state we live in rather than on its borders; the people and the Torah take precedence over the land. We have a certain right to land, but if we behave in an inappropriate way, we lose that right. Our first activity was to publicly call on the national-religious [Jewish] population living in the settlements. We did it through the newspapers, calling on them to acknowledge the necessity of giving up part of the lands of Eretz Israel in order to sustain the Israeli Jewish state in its [internationally] recognized borders so as to start focusing on Israel's social problems. Such problems are neglected now because of the political situation and the conflict, and the many resources allotted to the conflict. This was just the beginning. We continue to do this, publishing different versions of our petition, to different audiences. We circulated a petition calling on the settlers to recognize the State's obligation to withdraw from part of the Territories. After the petition was published and there was an interview with us on the news, some people in my settlement took offense, as they viewed it as a slap in the face. To them it was as though I was saying I took the blinders off my eyes, and I now see what I was blind to before while they're still blind and need to open their eyes. I received a few harsh and inappropriate reactions. It's not that I was disappointed in them, because I know these people to be extremists. Our main focus is the national-religious Jewish community in Israel and our aim was to spark dialogue among Israelis who are divided across political lines. We held a conference in Jerusalem that dealt with the settlers needing to face the possibility of withdrawal [from Gaza]. The discussion question was how to relate to this prospect, given the government, which is right-wing, is talking about disengagement and changing the border.We plan to continue by holding house gatherings, distributing our materials, having group meetings, etc. That's basically what we do.

  • How many people are active in the movement?

    Today we have more than 200 signatories and a few dozen people who support us but won't make a public statement to that effect. We define ourselves as a national-religious movement. We only accept signatures from people in the national-religious community so that our activities, which target this community, will be received as we intend, as coming from inside the community and not as an outsider organization trying to influence or convince this community. We began as a new organization that approaches young people, so not many older people joined us or signed the petition. We didn't put much effort into widening the circle of people who signed, but we don't have limitations on age. We also know that there are religious left-wing groups that have been operating for many years. We feel that we come from within the national religious community; some of our activists once had right-wing views. Many people grew up and were raised as supporters of the Right and became as we say, realistic. They are willing to give up on certain dreams or part of a dream in order to fulfill other dreams, which we now deem more important.

  • What kind of reactions did the petition elicit?

    Most peoples' reactions were okay while a few people said they knew there were also religious people advocating such a [negative] message and 'too bad there are such people, they'll learn their lesson'. We are lumped into part of the general Left, such as Meimad but I don't feel threatened. I don't threaten anyone else. I am strengthening a group whose policy will threaten a few people in their homes if it is realized and they already know it and are fighting us. This is part of the democratic debate and that is legitimate. I do want to see the young generation of settlers and religious nationals in Israel who have right-wing views influenced by us, by the conversation in Israel that I see is moving to the left. Ariel Sharon used the word occupation and clearly recognized its existence; this understanding that I now have is claiming its place in the entire Israeli public and I think we, together with other movements, influence public opinion.  I left [Allon Shevut] with my wife and daughter. My reason was ideological, in order not to live under the sponsorship of occupation. We moved closer to where my wife's parents live, so for her it was because of practical rather than political reasons. It was a very difficult decision, financially. Housing in Israel is much more expensive and it was hard for us to afford an apartment in Israel. The state encourages people to live in Judea and Samaria and there are grants and loans from the government. It amazes me is that even today when the Prime Minister talks of paying a price for unilateral separation; there is still a very attractive offer to settle in the Jordan Valley, including settlements in Samaria. People who go to live there today get a grant from the state, the state pays their tuition fees, and they get help with rent. Even in Gaza, people received all sorts of financial benefits to settle there. How can the state talk one way and act another? It's very strange.

  • From a religious standpoint, how can you agree to relinquish lands promised to the people of Israel?

    They were promised in a contract - that is, in the Bible - on a conditional basis. It's a promise with preconditions attached: we will receive the land if we behave properly if we fulfill the mitzvot. People claim we're entitled to the fulfillment of this promise, but I think it's a mystical promise, not an earthly one. It's not a written contract signed in the presence of lawyers, subject to any given legislative authority that will support its execution. The history of the Jewish people is full of highs and lows when it comes to keeping promises. The extermination of the Jews is also promised [in the Bible], so are disasters, murder, persecution, loss; we are also promised exile. In terms of religion, I don't believe that religion is instrumental; He doesn't serve the human race. Of course not. I don't agree with the idea that because we're the chosen people and His preferred son, He's the father of a favorite son and exists in order to give us pocket money, to provide us with a warm bed, comfort and health! Will He be paying our bills? Will we live in His house, supported by Him, turn to Him in case of problem and entreat, and He'll reach deep into his pocket and pay our way? No, I don't see it that way. If anybody owes anybody, it's not He who owes us. If you acknowledge and believe in the Creator of the Universe and in the obligation to serve Him, the obligation is bottom-up. People must define for themselves what their religious obligations are and fulfill them in the way they see fit. Everyone enacts religion the way they deem right. Every person has limits and compromises, principles to stand by, things to be observed and things not to be observed. Religiously speaking, I'm in a process and I'm zigzagging. I don't have a unified viewpoint. I very much believe that the Creator of the Universe does not exist to fulfill my requests and my needs. There's nature and there's a world and there's an imposed reality. I am subject to reality; I experience it as it unfolds. Religious belief is external to the world, and actually isn't related to the world's development. The world has its own flow, reality flows. If I choose to detach from the material world for a moment and perform a religious action, it's kept separate from the world because the world is unconnected to it, unaffected by it. It doesn't grant me anything material; it neither improves the world nor does it worsen it - I mean religious faith - unless I take something from religion and apply it in an earthly way. Then it has the same effect as social action. For example, one person can be charitable out of a social impulse and be a complete atheist, and think that it's right and moral to give charity. Another would do it out of religious obligation to Him; clearly the moral aspect present in the act is evident, but that's not this person's obligation.

  • Do you regard yourself as part of a religious community?

    No, not currently. I feel as though I'm neither here nor there because I'm doubtful. Following the change I talked about earlier, I now allow myself to have different beliefs and views that come from different places. I don't take any one doctrine or ideology for granted, one that has (almost) all the answers because I don't think such a thing exists. There is no one ideology, the truth isn't in one single place; truth is dispersed. There isn't a single ideology that knows what is right, while everything else is erroneous; such an ideology doesn't exist. I allow myself to have different views on political, religious and social matters which belong to different schools of thought because there are cases in which it's better to implement one perspective, while in other cases a different approach is preferable. That's true for economics and politics too, for socialism and capitalism. I don't think anything is pure just because it's a whole. It's difficult because it causes much distress. I'm disappointed in many people and feel estranged. It's like disengaging, one feels a sense of detachment. I disconnected from the national-religious society I had been living in and from the political movement I used to be part of. Even in terms of nationalism, I feel a little estranged and don't relate to the culture and the standards exhibited in Israeli society.

  • How are your conversations with the society you once belonged to?

    It's like deaf people trying to speak to each other.

  • You speak the cultural language of the national-religious settler community, does that facilitate conversation?

    I think even my language has changed. I know their language, but I no longer believe in it - I don't accept the terms they use anymore. I don't translate reality using the same terms they do. Take the word occupation - this community doesn't use this word because they don't think we are occupiers! Their perspective is, 'We have returned to our land. There were residents there, we'll do our best to ensure they will be able to live their lives, but we are not occupiers! Occupation refers to strangers coming, infiltrating land that belongs to others.' While I accept the idea that we have returned to the land and the idea of our bond, I don't accept their views. At the center of my outlook is the value of the democratic state. I have been developing my perspective over the past few years, defining my views on the question of a democratic state. In terms of Israel's definition as a Jewish-democratic state, from the perspective of an orthodox person obviously it is more important the State be Jewish than democratic because democracy could prescribe practices that could contradict religious edicts. Yet I believe freedom of religion is inherent to democracy! The only thing is, it isn't solely for you. It includes others as well. I see people employing democratic claims only when they stand to benefit from them. People don't use these claims, or they forget about them when referring to other peoples' rights. I think that's hypocritical; I can't accept this type of hypocrisy. I think this occurs in the Right's views and I can't stand it.

  • Can you give an example of that?

    Take the period prior to the disengagement from Gaza and the Right's struggle against it. They [the Israeli Right] said, 'What about human rights? Expelling people and demolishing their homes is a human rights violation.' In other words, "consider" the residents of Gush Katif's human rights; all of a sudden they were talking about democracy, about human rights, civil rights, equality and such terms, but only when it applied to them. When Arab-Israeli citizens are treated like second class citizens and lack equal civil rights, they [the Right] don't listen to these terms; they aren't interested. But they do acknowledge these terms when they need to, then they know all about the Basic Laws [filling the function of a constitution] in a democratic state. I can't tolerate such views anymore. Tolerating doesn't denote pluralism. Tolerance is a willingness to suffer another [perception of] reality, something that negates your principles; this is tolerance. Willingness to put up with something doesn't denote a willingness to regard it positively, to think you could learn from it; it doesn't count. You can think something is inferior, unjust and erroneous but still tolerate and bear it. This means people hope and work to make their view prevail in the future in order to cancel what they don't tolerate. This is tolerance. It's a plausible idea but it isn't the most positive approach, nor is it the most enlightened way.

  • Which word should be used instead of tolerance?

    Pluralism. It means that the truth isn't in any single place, but scattered in different places. I like my outlook, I'm comfortable with it, yet I can acknowledge and accept that other ways are just as legitimate. Pluralism can restrict what is legitimate and what isn't, but what it doesn't do is claim the entire truth is "here" while everything else is falsehood. I have found right-wing national-religious people to be tolerant at best. I guess this goes not only for the national-religious community, but for all ideologists. To summarize, I have cut myself off from all ideology. I wouldn't want to claim I believe in any one ideology. No. I believe in many ideologies and gain from them, or I should say from numerous views - not ideologies because an ideology is complete, it is a whole framework and a full doctrine. I accept various views that originate in different places, even when they contradict each other. That's why discourse with people I grew up with is difficult for me because we don't see things the same way; we view things in a completely different manner. While conversing, we see things from our own angle. To them, I'm condescending because I claim that in the past I saw what they are seeing now, that I don't need to go and see what they see because I've already seen it. I do want them to shift a little and view the picture from a new angle; then we could talk about the things we see. That's a difficult demand for anyone. Most people feel satisfied with knowing the things they know and don't pursue further knowledge. People don't seek to doubt principles they live by, principles they were raised with. What you know best is the most convenient because it's familiar, you know how to live and grapple with it.

  • How can you make people from the community you belonged to view matters from your perspective despite this?

    Maybe by shock, causing people to experience something extreme. I think that an extreme and dramatic experience can open people's eyes. A tranquil conversation is too... it's not stimulating enough to make a person change something. Processing and expressing your personal views, fixing discrepancies that pop up as you go along is a very convenient path but if you're suddenly thrown you don't have time to process the little things and then conflict occurs. People need to be brought to a conflicting point with the reality they know and maybe that will make people view matters differently.

  • Did you have such an experience, being shaken up?

    It might have been in 2000. During the drive from Jerusalem to Allon Shevut there was flying checkpoint, it wasn't a regular one, Border Police troops laid out collapsible spikes on the road and checked the cars. After passing the checkpoint I saw a little girl and an old man sitting on the floor, they were being detained. The image connected to what we had been discussing, about an entire population living under occupation. If I saw young people who fit the profile for being a suicide bomber or an infiltrator trying to slip by I wanted to report it but I never did. Suddenly the stereotype was shattered but it was a result of discussion and an examination of reality followed by seeing such an image. It was a hot day, and the man and little girl were suffering. At once I understood the underlying meaning: the majority of the Palestinians live in such a harsh reality. What would I do if I were them? Would I want to change places? I don't want to be responsible for this reality. It's only meant to provide security, but inside this apparatus a lot of injustice is done, and I don't want to be responsible for it. I can only imagine myself in that situation. I would give up; I would be in despair, especially if I was elderly. Younger people still have a distant future and hope for things to improve but I think older people don't see the change that could come so they struggle less for change.

  • Do you think this scene made such an impression on you because you have a little girl?

    Yes, I thought about that little girl with that person who may have been her grandfather. I thought to myself, if my little girl and her grandfather had to go through this, what would I think? Would I accept the argument that this is done for security? This is a generalization, that the whole population is guilty until proven otherwise. Other settlers would have said, 'there is nothing we can do, we don't want to hurt people, but there are terrorists groups and movements that endanger Israeli citizens and therefore we have to take precaution; this is war, innocent people get hurt in wars.' If I talk to them in theoretical argument on the necessity of war, they say I am missing the big picture, that's all they say. People say, 'that's all right, we have to make an effort, we have to improve the policy.' But improving the policy doesn't negate the whole thing—the situation stays the same. People in Israel say it's the Palestinians' fault; if they didn't hate us and support terrorism we wouldn't have to take these measures. 'It didn't used to be this way', this is what other people say, and logically I understand what they are saying but the thing is, they are ignoring some things. You hear that "they [Palestinians] have it so good", but would anybody want to trade places with them? Is it that good? Really? People talk of democracy, but a true democrat wants all people to benefit from democracy and be citizens of a democratic state. Democrats can't claim to be thinking democratically if democracy is limited to them and they think it is just fine for other people to live in dictatorships, under military rule. No. That isn't democratic. You must aspire to have every person become a citizen of a democratic state. People say that the Palestinians should organize themselves in a democratic fashion, but is anyone willing to go out and ensure citizenship for them in Jordan or in other countries? People say they [Palestinians] have other countries, but what does that mean? Does it mean arrangements for citizenship and compensation? I mean let's hear the offers but don't sling them over the border and consider them citizens of another country. Has Jordan legislated a "Law of Return"? Is there a benefit package for immigrants there? Get real. When someone comes bearing an offer...people talk about financial compensation but you have to discuss the matter of citizenship too.

  • How are your relationships with your family and community affected by the change you experienced?

    Several years have gone by and my image is now fixed: I'm just one of the lefties. Obviously I'm not the only lefty they know, you have to be sensible about this. Now the distance between us is ideological. I could converse and argue, which sometimes I do, but I know that there is no point in having a short conversation unless you are systematic. There is no point to random discussions because they are so random and spontaneous that you pick an argument from here and a claim from there and it's messy. You need to be organized and prepared if you want to analyze with efficiency. These aren't simple matters. I argue sometimes, but then who doesn't... it's typically Israeli. In every extended family, people differ from each other and they change; you could have one family member who has become Orthodox and a relative who left the Orthodox way; it just adds flavor to the brew of social connections. I don't take it too seriously.

  • Do people render you not Orthodox anymore since your views have changed?

    Maybe people who aren't close to me. My family and my friends are practicing Jews but they don't adopt a hard line so I don't think they perceive me that way. I don't live nearby anymore so they can't monitor me, or don't want nor need to know, monitoring my religious practices or the lack thereof. A certain religious outlook does perceive people who are willing to yield, people who aren't tightly bound to the land as not being linked to religion. It perceives this as part of one's religious belief - the right to the land as a divine promise. Obviously they think I'm weak, that my belief is frail and that I am not enough of a believer because my vision is limited, I allow marginal matters to affect me and I buckle.

  • Do you visit your family in Allon Shevut?

    Yes, not often, but that's not because of any kind of ideology but due to circumstance. I cross the Green Line! Rami Elhanan1 is the first person I had an in-depth discussion with about crossing the Green Line. He told me he doesn't visit settlements though sometimes he is invited by his colleagues, for him this isn't about family though. I can partly understand his position but I'm scared to really examine it profoundly so as not to find myself positioned against crossing the Green Line. I would be faced with a decision not to cross the Green Line and that would mean telling my family I won't visit them anymore. On the other hand, before examining the matter a position such as Rami's would have seemed too extreme, causing harm more than anything else. I don't think it is the right approach for a person who wants to bring people together, to unite or to make people listen. It is the kind of thing that rules out dialogue because you discount it immediately. I'll go my way and you go yours...that denotes a rift, it says we aren't one people, implying you live in a different country, separate religions, so what do we share? When I want to be humorous I say my family lives in the State of Palestine. When I talk to people [there] I say, 'Make aliyah!' I tell them to make aliyah, meaning move to Israel. I joke about it but I perceive there will be a Palestinian state, and I think there should be. For most of my life I lived in a place where Arabic is the dominant language, Arab culture presides; I was a minority.

    • 1Rami Elhanan is a member of the Parents Circle-Bereaved Families Forum, a joint organization of more than 500 Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families working together for reconciliation and an end to violence. (see Parents Circle-Bereaved Families Forum in glossary)

  • When you lived in Allon Shevut in the Territories, did you ever feel that you were a minority among the Palestinian residents there?

    No. That's what's absurd, that's what happens when you are the occupier; you are the lay of the land.1 This is how I view it now. In terms of a Palestinian state, I don't know how realistic it is, you could say it's a 50-50 chance. While there could be a peace agreement and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, there could also be war followed by massive exile, people fleeing as war causes them to flee.

    • 1Over 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, while settlers make up approximately 418,000, including East Jerusalem. See "West Bank" CIA The World Factbook at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/we.html and B'Tselem online at http://www.btselem.org/English/Settlements/

  • Please tell me about your current work.

    I work at Mosaica, a center for inter-religious cooperation. Mosaica was founded by Rabbi Melchior and the flagship is The Jerusalem Inter-Religious Educational Leadership development program. This started off as a pilot and now it's in its second year; Orthodox Jewish educators from schools in the Jerusalem area meet with orthodox Muslim educators from schools in East Jerusalem. The project started off working with principals from orthodox Muslim and Jewish schools. In the middle of last year, every principal reached out to teachers and now, in addition to the principals group, we have two groups of teachers that meet. Two facilitators - one Muslim and one Jew - facilitate the meetings, they are dynamic facilitators. The groups meet once a month regularly for a few hours. The facilitators planned it this way; they want to have dialogue. The first immediate goal is to create a better understanding between the people, improve their knowledge of each other's culture and religion. The last goal is to create the appropriate environment so the participants will initiate joint projects between their schools. Any form of cooperation would be good, it could be religious, educational or social. It could involve both of the school communities and achieve contact and cooperation. I'm a Project Coordinator and assistant to the director at Mosaica. Our groups of teachers are supposed to participate in a joint seminar in Spain, given the coexistence of Jews and Muslims during the Golden Age there, before Jews were expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. I'm responsible for organizing and coordinating everything for the conference. There are also programs in the pipeline and I'm responsible for moving forward. We have a facilitator-training program for inter-religious dialogue. We are training people because there aren't enough facilitators who specialize in this field. This means finding observant Jewish young leaders, develop them and train them to facilitate dialogue. We use the language of religion and the common basis of religion as a source of conversation, examining what we share, the similarities as well as the differences. Since these are believers in monotheistic faiths, their perspectives have much in common, as do their views on life, proportionality, the central values of their lives are very similar, as well as approaches to the Western world, their approach to secularism is very similar. This is the idea, that it is a very suitable basis for dialogue, contrary to what you might presume.

  • You talked about a dialogue group for principals of Jewish orthodox schools and Muslim schools. How do you reach out to the principals?

    We are an Israeli organization that is linked to the national-religious community all over Israel. We work cooperatively with Rabbis who are part of the mainstream; their support of our work and ideas assist us in our outreach. We are non-partisan, supported by central Rabbis, with whom we cooperate. This helps; we come recommended. It's word of mouth and people know about us because there is a shared sense of intimacy in this religious community. I wasn't working here when the group of school principals was recruited, but for instance, if a certain principal is pleased with the program and decides there are positive aspects in the program, he will bring teachers to the program, he will know how to find them.

  • Do you facilitate at meetings?

    No, I don't because I haven't trained. We work with very professional and experienced people in this field [of interfaith dialogue]. At first, after I made the move [to this job] I was frustrated because of dealing with administration. But four months later, I really understand you need to learn how to work in dialogue and facilitation and be thorough about it. I also know that administration is crucial; of course someone has to do it. Gradually, I'm getting to know the people involved here and am more involved.

  • Have you ever participated in any of the meetings you coordinated?

    No. There is a strict code we observe at Mosaic. Participants need to feel they can speak openly and feel safe within the group. If an outsider is present, it harms the group's intimacy, so whoever isn't a part of the group isn't permitted to be present at the discussions.

  • Have you ever participated in an interfaith dialogue encounter?

    No. I would like to participate in dialogue, but not necessarily interfaith dialogue. I'm searching for a program that will suit me in terms of the type of dialogue and participants. I signed up for a workshop offered by YIFC. They are organizing a weekend workshop with dialogue and role-play exercises; if nothing comes up earlier that may be my first experience as a participant.

  • How was the transition from the corporate world to interfaith dialogue?

    The transition was good because I felt I had experienced all there was to experience in that job and I had an urge to feel I was contributing to something meaningful. I think I can say I am. I think that my work at Mosaica is contributing to something significant, something I believe in. There are ups and downs along the way, but it is important work. 

  • What kind of obstacles do you encounter in your work?

    The obstacles are the common problems in dialogue between conflict groups. People from the national-religious background (who aren't left-wing like supporters of the Meimad movement) don't naturally come to mind as participants in such a program. That in itself is a significant accomplishment, just them coming and being with each other. There could be other problems, for example, the war created a problem. Suddenly war broke out and in the Jewish group people felt united and a sense of shared fate though we know that [Palestinian Citizens of Israel] also were hurt by the war-- missiles were fired at the Galilee, killing Arabs too.1 You would assume that the Arabs would then be on your side and regard Nasrallah and Hezbollah as enemies, but what you hear is that this isn't true, it isn't necessarily a logical inference. Then [Jewish] people say, 'If you identify with my enemy, how can I talk to you?' Just like a suicide bombing during a dialogue session can make people withdraw or adopt more radical approaches. It makes people desperate and they feel dialogue doesn't contribute much and is therefore unnecessary - a waste of energy and emotions. This is what is challenging and what simultaneously makes it interesting.

    • 1Some of the Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War hit Palestinian Arab Israeli villages in the North of Israel. See for example "Day-by-day: Lebanon crisis - week two." BBC News Online. 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/5194156.stm

  • How is inter-religious dialogue effective in resolving the conflict?

    Factually, [interfaith dialogue] hasn't been given enough of a platform to influence political negotiations. Nearly 14 years have passed since the Madrid conference , that is when negotiations began, it was recognition of the PLO; all these conference are always political and their participants secular. Sporadically religious leaders met but I think religion was pushed aside. Of course this claim is political, but I think it was denied a chance. The greater the role religion plays in a given conflict, the more religious leadership should be influential and be allowed to affect the public and its general mood. 

  • What is the role of religion in the conflict?

    I think that currently religion is fueling the extremists both among Jews and among Muslims. Extremist orthodox Jews transform religion into irreconcilable fundamentalism - into control over lands. Fundamental Islam transforms religion to be uncompromising about control over Palestine and nationalism. We know for certain that both religions have content that is different than that. There are different kinds of orthodox followers and there are different religious streams that can converse. They must be addressed, given a speaking platform and assisted in disseminating their perspective.

  • What is this conflict about?

    Nobody is asked this question. For some, it's about land, for others it concerns religion, or nationalism or culture or rights and freedom. Different people feel they are struggling for different reasons. One person might reply, "as part of the collective, my struggle is over the land because someone is occupying my land so I must hold on to it; staying alive is the real struggle." Another might say, "The struggle is over the Jews' existence in Eretz Yisrael. Yet another person will claim "My struggle is living my life as an individual and about my freedom." Israelis' safety could be perceived as threatened by terrorism while Palestinians could be distressed by the lack of freedom.

  • What do you think about previous peace processes?

    Well, they were run by politicians and politicians are...politicians. Most politicians are motivated by their pride or their desire to dominate. I think that's what motivates most politicians - the quest for power and sometimes money. When this is the case, when there is conflict, when one side is strong while the other is weak, it is a war waged using force. When this is what the leadership is like, reaching an understanding or a compromise is difficult. Goals are oriented towards the short-term, politicians see themselves and their position as it is now. They depend on elections, on public opinion and these can change a lot in a relatively short time so why should [the politicians] plan for the long term? They are concerned with climbing to higher positions, or at least retaining their current status and not lose it. Their status is temporary, it is short-term, and that concerns politicians.

  • What is the ideal situation you would want to see here in the future?

    I'm sure everybody's answers are similar, more or a less, it's just the question of where you mark the borders. Is Israel's border the Green Line or Jordan? For me, it would be the State of Israel living peacefully with its neighbors, engaged in dialogue over defining Jewish and Israeli identities, respectively.

  • Is having a Jewish state here important to you?

    That is a profound question and I don't think I can answer yet. I think that if people read my answer they are going to say, "He's so shallow. He hasn't got a really profound answer he can whip out, so of course the answer is yes." I've learned not to answer grave and profound questions spontaneously. I have ceased to speak in slogans and reply with the answer I'm expected to. No. There isn't a "natural" point of departure, nothing should be made a slogan and "certainly" isn't a response. Everything is so complex... If there is a state for the Jewish people it's important for me it be a Jewish state, otherwise it is unnecessary. Jews' lives in America are better than they are here, so the State of Israel is not necessary in order to live your life as a Jew or in order to live. A Jewish state is necessary in order to live the essence [of Judaism] and in order to retain a collective Jewish essence; it isn't in order to live as a Jewish individual. My father used to say, "I could be Jewish anywhere." In Western countries you can be Jewish; democracy grants freedom of religion so there's no problem there. But a Jewish state is necessary for the existence of a collective Jewish lifestyle, in essence and in content. So if we want a state, let it be a Jewish state and not just another state. There are countries better than us so why duplicate the effort? An enlightened democratic state? That already exists.

  • What are your hopes for the future?

    Peace! Are you asking about my personal hopes? I want to enjoy living life. I want to live peacefully and be healthy.

  • Are outside actors influential in the conflict?

    I think that if we can't sit down and resolve our problems together, there should be third-party intervention.

  • What do you want people who aren't here to know about the conflict?

    I want to say that things here aren't as bad as they seem on their television screens. Come and see things for yourself...It isn't that they are seeing lies, but a one-sided approach is what you learn from the media. I can't really complain because this conflict echoes loudly all over the world. Nearly everywhere in the world people who watch television and are media-oriented know what's going on here, more or a less. It might not be true for the nuances or small scale politics, but it's true for the general picture. People are getting a certain picture from a very certain angle and it isn't a good picture. I think people should come and get to know things [here], if they're interested. That isn't my aspiration; just as I can't be active in familiarizing myself with and demonstrate in-depth knowledge about conflicts in other areas in the world. I am living with one conflict, should I have time to learn about another one? I need to take care of my community first. I'll be able to worry about [other conflicts] when it's peaceful and boring here and I don't expect people in similar situations to act differently.

  • Have you encountered prejudices in your work?

    I once invited a friend from my synagogue to attend a meeting with the Bereaved Families Forum and I told her about the meeting. She told me she couldn't look an Arab in the eye. She said some other things, such as that she views all Arab people as terrorists; what can I say to her? I'm sorry to be acquainted with such people. It is only when you invite people to such a meeting that you discover a nice person who you know, allegedly cultured and normal, has such views.

  • What does peace mean to you?

    Peace means no violence. When there is no violence everything can be arranged. Without violence people would die of natural causes. Even traffic accidents are a form of violence. Without violence we would die of natural causes or inflictions. If we shun violence as a way of resolving conflicts, I believe we can find a solution, solve every problem, even if people yell. Yelling is also a form of violence...but things would be peaceful and we'd be able to resolve anything. I'm not very optimistic about the short term at all. I don't see peace in the short term, but I believe that Israeli existence must occur within a certain framework, and when I look at the objectives of Israel I think we'll never achieve those objectives, Zionist objectives, the establishment of a proper state with the rule of law and justice, when we're carrying such a big population under military control on our backs.

  • Do you think there will be peace?

    In the future, yes. Peace is a big word and it's something I don't envision happening in the near future, so, actually my actions within the group and also the objectives of the group itself are not defined with the word peace in it. Peace is the end of a process that hasn't even started. The process we are trying to embark on is to acknowledge the necessity of separating, the necessity of the state of Israel to end the Occupation and to invest in Israel's internal problems, with of course, security measures. Of course my hope for the long term is a step necessary for future peace.