September 21, 2018

From Seattle to the Settlements: One Man’s Journey Towards Reconciliation

Shaul Judelman experienced what he calls the “peak of [his] anti-Arabism” when in 2008 Shlomo Nativ, a 13-year-old boy from his West Bank community of Bat Ayin, was brutally murdered with an axe to the head by a Palestinian terrorist.

“It was easy to feel the hate then,” Judelman recalled.

But a Talmudical lesson Judelman was grappling with around that time marked a turning point in his life. “A person who harbors anger it’s as if he has transgressed the sin of idol worship,” Jewish sages taught.

“That was a gut check on a personal level,” Judelman said. “Anger has no place in the camp of Israel.”

The epiphany led Judelman, a secular Seattle native turned settler rabbi, to ask himself deep questions about his relationship with his Palestinian neighbors. Does it have to be war until the end of time? And if it’s not us against them, then what? “The root of the conflict is anger and fear,” Judelman explains, “and most of our politics are written out by those emotions.”

The equation was a simple one. If anger plus fear equals hate, the mission is to reduce the two variables. So together with Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian who served two stints in Israeli jails for stone throwing, Judelman founded Roots. Today Roots runs summer camps for Palestinian and Israeli children from 5 – 16 years old, yearlong programs for young adults, workshops – basically, anything that can bring Palestinians and Israelis from the West Bank to encounter each other in a forum other than a checkpoint or roadside clash.

Judelman harbors no illusions about solving the world’s most protracted conflict – “I don’t come to Roots with this leaping sense of, ‘Oh, any moment this conflict will end” – and he blames both the left and the right in Israel for being myopic. The left isn’t able to accept that the Second Intifada buried the two state solution beyond resurrection while the right is stuck on the mantra that there is no partner for peace. While on a political level that might be so, Judelman says, his experience has shown that the same cannot be said for civil society.

He recalls a recent photography workshop he ran during which Palestinian parents were dropping off their kids just as a car-ramming attack was taking place outside. “You see what’s going on out there and what’s going on in here. What’s going on out there is because we, the parents, have failed,” he said.

“It’s about taking responsibility. If I can’t solve the conflict I can at least make sure that the kids in my community are not racist,” he said.

But if there is an opportunity to advance peace, Judelman says, it will happen through the prism of Torah and Zionism. This idea, which may seem so counterintuitive, is one that was espoused by Judelman’s teacher and mentor, the late Rabbi Menachem Froman. Froman met with Palestinian leaders – even with members of the upper echelons of terror group Hamas – and sought to find common dialogue with the other side through a foundation of faith.

Judelman started becoming interested in Judaism when, as a sophomore in college, he spent time on Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz, as part of a semester abroad program in 2000. It was shmittah year – the agriculture sabbatical – and everything that that entailed grabbed him.

“In the Diaspora you live your Judaism on the level of self, family and maybe community,” he said. Yet in Israel Judelman learned that the way the land is treated affects the macro-economics of the entire society. “You ask, ‘is it mine or is it a blessing that I’ve received?” And you apply that in an economic way.” So Judelman stayed and enrolled in a yeshiva in Bat Ayin.

Around that time, the Second Intifada kicked off and the years that ensued became an endless smear of suicide attacks, funerals, condemnations – including a lack thereof – and a seemingly bottomless well of anger. And yet Judelman recalls visiting the U.S. for his graduation and experiencing a profound disconnect from his peers. “How can you explain what it means to be a part of the project of Israel? They thought I was crazy and I felt like I had 10 billion dollars in my pocket.”

Judelman, in his own small way, sought to break the tension. He would frequently travel from his yeshiva to the Mahane Yehuda marketplace in Jerusalem to play the saxophone. His wild man’s peyot would sway to the sultry notes of his sax while elderly vendors would yell at him to shut up. Old Jerusalemite women with heaving shopping carts would pause long enough to drop a shekel into his hat and, if they were lucky, to forget the conflict for one fleeting moment.

Does he ever just feel like giving up over the futility of it all?

“I’m a nose to the grindstone kind of person; what am I going to do complain about it?” he asked wryly.

“Anyway, even within a very broken situation it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do.”