By Rachel Bouer
Thursday evening, Hallock Auditorium was full of different sides of the same story. Exemplifying this were the speakers, Kobi Skolnick and Aziz Abu-Sarah of Israel and Palestine, respectively. They shared their different stories, mutual hopes, and future plans with students, faculty, and staff, some of whom are part of either the Oberlin Zionists or Students for a Free Palestine. The stories of Skolnick and Abu-Sarah filled the room with a warm glow that lessened the burden of the falling snow outside.
The evening began with an introduction from Oberlin Zionists co-chair, Sam Kleinman, who explained that both speakers had “turned from hard-line positions to peace activism.” Abu-Sarah was involved with a radical wing of the Fatah Youth movement in Palestine at the same time that Skolnick was an Israeli soldier and settler in the West Bank.
“What is normally known in the media is that [Skolnick and I] are strongly known as enemies. At one point in our lives we probably were enemies,” Abu-Sarah said. “But today we are here together not just as partners but as friends.”
Following this meaningful note, Abu-Sarah walked around the auditorium stage and told his story beginning in his childhood days in Bethany, a small town outside Jerusalem.
“If you grew up there, there is no childhood,” he said. By the time Abu-Sarah was seven years old, the first intifada, or uprising, had begun.
He described the confusion and questioning of his childhood in this chaotic time.
“When you’re seven, you are trying to understand what’s going on,” he said. “Who’s ‘them’ and who’s ‘us’ anyway?”
Despite his lack of attachment to the conflict, Abu-Sarah encountered serious concerns often. He said that he and his friends threw stones, not out of violent intention but merely the search for entertainment. However, this could lead to shootings from the Israeli military, which ended the innocence of the game.
When Abu-Sarah went to school each day, he had one thing more important than his books to bring with him. Each day he had to pack an onion, whose chemical properties can counteract the effects of teargas.
Though this was going on around him, Abu-Sarah said he was still able to live in a “bubble” where it seemed that all that was bad would happen to others while not happening to him. Unfortunately, reality struck a few years later during Ramadan. The Abu-Sarah family woke up early to eat their pre-sunrise meal and then returned to bed, only to be interrupted moments later by Israeli soldiers who eventually arrested and took Abu-Sarah’s older brother for further interrogation.
Meanwhile, his family did not know why he was taken or where he was. After 18 days of agonizing waiting, the family heard that he had been arrested for throwing stones and would remain in prison for the following year. After his sentence, Abu-Sarah’s brother’s health had declined sharply due to poor prison conditions and brutality immediately following his arrest. Days after his release, Abu-Sarah’s brother passed away at age 19 in a Jerusalem hospital.
This devastating loss was the impetus for Abu-Sarah’s greater involvement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlike his actions today, his first response at the time was one of anger, bitterness and violence.
“The idea of peace and reconciliation seems like such a stupid idea in that moment,” he said. “I felt it was my duty and my reason for life to get revenge; if I’m a good brother that’s what I have to do.”
In order to use this emotional response in an active way, Abu-Sarah decided to get involved with politics. By age 16, he was writing twice or more per week for a newspaper in Jerusalem.
“The articles were about how we should never compromise or talk to the enemy,” he said.
By the time he finished high school, Abu-Sarah said he was “so radical” that he refused to listen during the mandatory Hebrew classes his school offered. Ironically, because he had to then learn it later to get around the city and eventually go to college, Abu-Sarah stumbled upon his first ideas for peace.
He attended an ulpan, which is a Hebrew school for incoming Jews to Israel. Abu-Sarah was the only Palestinian in the class, and he went in with the plan of simply learning the language and leaving. He thought, “I’m not going to talk to anyone, I don’t like anyone here.” However, the simple nature of the class frustrated this strategy.
“You have to work in groups so they force you to have conversations about who you are, where you are from, what you like,” he said. “As you start having those conversations something starts changing. You start figuring out something kind of weird and strange— you have some stuff in common.”
Abu-Sarah explained that this brought down some of the walls he held between him and Israelis in general. He explained that before you really get to know someone from the other side, you “dehumanize” them.
“[You think to yourself,] they’re not as ethical and moral as we are. It’s true we do some bad things too, but our bad are a little less bad,” he said. “It’s therefore ok to kill them, ok to wish them ill. After you get to know them that argument doesn’t really stand.”
For Abu-Sarah, it was initially nothing monumental that brought him closer with his Jewish classmates, rather his love of country music. Over time, these realizations grew from casual conversation to startlingly deep insights. “Our blood color is the same, our tears are as bitter, and our pain is as personal.”
Like Abu-Sarah, it took Skolnick a while to reach such an understanding conclusion. His background also began with a strong community and a mistrust of the other side. Skolnick grew up in as an ultra-Orthodox Lubovitcher, or someone who practices a specific branch of Hasidic Judaism.
Skolnick explained that this lifestyle had many boundaries.
“The education system was very strict,” he said. “I first watched TV when I was 14 and first read the newspaper when I was 16.”
In this sheltering environment, Skolnick was introduced to ideas from others who were reflecting on their lives and roles in their religious communities. One weekend, he met a friend who introduced him to a new philosophy of Judaism, Kahanah. It entails a much more militaristic view toward the Israeli Palestinian conflict than most other Jewish philosophies.
“If Palestinians use violence, we should show them we can use violence as well,” Skolnick said. “It was definitely a sense of empowerment.” After learning and studying, Skolnick and his friends took to action.
“We ended up in Hebron city. We’d go to the streets in groups of three or four… and throw stones at Palestinian cars. Every other weekend I was doing that because it was something new and fun,” he said.
Skolnick continued his ultra-religious education at a Yeshivah high school in a settlement in the West Bank. His life consisted of occasional violent acts, but they did not stand out as noteworthy at the time because it was just “part of [his] day.”
Upon turning 18, Skolnick joined the Israeli Army for his mandatory service. After basic and advanced training, he was in the same city of his rebellious youth, Hebron. However, it was not full of the fun and games he had experienced as a child.
“I was starting to see that training is not like getting shot in real life,” he said.
As he paced through the same streets he ran down as a child, he frequently encountered Palestinian children throwing stones. One occasion brought the horrors of the conflict into sharp focus for Skolnick. A large stone nearly hit his head, but if it had he “would not be here today.” The normal response to such action would be to fire rubber bullets; however, loading rubber bullets is time-consuming so Skolnick had a minute to reflect. In that time, he realized that what he was witnessing was not normal.
“I looked at those kids who were seven or eight and I realized I was there a few years ago. I started to realize something was wrong here and I needed to think about it,” he said. “From that moment on I started asking questions.”
Soon after, tragedy struck Skolnick’s life as well. One of his closest friends was shot by a Palestinian gunman during the Second Intifada. His friend was survived by his wife and five children, with one more on the way. Skolnick decided to live at their settlement with them, where he became an elementary school teacher.
Not long after, a gunman came into the school and shot at the children, some of whom were wounded or killed.
After working to save as many of the children as possible, Skolnick noticed that the now-dead gunman was not past age 17.
“I thought to myself, if we could do something that wasn’t fighting or talking about this, if we could just play basketball together or something, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Not that we would be able to live happily together in peace, but if we met somewhere else, would that take place?” he said.
After this, Skolnick began his career as a peace activist, by looking to answer questions about the origins of such hatred and violence.
If we bring people together and create a new perception, something will change,” he said.
“Showing People We Are All Human”
The pair met a year-and-a-half ago in the United States and since then have been doing activist work in Israel and Palestine. Abu-Sarah explained that they saw the greatest need for peace work among the youth population. Since then, they have traveled to 1,000 high schools per year, reaching approximately 30,000 students in Israel and West Bank.
They speak with the students about the other side and ask them for their perceptions, which usually are “not positive” due to media influence, Abu-Sarah explained.
One other project they have started involves Israelis donating blood to Palestinians wounded by Israeli soldiers and Palestinians donating blood to Israelis. Abu-Sarah said this received much criticism from the media.
“They said, ‘how could you do this? You are donating blood to the enemy!’” he said. “But it is better to donate your blood to the enemy than spill it on the ground.”
In order to accomplish these tasks, something different needed to be done.
“There are Arab groups and Muslim groups that work for peace and Jewish groups that work for peace but it is hard sometimes to get them to work together,” he said. We need an alliance of Arabs and Jews and Christians to show that we can do projects together and we can dialogue together.”
Though both men have since faced difficulties in their families and communities about their work, this does not outweigh the benefits of their actions.
The evening ended with a story by famous Israeli author Amos Oz as told by Abu-Sarah which exemplified his and Skolnick’s ideas and intentions for their peace work.
The story relates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to walking by a building on fire. When one sees this, they have three options. First, they could run away because the issue does not involve them and they want to save themselves and their families so they choose to ignore it. Second, one could create a committee to investigate who is to blame for the fire and by the time have convened, all of the people in the fire would be dead.
The third option is to take a bucket and throw it on the fire. If you don’t have that then you fill up a cup with water and throw that on the fire,” Abu-Sarah narrated. “If you don’t have that you get a spoon. You fill it with water and throw that on the fire. Don’t think I’m naïve to think that actually a spoonful of water could put out a fire of a building, but imagine if enough people would carry their spoons and would decide to do something to put out the fire. If everyone does the little thing they could do then fixing that mess over there is not that hard.”