“Walls that separate people are often built on ignorance, hatred, and fear. I try to put cracks in those walls. When people realize they feel the same pain, they begin to see how much we all have in common.”
In a place where struggles over land have fueled hatred and distrust for centuries, Aziz Abu Sarah is finding common ground. His effort to build relationships, not walls, amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is especially amazing in light of his own past.
Abu Sarah’s childhood as a Palestinian boy in Jerusalem was shattered when his brother was imprisoned, tortured, and killed. “I was so bitter and angry all I could think about was revenge,” he remembers. His teen years were spent in the resistance movement—writing inflammatory articles, organizing demonstrations, spreading hate, and opposing the peace process. Although Hebrew was mandatory in his school, he considered it the language of the “enemy” and refused to learn a single word. But after graduating high school, he realized Hebrew would be essential to entering a university or landing a good job in Jerusalem.
Necessity brought him into a Hebrew class for Jewish newcomers to Israel. “I was the only Palestinian in the class,” he recalls. “These were the first Jewish people I had ever met besides soldiers with guns at checkpoints. Suddenly I was being welcomed, developing friendships, and hearing stories from people I had called enemies all my life. When I saw they were ordinary human beings just like me I realized I had a choice. I could remain a victim, controlled by the person who killed my brother, or I could take a different, harder path and overcome my rage. It’s a decision I have to make again every day, do I want to keep transforming—or not?”
Based on his own transformative experience, Abu Sarah dedicates his life to using personal stories and cross-cultural learning to forge unprecedented understanding and positive social change at a people-to-people level. “Meeting Jews for the first time challenged everything I believed; now I use that as a framework to help people question what they think and see how complex the ‘other’ actually is.”
His tactics are as diverse as the religious, political, and social groups he works to bring together. Abu Sarah blogs, creates podcasts, pens editorials for Palestinian and Israeli newspapers, teams up with an Israeli as a radio show co-host, lectures at international organizations and universities worldwide, works with a joint group of Israeli-Palestinian parents who have lost children to the conflict, and is authoring a book with a Jewish friend.
A walking embodiment of the reconciliation he strives to achieve, Abu Sarah is a Muslim who works closely with rabbis and Christian groups and speaks Arabic, Hebrew, and English. “My goal isn’t to come in to a group of students or soldiers and say here’s my political view, you should think like me. I simply expose them to thoughts they’ve never heard before. Pain is very powerful, very destructive. But it can also be constructive. If you open up and listen to the other side’s suffering you don’t have to agree with their actions, but you can understand where they’re coming from.”
In the U.S. he is co-executive director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (the oldest conflict resolution school in the world). There he builds alliances between Jewish and Arab Americans and has launched a unique study-abroad program bringing students to the Middle East and beyond. “Speakers and excursions delve into the true complexity of the situation here. We include every point of view—Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, secular, left-wing, right-wing, historical, cultural, environmental. This multi-narrative presentation of ideas is essential to seeing how you can work with very different mindsets toward conflict resolution.”
Abu Sarah uses the same concept to create a new model of tourism. His rapidly growing Mejdi tour company has brought thousands of people to the region on trips that highlight diversity. “If you travel here with only one guide,” Abu Sarah notes, “you are limited to one point of view. That’s why we always try to have at least two guides, one Israeli and one Palestinian, plus many local guides all along the way. Whether you explore history, archaeology, or the environment you need all points of view or you’ll go home with a distorted, one-dimensional picture.” The multicultural spirit of the tours is reflected in the people who participate—Jewish congregations, seminary groups, Imams, rabbis, ministers, and students from around the world.
Abu Sarah’s passion for peace bears practical fruit: students inspired to cancel tickets home to stay and intern with peace organizations, synagogue groups compelled to share their experiences with churches and mosques, travelers motivated to help build the struggling economy by connecting with local Israeli-Palestinian businesses, the brother of a suicide bomber reaching out to the father of a victim to apologize and say he didn’t find the act heroic, an Israeli teenager determined to join the army and kill Palestinians and now rethinking his decision.
“When I see lives like this being saved from the cycle of violence and revenge it makes it all worth it. Maybe I can’t change things politically, but I can change people. And my small changes can make a difference in when this conflict will end. The more I do today, the faster peace will come.”
This article was first published at National Geographic