By: Rabbi James Rosenberg
Published at Jewish voice & Herald (July 24, 2009)
On Thursday evening, June 25, about thirty-five members of the Rhode Island Jewish community gathered together at the home of Judith Kaye and Bruce Phillips on Providence’s East Side to engage in dialogue with Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian peace activist. Aziz, a married man in his late twenties who now lives just outside of Washington, D.C. in Virginia, serves as chair of the Bereaved Family Forum in Israel/Palestine and as Director of the Middle East Projects of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) at George Mason University. The Rhode Island Chapter of Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace sponsored the event along with CRDC.
Aziz Abu Sarah tells a compelling story. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he grew up the youngest of seven children – five boys and two girls. In the spring of 1990, when Aziz was just ten years old, Israeli soldiers burst into his home at 5:00 A.M. and arrested the youngest of his four older brothers, Tayseer, who was eighteen at the time, on suspicion of throwing stones at Israeli cars. According to Aziz, Tayseer was held in an Israeli prison for eleven months without trial; it took fifteen days of beatings to force Tayseer to confess. By the time Tayseer was released from prison in late March of 1991, his health was seriously compromised, presumably as a result of the beatings. Since he was throwing up blood, the family immediately took him to the hospital, where he died three weeks later following surgery.
It is by no means surprising that for several years Aziz was consumed by hatred and a desire for revenge. During his high school years he wrote for a youth magazine, using the opportunity to express his rage against the cruel oppressor; before long his writing ability gained him the editorship of the magazine. “Eventually,” however, as Aziz confesses in one of his blogs, “I grew tired of the anger, so I quit the magazine…”
Despite his literary talent, Aziz had refused to learn Hebrew; for it represented to him the language of the enemy. Ever so slowly, as he began to question the direction – or perhaps the lack of direction – in his life,
Aziz realized that unless he learned Hebrew, he would remain a nobody in Jerusalem. So Aziz Abu Sarah joined a beginners’ Ulpan, in which almost all of his fellow students were Jewish immigrants. Like it or not, Aziz found himself paired with one of those immigrant Jews, with whom he was forced to engage in Hebrew conversation as part of the Ulpan’s intensive language immersion. As it turned out, Aziz and his Jewish partner shared a deep love for the American country and western singer, Johnny Cash. As a result of their shared interest, Aziz embarked upon the arduous process of making his enemy his friend. This experience of discovering the humanity in individual Israeli Jews led Aziz to a career as a peace activist.
I have only had the privilege of meeting Aziz Abu Sarah that one evening in June; yet there is something about him, about the way he conducted himself, that I find compelling. Despite the tragic death of his brother Tayzeer, Aziz spoke without a hint of bitterness or anger. On the contrary, he addressed us with great warmth and considerable humor; such was the level of trust that Aziz was able to generate that this young Palestinian was able to get thirty-five pro-Israel Jews to laugh at his “Jewish jokes.”
Most profoundly, Aziz helped all of us begin to tease apart the many dimensions of revenge. He helped us to realize that the desire for revenge is the result of many different triggers: Shame, loss of honor and a sense of dignity, the feeling of being impotent and ineffectual, the desire to restore the balance between right and wrong, good and evil, and, of course, that primitive urge that all of us feel at one time or another – the desire to get even. And Aziz helped us to understand that revenge that destroys our enemies will in the end destroy ourselves. As an old Middle East proverb has it: “If you want revenge, dig two graves: one for your enemy and one for yourself.” (Laura Blumenfeld, Revenge: A Story of Hope, Washington Square Press, 2002, p. 259)
Our rabbis ask: Who is a hero? They provide two different answers to this question. One answer is that a hero is a person who masters the yetzer harah, the impulse to do evil. (Avot 4.1) Who is a hero? The second answer to this question is that a hero is a person who makes his enemy his friend. (Avot deRabbi Natan 23) Aziz Abu Sarah is a hero by either definition of the term. Through engaging in a lengthy process of turning from revenge to reconciliation, he has been able to master his
destructive urge to avenge his brother’s death. As a dedicated peace activist, he is continually converting enemy into friend, and in so doing he has transformed himself into a better person. I myself feel that I am a better person for having spent a couple of hours with Aziz Abu Sarah.