GENESEO — Ali Abu Awwad is a former Palestinian revolutionary who as a teen participated in the First Intifada, the 1987 Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. Israeli Yuval Rahamim lost his father in the Six Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab nations, and joined Israel’s army when he was 15. Yet in April, the two traveled together throughout the United States, speaking at schools and churches about the need for reconciliation and peace.
"Reconciliation is the place that we will find a way to deal with the pain and overcome the fear," Awwad said at SUNY Geneseo on April 7.
The local leg of their tour was sponsored by Catholic Relief Services and also included April 8 stops at Nazareth College in Pittsford, Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester and Sacred Heart Church in Auburn, as well as an April 9 visit to St. Pius Tenth Church in Chili. During each visit, the two men shared their own experiences in their homelands and urged those in their audiences to take action and work toward peace.
"I would really love to see everyone become a part of the solution," Awwad said. "We’re all sharing the same identity, which is our humanity, and this is more important than anything else, whether you are American or Palestinian or Israeli."
Awwad grew up as a refugee, and was just 10 years old when his activist mother was arrested and imprisoned. Awwad missed his mother’s hugs and cooking and hated seeing her behind bars when he visited her. He felt robbed of his childhood, and as a teenager he participated in the First Intifada by throwing rocks at the Israel Defense Forces. He later was arrested and served four years in prison, where he learned about nonviolent resistance and studied the works and lives of the movement’s leaders.
He decided not to participate in the Second Intifada in 2000, but nonetheless was shot in the leg, and his older brother was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier. Against the advice of many of his peers, Awwad decided not to seek revenge for his brother’s death.
"I couldn’t be convinced that taking a militant action would be the right thing to do," he recalled. "How many people should die to bring him back to life?"
Rahamim, on the other hand, was born in Tel Aviv in 1959, and his family lived in a constant state of fear and anxiety because the nations surrounding their land did not recognize Israel’s right to be there, he said. He was 8 when his father joined Israel’s reserves shortly before the Six Day War broke out in 1967. Israel won the war and nearly tripled its territory, and there was great rejoicing in Israel’s streets, recalled Rahamim, who was unable to join in the celebration. He arrived home from school that day to find many relatives and friends gathered at his home.
"Only later that day I knew all this gathering at the house had only one meaning, that my father was killed in the war and was not coming back," he said.
Like Awwad, Rahamim was robbed of a normal childhood. Filled with anger and a desire for revenge, he joined the Israel Defense Forces at 15 and served for six years. After leaving the army he married and had three children, and as they grew up and joined the military themselves, he began to research the conflict in his homeland. Rahamim learned the media’s portrayal of the situation is not always accurate, he said, and began to doubt that violence is the best way to end the conflict.
Both Rahamim and Awwad now are involved in such groups as the Parents Circle/Families Forum, which promotes reconciliation and helps Israelis and Palestinians get to know each other. Most never have sat and talked with members of the other group, and they don’t realize the others are suffering and losing loved ones, too, Awwad said.
Americans can make a difference by educating themselves about the conflict, and they may have to ask questions and dig deep to do so, Rahamim said. The Internet can be a good source of information, as could such Facebook pages as Crack in the Wall, which provides an avenue for Palestinians and Israelis to dialogue. Americans also can think about the conflicts in their own lives and try to understand where their opponents are coming from. If everyone does this, eventually reconciliation will lead to peace in all lands, he said.
Carolyn Napoli attended Rahamim and Awwad’s Auburn presentation and said she was impressed by the men’s courage. Catholics are called to help all of their brothers and sisters in need, especially people living in war-torn countries, said Napoli, chair of the social-ministry committee at the St. Francis of Assisi/St. Hyacinth Parish Cluster in Auburn.
"Obviously by financially supporting Catholic Relief Services we are able to do just that, but our prayers for the people there and in all of the conflicts around the world are also needed," she said.