The ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians often leaves us with despair as even the idea of peace grows ever more distant. As American Jews, we watch from afar and make assumptions about the situation that are based on the news and social media we choose to follow. Opinions vary, and it’s difficult to escape our personal political echo chambers.

One ray of hope in a landscape of seemingly negative coverage of the situation is an organization called Roots. It is a grassroots collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians to build understanding, nonviolence and transformation.

Two months ago I watched a live presentation via the internet by Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Shadi Abu Awwad, who spoke about the work that they do at Roots. Both began their talks with the revelation that despite living so physically close to each other, they really had no connection with the other. Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank exist in almost complete separation, and both sides have little knowledge of each other’s lives or humanity. Stereotypes are reinforced by exposure to only the most aggressive face of the other, through media or personal experience of violence, trauma, fear and intimidation.

Roots runs dialogue groups at least once a week between members of local Israeli and Palestinian communities. They know there is a great disagreement over many issues, over the past and the reality of the present, but they have found that effective dialogue is the secure place for argument and leads to deeper understanding. It is in this space that solutions can be built and actions develop.

Both Schlesinger and Awwad describe their work as “pre-political,” laying the groundwork among the people for future political moves that might bring them closer together. Despite the challenges from each of their corners, they have been working hard and tirelessly to humanize their neighbors and realize the commonalities among people who, along with economic security and freedom to grow, want peace.

The plurality of religious and culture has come to characterize every part of the world. Pluralism is not diversity alone, but an engagement with diversity. Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes with little relationship between or among them.

Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement.

It is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference along with an encounter of commitment. Understanding one another does not require us to leave our identities and commitments behind. It means holding our deepest differences not in isolation but in a relationship to one another.

Religious leaders and institutions have a special place in our society. When diverse faiths come together to speak as one, they bring people together, helping to create a more respectful, just and loving world. Roots teaches that you cannot start the next chapter of life if you keep rereading the last one.

Manny Marczak lives in Santa Fe. To learn more about Roots go to: www.friendsofroots.net.

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