Sami Al Jundi’s story is the most remarkable memoir I have read coming out of the Palestinian experience. For those who care about ending the violence, enmity, occupation, and repression that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian context, I recommend this book highly.
The book is not, however, for the faint of heart. There are passages difficult to stomach including a detailed description of Sami’s torture by both Israeli security officials and Palestinian Authority police (yes – he was abused by both). Indeed, Sami spares no one, Israelis, Palestinians and “do-good” Americans who he believed did not fully understand the depth of enmity between the peoples and what is necessary to transform the relationship if peace is to be realized.
Sami was born into a loving family in the old city of Jerusalem in 1961. As a child, like many Palestinian children living under occupation, he became radicalized and participated in rock throwing against Israeli soldiers. When he was 17, he was arrested after a bomb he and two friends were making and planning to detonate in an Israeli vegetable market blew up in their faces. One friend was killed and Sami was wounded. He was arrested at the hospital, interrogated and tortured by Israeli security police, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to 10 years in an Israeli prison.
Once in prison he discovered that his fellow Palestinian political prisoners (as opposed to common criminals) had created a democratic system that included a highly sophisticated and intensive educational program. Sami read 300 pages a day for 10 years in world history, philosophy, psychology, French and Arabic literature, and poetry, as well as the Torah, New Testament and Qur’an. As a result he began to rethink relations between individuals and peoples.
Despite his violent past, Sami was drawn to the non-violent thought of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King. Upon release from prison, Sami was committed to non-violence and became involved with the “Palestinian Center for Non-Violence in Jerusalem.” The Center’s purpose was:
“Throw flowers, not stones, at soldiers at demonstrations. Force them to see our humanity…be stronger than your opponent – do not respond to their violence with your own….the occupation must end and there must be equal rights for both peoples living in this land. The message will be stronger if it is delivered using nonviolent methods.”
Noting the influence of two Persian dualist philosophers, Mani (3rd century CE) and Mazdak (6th century CE), Sami wrote:
“Everyone … has light and darkness inside them. Even the darkest heart always has some small point of light. We have to help them find their light also. And then it will grow. This is the essence of nonviolence. Not to fight the person, but to fight the darkness in his heart. The only way to do this is through growing his light… The only way to change their behavior is if we’re willing to talk to each other, to build respect for each other as human beings.” (p. 210)
Sami was disgusted by violence of all kinds, be it perpetrated by Palestinian suicide bombers, Israeli settlers, the Israeli Defense Forces, and the Palestinian Authority police.
Soon after its founding in 1993 by the American journalist John Wallach (who was my congregant when I served at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in DC), Sami became the supervisor of the “Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence in East Jerusalem.” The program was founded upon the idea that when young people from enemy communities have an opportunity to meet each other on neutral ground as equals, talk, argue, listen, and spend time together, they develop empathy for the other and consequently become friends, which Seeds of Peace affirms is the basis for the peaceful resolution of conflict between individuals and peoples.
It was at the Center that Sami met the American author/documentary filmmaker/playwright Jen Marlowe, who was on staff, with whom he co-authored this book.
Though Sami eventually would leave Seeds of Peace, the reasons for which he describes in detail, the Seeds program has expanded over the 20 years of its existence to include 5000 alumni from 27 nations. (See http://www.seedsofpeace.org/about)
The resolution to the memoir is as unfinished as is the lack of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though I do not know Sami or Jen personally, I would imagine that they would both affirm that now, especially in the wake of the violence in Gaza, is not the time to desist from efforts for Israelis and the Palestinians to make peace.
As they have stated, our two peoples are destined to live together side by side on the land we each claim as our national home. Programs such as Seeds of Peace and the Palestinian Center for Non-Violence represent among the few shining lights remaining in the darkness of the human heart within the Israeli-Palestinian context and thus are our greatest hope.