Letter from Jerusalem: The Best of Enemies
What’s one way to nurture Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation and amicable relations? Bring the youngsters to neutral territory and teach them how to live together.
The two teenagers sat across the table from me in a small Jerusalem café. They’d come after class from their separate schools. Ayoub spoke careful, correct English, like a precocious graduate student, with a hint of throaty Arabic in the vowels. Avital mixed a bit of Hebrew—such as pigu’a, terror attack—in her words. They were both earnest in a way an adult can only remember. a Avital described sitting last summer with a small group of Israeli and Palestinian teens at a camp in New York, as each spoke of how conflict had affected their lives. She had told the group about terror bombings, she said, especially the one at Café Hillel in 2003, because one of the victims, Dr. David Appelbaum, “was my father’s partner” in a Jerusalem emergency-care clinic—“and his best friend.” Part of why she cried at camp as she told the story, she remembered, was that she realized that, after the attack, her father had spent much less time at home.
Avital did not need to explain to me that Dr. Appelbaum, an expert at treating terror victims, was killed along with his daughter, who was to have been married the next day, because the whole country knows that story. Nor did she need to say that the attack had taken place a few hundred yards from where we sat. The history of nations, it seemed, had just rushed into our conversation, like a storm wind bursting into a small room.
“I have an uncle who was killed,” says Ayoub. “I don’t know him, I’ve never seen him, he was killed before I was born.” His uncle was a taxi driver, killed in revenge for the murder by Palestinians of an Israeli cabbie. I looked at the boy across the table and remembered sitting in a newsroom 22 years ago, reading the raw reports—the murder on the Jericho road, the arrest of three Jewish extremists who had chosen their victim at random.
Now the space around our table was filled with more history and hurt than seemed possible, but also with hope. In Jerusalem, Palestinian and Jewish kids normally live in disunited universes. For them to be friends (for these two to be friends) was a small miracle, produced not by divine intervention but because of remarkable human effort.
Avital and Ayoub met as delegates to Face to Face– Faith to Faith. The program brings high school students from conflict areas together for an intensive course in dialogue at a summer camp in North America, followed by a year of joint activities back home. It is just one of a dozen or so such efforts that have sprung up since the mid-1990’s, a set of private, diplomatic initiatives based on making a very long-term investment: By getting Palestinians and Israelis to hear each other as people, they just might create the leaders who one day will bring peace.
Each of the programs has its own approach. Most are aimed at teenagers—though Oseh Shalom–Sanea al-Salam brings together whole families for a peace camp near Yosemite in California, and Kids4Peace is geared to preteens. At Peace It Together, based in Vancouver, young people learned last summer to cooperate by studying filmmaking, while Creativity for Peace brings girls to an art-intensive program in New Mexico (see box, page 16).
What is common to all is a summer program on neutral ground, an ocean away from the scene of conflict. The participants create a community that would be impossible back home and learn to listen to people they would normally see as the enemy. Americans or Canadians of the same age usually join as hosts and get their own immersion course in the Middle East conflict. Each camp has its own mix of leadership training, which boosts the chance that a small, select group will influence their peers and eventually their societies. The summer is only the start, since the programs normally continue when participants meet and learn back home for at least a year. Such programs depend on help from donors, since participants usually pay only a small part of the costs.
Seeds of Peace, the oldest and largest of the programs, began in 1993, as if to presage the Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed that September. Since then, Seeds has survived the darker years of the second intifada and grown to two sessions a summer, each with up to 50 Israelis and 50 Palestinians.
Eyal Ronder, Seeds’s director in Israel, likes to describe a camp session by looking at the first day and last night. At the start, delegations arrive and bunks are assigned: “You, Muhammad, and you, Aharon, go to Bunk 1,” which, he explains, for the kids means, “you sleep with the person who is your enemy.” On the final night, they don’t sleep at all, because they “don’t want to lose a minute” with the people who are now their friends, talking, singing, signing the memory books each will take home.
What comes between those moments, says Ronder’s Palestinian counterpart, Mai Tamimi of Hebron, is daily dialogue sessions and the shared fun of camp. For instance, she explains, there’s the activity where one camper walks on rope between trees while another below secures the safety rope. “You have to trust, because your life is in the hands of this person,” she says. “Normally, those two are a Palestinian and an Israeli.”
Will it make a difference? Already, early Seeds graduates are approaching the age of 30. One is working for the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department. At least one has been an Israeli parliamentary staffer. “I’m realistic,” says Ronder. “If in five years, in a political or business negotiation, two ‘seeds’ meet, with better skills and knowledge, it’s enough to change the world.”
My personal introduction to peace camps came through Face to Face. Two summers ago, my son flew to New York with the program. He returned a couple of weeks later, and several years older, with Palestinian friends from East Jerusalem, Catholic and Protestant ones from Northern Ireland as well as friends of several faiths and colors from South Africa and America, and a much deeper sense of his own Judaism.
The participation of teens from three of the world’s conflict areas is one stress of Face to Face; the conversation between faiths is another. Religion can become something shared, even if the particular religions are different. My son, who sometimes reads the Torah in our synagogue, came back impressed by a South African Muslim girl who had memorized the Koran.
Still, participants describe a difficult process of learning to talk to each other. Both Avital and Ayoub recall the second night at camp, when each delegation was asked to make a presentation about its country. The Israelis and Palestinians, who were members of a single delegation, tried presenting the dates that had changed the country and were quickly shouting at each other about what happened at each turning point. The confrontation lay the ground for lessons in listening—waiting your turn, not interrupting, paying attention so well that you could repeat back the other’s story.
That process “feels good because I feel you’ve heard me, and I’m ready to hear what you have to say,” says Avital. And it brought a discovery: “When you say you don’t agree with me, it’s not because you don’t understand me.” She stopped expecting that shouting her beliefs one more time would end the debate.
Face to Face, about to hold its 7th camp, was cofounded by Denver social worker Melodye Feldman and Katharine Henderson of the Auburn Theological Seminar in New York. It is Feldman’s 2nd camp project; she also directs Building Bridges for Peace, a camp in Colorado for Israeli and Palestinian girls.
Earlier, Feldman directed a center for battered women and worked with abused women and children. At camp she makes use of what that experience taught her. She looks at all those who come “from areas of trauma…with the eye that they are abused,” directly or as part of a society that has suffered violence, she explains. At the start, she says,“each one feels that their pain…is the only experience.” As they share their stories, “we hear them say, ‘I used to think my pain was greater than your pain.’”
In the café, across the table from me, Ayoub describes his reaction when he learned of the death of the uncle he never knew: He asked his grandfather why he hadn’t taken revenge. “He said, ‘If I kill another Israeli, another Palestinian will be killed. So let my son be my sacrifice. I won’t forget him but…I won’t kill a human being.’” Ayoub adds, “I didn’t think this way. I was totally angry.”
But after being in Face to Face, he says, carefully picking words, he realized that there were Israelis willing to live with Palestinians: “I understood my grandfather better. I was continuing this step he talked about once.”
The two teens stand to leave. I think about how much history they carry. The miracle is they could still change what their history means and what direction it will take.
Starting Young: A Brief Guide to Peace Camps
- Building Bridges for Peace: www.s-c-g.org/buildingbridges; Israeli, Palestinian and American girls ages 16-19 in Colorado.
- Creativity for Peace: www.creativityforpeace.com; Israeli and Palestinian girls in New Mexico, with emphasis on art.
- Face to Face–Faith to Faith: www.s-c-g.org/facetoface; Israeli, Palestinian, Northern Irish, South African and American teens in New York.
- Hands of Peace: www.hands-of-peace.org; Israeli, Palestinian and American teens hosted in Chicago suburbs.
- The Gary and Jeri-Ann Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute: www.jitli.org; Israelis and Palestinians with American and Mexican Jewish teens. Summer trip beginning in San Diego, travels to Spain and on to Israel.
- Kids4Peace: Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org; Israelis, Palestinians, American and Canadian preteens. Several camps in the United States and Canada.
- Middle East Peace Camp for Children:www.middleeastpeacecamp.org; day camp for Arab- and Jewish-Americans and Israelis ages 5-12 living in Seattle area.
- Oseh Shalom–Sanea al-Salam:https://www.tawonga.org/wf_nature.html; families from the United States, Canada, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan in California.
- Peace Camp Boston: www.bostonpeaceinitiative.org; Israeli, Palestinian and American teens in Massachusetts.
- Peace Camp Canada: www.peacecampcanada.org; Israeli, Palestinian and Canadian teens in Ottawa.
- Peace It Together: www.creativepeacenetwork.ca; Israeli, Palestinian and Canadian youth near Vancouver, focus on filmmaking.
- Seeds of Peace: www.seedsofpeace.org; Israeli, Palestinian and other Middle Eastern teens with American, Balkan, Cypriot and South Asian youth in Maine.