Thanks to Joy Totah Hilden, a
Palestinian from Ramallah who co-facilitates the East Bay Jewish-Palestinian
Dialogue Group -- one of ten Dialogues here near San Francisco -- we received
this Ha'artez newspaper article from Israel today, Sunday, June 22, 2003.
It is an update on additional, significant steps forward taken by Seeds of Peace, whose inspiring work reminds us of these words:
"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
Many people "want" peace,
but they do not want relationships. It cannot be.
The conflict and the solution are about people and about human connections.
Relationship is a pre-condition for peace.
Seeds of Peace, seen on the Web at http://www.seedsofpeace.org/ , recognized this a decade ago and pioneered bringing together Palestinian and Jewish youth annually in a summer camp environment in Maine to begin shaping different kinds of young women and men.
After several years it became clear that classes, seminars, conferences, and summer camps alone were not adequate to transform people and relationships.
Dialogue needed to be Sustained Dialogue -- a process far more than an isolated experience, casual interest, or pastime.
Dr. Harold Saunders, former Assistant Secretary of State, and negotiator of Camp David Accords, wrote his defining 1999 book --A Public Peace Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racial and Ethnic Conflicts . He has gone on to establish the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, described on the Web at:
Seeing the need for year-around
ongoingness, Seeds of Peace became active in the Middle East, where they help
the young "seeds" continue to relate after they leave camp.
Taking yet another step, Seeds of Peace now brings together the parents to expand the circle and encourage the youth to maintain their idealism, their relationships, and their courage.
We can all be seeds.
Seed yourself in the midst of the "others."
Published in Ha'aretz newspaper -- Israel -- Sunday, June
Sowing the Seeds of Peace:
Israeli and Palestinian kids refuse to give up
By Neil Bar-Or
Ten years after the first "seeds" witnessed the historic handshake between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, Seeds of Peace an organization that brings Israeli and Palestinian children together in order to promote peace, coexistence and mutual respect today finds itself swimming upstream in a region often fraught with despair and mistrust. Still reeling from the untimely death of its founder and visionary John Wallach, Seeds of Peace is continuing and expanding its programming in the U.S. and here in Jerusalem at its Center for Coexistence.
Children around 15 years of age enter the program through International Camp, in Maine, U.S., where they spend three summer weeks together in a "neutral, supportive environment" living in cabins, sharing meals and participating in activities such as canoeing, arts and crafts and computer classes. The core of the three-week program is the coexistence sessions led by professional facilitators where the teens have a safe space for expressing themselves while gaining a deeper understanding of the other.
But International Camp is just the beginning. While the camp provides kids with the basis for coexisting and mutual understanding, those skills can be difficult to put to use upon returning to the region. That's where the Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem comes in.
The Center's co-Director, Suzan Khatib, explains: "The camp does great work. There is a good mix of the fun and the serious, but when they come back here they're coming back to reality. For the Israelis that means suicide bombers, for the Palestinians its closures and curfews. Sometimes when the kids come back they are frustrated, they are not connected, they think camp was a dreamland. Here at the Center in Jerusalem, we help them and support them and give them a secure environment where they can discuss tough issues and continue connecting [with the other side]."
The Center is a safe, neutral home base where Israeli and Palestinian seeds can meet. But the main event at the Center is the coexistence sessions that consist of 12 three-hour long meetings every other week. "Usually we have twenty kids 10 Palestinians, 10 Israelis and two facilitators one Israeli and one Palestinian," Khatib explains. "We help them understand the other side without giving up their identity. They're learning how to have sympathy and empathy for the other side."
Aaron Miller recently left the U.S. State Department where he helped formulate U.S. policy on the Middle East and the Arab-Israel peace process to become President of Seeds of Peace. He sees the coexistence sessions as an essential component of the ongoing peace process. "All the peace processes we know of even the peace made between Egypt and Israel are transactional; they are deals made between governments, not between people. We need a peace process that is transformational, which means people need to build relationships with each other so they understand the needs and requirements of the other side. Breakthroughs are always made by a leader coming out ahead of his people. In a generational conflict such as this one, it's important that we have young leaders with the skills critical for making connections that are beyond the transactional level."
Walking in to the Center leads through a photo gallery of what seems like an era gone by: images of that handshake at the White House in 1993; Jordan's King Hussein and Queen Noor happily chatting with children; kids enjoying a trip to Egypt. It's a timeline that abruptly stops in the late 1990s. But the determination of those inside the building belies what at times has been a conflict that has challenged the most hard and fast optimists.
While the intifada affects the programming at the Center, it also motivates the staff to double their efforts. Program Coordinator, Jen Marlowe, says that when the intifada began "all our programming here at the Center went out the window. It was a tidal wave of crisis. One of our seeds was killed in Nazareth in the first few days of the intifada. So for the first six months of that year, we completely abandoned our programming and did a lot of trauma counseling. We spent hours a day calling kid after kid talking to them trying to help them through the fear and anger."
Sixteen year-old Israeli Adir Yanko had his own doubts over the past year. "During the year I questioned why I am involved with Seeds of Peace. Camp was great, but was it a fantasy? When I came back, it was still the Middle East, you know. But I concluded that I have to continue. I have to be a dreamer, if I dream, maybe we can make the camp's reality here."
Amani Zuater, 15 from East Jerusalem agrees, "the escalation of the conflict doesn't make me want to leave Seeds of Peace. If I don't stay, how will we come to understand each other? "
Even with the progress made at camp and at the Center in Jerusalem, the facts on the ground still often dictate the relationships between the kids. Yanko says he made good friends at camp but only keeps in touch with them via sporadic e-mails and at the sessions at the Center. "I don't have a chance to see them because I'm afraid to go there. I know the Palestinians I know aren't average; anyway, my parents would never allow it."
As the intifada vacillates between war plans and peace plans, Marlowe says "it's still a lot harder to bring the two sides together, both psychologically and logistically [than before the intifada]. It's getting better as the kids' coping skills have kicked in and this reality is not so new anymore. There was a period of time when they needed to retreat into themselves. But more and more I'm getting calls from kids who two years ago said `I don't want to talk to anyone from the other side,' now saying, `hey I want to come to the Center, I want to help plan an event.'"
New this year at the Center in Jerusalem are coexistence sessions for parents. "The kids asked for this," says Khatib. "The parents want to not only understand what their kids are doing but they want to experience it for themselves. We had a Hanukkah-Ramadan party at the Center this year that included the parents, and everyone learned about the traditions of the other side."
Ten years after he started Seeds of Peace, the last thing founder and visionary John Wallach who passed away a year ago would have hoped for was an escalation in the very conflict he so yearned to see end. In a letter just days after his death, John's son Michael wrote the Seeds of Peace staff: "Now the job lies with all of us. We are his life continued, and more than that we are his dream."
Miller says he's pleased that Seeds of Peace has been resilient over the past few difficult years. "Of all the organizations that sprang up in the hopeful 1990s, Seeds of Peace is the only one that is continuing to grow. These kids just won't give up."
In the end, the success of Seeds of Peace comes down to the seeds themselves becoming leaders and spreading the ideal of coexistence in their own communities. Amani Zuater says she believes in the "whole idea of dialogue; not like the politicians making deals. Even before I started Seeds of Peace I knew that there would be differences. I knew that what I call a freedom fighter, they call a terrorist. But I also know and understand now, that when I hear Israelis' feelings and ideas and worries, it's a good thing."