Young Ministers of Peace Meet in Washington | WASHINGTON JEWISH WEEK
Program attracts teens from Middle East
Back in the Middle East, their peoples remain somewhere between conflict and reconciliation, but last week in Silver Spring, M.D., two teenage girls—Israeli Lital Cohen and Palestinian Inas Moussa—walked together as friends.
The girls met through Seeds of Peace, a summer camp program that brings together about 130 Jewish Israeli and Arab teenagers. Last week seven of the participants—Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians—were in town as part of a week long mission to the United States in which they spread their message of peace and raised funds for the program.
During the visit, the teenagers traveled to New York as well as Washington, D.C., where they spent a day at Sidwell Friends School. Through Seeds of Peace, the youngsters spend two weeks together at Camp Androscoggin in Maine—bunking and eating together with those they used to consider their enemies.
Although the young people live in neighboring districts and countries in the Middle East, they travel thousands of miles to the United States to meet on neutral turf. They spend the days in this country participating in traditional camp activities—like swimming, basketball and softball. In the evening, they break into groups of 12 for “coexistence sessions” in which politics and conflict resolution are discussed.
The program started in the summer of 1993, and the simple message was to bring together 130 to 150 people whose societies had taught them to hate each other.
“We tell them they have two and a half weeks to prove to their governments that they’re wrong. They can make peace,” said John Wallach, founder of the program. Former foreign editor of the Hearst Newspapers, Wallach left a 30-year career in journalism to start Seeds of Peace.
“We only have one aim, and that is to form lifelong friendships so that when these children go home, they can break through everything the terrorists and the extremists have done to prevent peace,” Wallach said. Youngsters from much of the Middle East—Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Moroccans—participate in the program, and plans are being made to include representatives from Persian Gulf States this summer.
Program leaders hope to be able to keep expanding the program to more countries and participants, claiming that successes in the program seems to be a harbinger of what happens in real-world politics. For instance, after the summer in which the Jordanians first participated in the program, their country formed a peace agreement with Israel.
“A stellar year would be when Syria and Lebanon come on board,” said Seeds of Peace Vice-President Bobbie Gottschalk.
While the teens leave the experience as friends, they often spend the first few days together full of resentment toward those on “the other side. Everybody wants to be seen as a victim,” Wallach explained. About 10 percent of the kids have lost a brother or a father to the other side, and through this program they’re often meeting people from the other side for the first time.”
At the Silver Spring gathering, the teens expressed views about peace and their experiences in Seeds of Peace. The event took place at the house of Alan and Amy Meltzer, whose 16-year-old twin daughters, Elizabeth and Jennifer, will participate this summer in the program as part of a handful of American teens who serve as neutral moderators.
Mohammed, a Palestinian teen, admitted that before Seeds of Peace, he felt that the “Israelis are the enemies. I thought I’d go there and I’d tell them they committed something wrong, and because of that the Palestinians are suffering … But what I found out is that they have suffering also.”
For 16-year-old InasMoussa, the program has provided an understanding of Israeli concerns. “As a Palestinian, I never knew what the Israelis were. I never knew the people, the culture, and the belief. I had no idea that Israelis my age want to do the same thing as me,” she said.
“I realized that they are just the same. They have been through the same fear, just maybe under different circumstances.” But she concedes that at times it is still confusing to love those she’s been taught to hate. “My father’s cousin was killed by an Israeli soldier. Sometimes its hard to put all those things together.” Moussa wonders if the Israelis are indeed still her enemy, but says her new feelings of peace and friendship are usually able to “destroy the old feelings.”
Of course, she says, not all Palestinians agree with her. “I can’t deny there are a few people who tried to tell me that what I did was wrong.
“They ask ‘How can you forget your past?’ I say that while no one can ever forget his fast, I don’t want to live in it and continue it.”
Indeed, the most difficult part of making peace, say several participants, takes place after the program ends when they return to a land still roiled by conflict and hatred. “It was really hard, especially after the bombings,” said 14-year-old Lital Cohen, referring to the February and March suicide bombings in Israel.
“Some people who were right wing said it’s my fault because I believed them [the Palestinians]. There’s a boy in my class who doesn’t believe in the peace process. He started to blame me because I have Palestinian friends,” Cohen remarked.
“I say that I still believe in the peace process and that what my Palestinian friends say is right. [Many Israelis] don’t know Palestinians, and it’s hard to trust someone you don’t know.
I wasn’t sure if I could trust them before,” she said, “but now they’re my best friends.”