For 130 Arab And Israeli Teen-agers, Maine Camp Is Where Peace Begins | THE NEW YORK TIMES
Together again in the Maine woods, the two 16-year-old boys, one a Palestinian, the other an Israeli Jew, took up an argument they began when they met at camp three years ago.
“In 1948, the U.N. gave the Jews the right to build their own country, what Israel is today,” said one of the boys, Yehoyada Mandeel, who is known as Yo-Yo and lives in Israel. “Its a fact. We were happy. We were ready to settle for this. But the Arabs said no.”
Laith Arafeh is Palestinian and lives on the West Bank.
“The U.N. resolution 181 was unfair,” he countered. “It gave the Jews 56 percent of the land of Palestine when they were only 17 percent.”
“O.K., let me finish,” Yo-Yo said, waving his arms, as he and his friend sat down together on the dock by the lake. “Now, there was this war, the War of Independence.”
Laith rolled his eyes. “We call it the Catastrophe, the ’48 war.”
He looked at his watch. It was close to noon. History would have to wait.
“I have to pray now,” he said.
“I’m coming with you,” said Yo-Yo, who would be celebrating the advent of the Jewish Sabbath the next night. He wanted to take pictures of his friend kneeling for Muslim prayers on the soccer field. They left the dock, arm-in-arm.
Laith and Yo-Yo live less than 15 miles apart in the Middle East. But they had to travel thousands of miles, to the “Seeds of Peace” camp for Arab and Israeli boys and girls in Maine, to meet and argue and, with work, become friends. This is their third summer together in Maine. They are junior counselors now.
This is also the third summer of the nonprofit camp, which was founded by John Wallach, the former foreign editor of The Hearst Newspapers. He says he wanted to do what all the peace treaties could not bring together young people who have been taught to hate.
The 130 campers, ages 13 to 16, who were selected with help from their governments, arrived here last Monday for two weeks at Camp Androscoggin, just as the American campers had left. They came with adult escorts from their countries. The counselors are mostly young Americans.
“Seeds of Peace,” which operates on a shoestring budget with private contributions, does not have its own camp. At other camps, drama and tension are created during the ritual “color war,” in which campers compete on, say, the green and white teams. At “Seeds of Peace,” the drama and tension are always present. No symbolic divisions are needed.
Like Yo-Yo and Laith, Tamer Nagy, a 15-year-old Egyptian boy, is back for the third summer. “In the beginning it wasn’t easy,” he said. “It wasn’t like we said, ‘Hi, we’re friends.’ All my life, what I’ve been growing up on, ‘Israel is our enemy.’ Then we began to talk.”
The task of getting along is complicated by sharp political, ethnic, cultural and religious differences. Nothing, not even swimming, is simple. Girls and boys must swim separately, in deference to the Muslims.
Mohamed Karim Bada, a 14-year-old Egyptian boy, said his Israeli bunkmate was angry that someone had drawn a Star of David on the floor of their cabin.
“He said, ‘That is our great sign; please don’t walk on it,” Mohamed said. Out of deference to his new friend, Mohamed said, he was very careful not to step on the Jewish symbol.
It is arguable whether bringing 130 young people together in the woods in Maine can change the situation back in their countries. But for a visitor to spend two days with Mohamed and Yo-Yo and Laith, and the others, is to see something powerful. They play soccer, baseball, basketball and tennis together. They sleep together in cabins.
And they are changing. When he heard about five Israelis dying in the latest suicide bombing of a bus, Laith told Yo-Yo he was sorry. Eighteen months before, after an Israeli settler attacked a mosque in Hebron, Yo-Yo telephoned Laith to say that he was sorry. The boys talk regularly on the telephone. Back in Jerusalem, Yo-Yo has enrolled in an Arab study program.
“I did a project on Arafat,” he said, referring to the Palestinian leader. “Laith helped me.” Looking at Laith, he grinned. “You have to do a project on Rabin.”
Laith said: “Rabin is the one we have to deal with now. But I cannot forget that he used to be Minister of Defense. I consider Rabin as a terrorist.”
Yo-Yo said: “The same goes for Arafat. He was the biggest terrorist.”
Laith interrupted: “For you.”
Yo Yo: “I’m saying for me.”
Yo-Yo changed the subject. “I’ve read the Koran in Hebrew. I memorized the first chapter.” He began reciting it.
“I could practically be a Muslim. Laith invited me for a Ramadan feast. It was great. I didn’t even have to fast.”
Laith said his parents, both doctors, like Yo-Yo. He added: “His mother is a nice lady. She came to my house.”
Laith asked: “Do you think your father would come to my house if I invite him?”
Yo-Yo’s voice was pained. “I don’t think so.”
“My father fought in the 1948 war, in ’56 and ’59,” Yo-Yo said. “He has no reason to trust them. When I go to visit Laith, he always says, ‘Something bad is going to happen; they’re going to do something.’ ”
When Laith visits, Yo-Yo said, his father says hello, nothing more.
The silence hurts him, Laith said. But he added, “I can understand it.”
In the evening, the campers meet with trained facilitators to talk about how they feel about each other. The discussions can get intense.
During one recent discussion, 15-year-old Sara Ababneh, Jordanian Muslim, talked angrily about her religion teacher back home.
“He’s anti-feminist,” she said. “He says women can’t be judges, they can’t do things to do with emotion because they’re so emotionally sensitive. I really hate this.”
In another discussion, Laith recalled an incident on the bus the first summer, when he broke up a fight over a seat between two boys, one Israeli, the other Egyptian.
“You know what the Egyptian said to me?” he told the group. “He said, ‘You Palestinians are all terrorists.’ I was stunned. I heard it many times from Israelis, but you know something? I don’t care. They’re supposed to say something like that.” Everyone laughed. “But he’s Arab,” Laith said. “He’s supposed to be my buddy. I despised him. I thought, ‘He doesn’t even deserve being punched.’ ”
That afternoon, Laith and Yo-Yo had been talking about American teenagers.
“They know a lot about basketball, baseball,” Laith said.
Yo-Yo said: “We both wish we could live like Americans. We would like to care about basketball and shoes … should we wear the red shoes or the black shoes?”
Yo-Yo grew serious. “In two years I’m going to go into the Israeli Army. In two years, I’m going to have a gun in my hand. Naturally, it will be my nation first. Laith feels the same way.”
Laith looked his friend in the eye.
“If you were in a jeep, and I threw stones at the jeep, would you shoot me?”
Yo-Yo did not hesitate. “I can’t tell you I would not,” he said.