WASHINGTON | BY JOHN WALLACH This summer, I saw a miracle. So did the 46 Arab and Israeli boys, 11 to 14 years old, invited by President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton to attend the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord at the White House.
The miracle began in August at a camp in Maine when one of the Palestinians encountered his first Jew, an Israeli from Jerusalem. Shortly after their arrival, each of the boys participating in the Seeds of Peace program was assigned a buddy from the “enemy” camp. They were divided into small groups for “co-existence seminars.” The sessions were held at the end of each day of activities so the boys would be played out and give vent to their innermost feelings and prejudices.
One Israeli was a teenager whose father had been killed in a terrorist incident. One Palestinian was a boy whose uncle had been killed by an Israeli soldier. And there was a 12-year-old Palestinian who had spent six months in an Israeli prison after being arrested for throwing stones.
On the second day of the encounter groups, in an effort to explore their subjective views of one another, the boys were encouraged to draw pictures of their buddies and exchange them with each other. One Arab boy drew a side view. Except for the pony tail, it bore little relation to his buddy. The drawing depicted a bearded man with pockmarked skin, his face and neck covered with scars. He decorated the portrait with a peace symbol and hearts and swastikas. I don not believe he had any malicious intent: his subconscious dictated the drawing.
But when the drawings were exchanged and shown to the entire group, Elad, an Israeli, exclaimed: “The people that carried that symbol—they killed my family!” When other Israelis began lecturing the Arabs about the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, Lyeth, a Palestinian, shot back, “The numbers you have are wrong.” Only 10,000 Jews were killed, he insisted. And, he added, what difference did it make if your grandparents were lost in the Holocaust? “You are missing your families from 50 years ago” while my relatives are being killed today, he protested.
In the resulting emotional melee, one Israeli, a cousin of Elie Wiesel, began to cry hysterically. Lyeth charged that he was manufacturing his tears because it was inconceivable that he could cry for an ancestor he had never met, someone who died before he was born. Moments later, the boys stormed out of the gym carrying the raw scars of their age-old but newly opened wounds.
I was petrified. The experiment in co-existence at Seeds of Peace (which I founded) was coming apart at the seams. What I did not realize at that tense moment was how the hostile exchange permitted the Israelis and Palestinians to display their wounds, to put their own sense of victimization on the bargaining table. Few, if any, of us realized how cathartic that moment would be: we had, in short, crossed the Rubicon of pain.
As we struggled to pick up the pieces, my son, David, suggested that we get a copy of “The Night,” Elie Wiesel’s narrative of his family’s experience in the Holocaust, and give it to Lyeth. By week’s end, Lyeth was reading it. One afternoon, the counselor in his cabin spied a tear on his face. A day or two later, Lyeth gave the Israeli boy whose flood of tears had provoked the emotional outburst another sign—a high five—when he emerged from the infirmary after a short bout with the flu.
I did not put the Holocaust Museum on our Washington schedule because it seemed unfair to expose young Arabs to atrocities they had no direct responsibility for. But on their last day in Washington, heading back to the hotel, after bidding the Israelis a tearful goodbye at the airport, our bus passed the museum. When our associate director, Barbara Gottschalk, pointed it out, Lyeth said, “Oh, Bobbie, please take me there.” The next day she did, with three other eager Palestinians. They insisted on seeing everything, even areas the museum suggested be off-limits to children.
At the airport that day, Fadi, a Palestinian, asked whether a counselor who had accompanied them to the airport was Jewish. When he replied that he was, Fadi made a face, appearing disappointed and looking to Lyeth for approval. Without a moment’s hesitation, Lyeth admonished him: “It doesn’t matter if he is Jewish or not. He is our friend.”