BY MATT SEDENSKY | It’s no surprise Noa Epstein worries about the safety of her husband, a reservist in the Israeli army called to duty as war smolders in the Gaza Strip. But, still carrying memories of a transformative summer camp experience nearly two decades ago, she knows there is another side to the conflict, and she is filled with concern for the Palestinians too.
As rockets fly, troops battle and casualties mount in Gaza, teens from both sides of the border are heading to Otisfield, Maine, for Seeds of Peace, a camp now in its 22nd year of fostering dialogue among its participants. Even years later, campers like Epstein say they feel the impact of their experience gently nudging them to consider their words, to have compassion and always, always to aim for peace.
“I learned to empathize with the other side,” said Epstein, 32, of Jerusalem. “I have friends who live in these places, in the West Bank and Gaza, that I care about, just as I care about Israeli soldiers.”
Though Mideast peace may seem even farther from reality than when Seeds of Peace began in 1993, its ardent supporters argue its impact is still great. The lakeside camp was built on the notion that person-to-person contact would cement relationships, which would in turn slowly lead to broader societal change. Peace has been elusive, but former campers have taken on a bevy of projects aimed at making it a reality.
Epstein made friends with Palestinians for the first time at the camp. Palestinians and Israelis came together to celebrate her birthdays. She crossed the border to do presentations in schools and even slept over at a friend’s house in Nablus, in the West Bank. She became fluent in Arabic and runs an organization that aims to bring Israeli and Palestinian students together.
“Beyond the cliche of finding the human face in the enemy, I really made friends who I trust,” she said.
Siwar Mansour, a 19-year-old Palestinian living in Tira, Israel, who attended Seeds of Peace five years ago, said it taught her to truly listen to others, to consider why they’ve taken a position, and to think before she responds. She witnesses the hatred constantly. “They should all die,” she once heard someone say of Palestinians. “Who cares about them?” she heard another time. She bites her tongue at the office, on the bus and in the mall, just as she does when the vitriol is unleashed on Facebook, taking a deep breath and mustering something surprising: hope.
“You find yourself believing that peace could actually happen,” she said of the camp.
After her camp experience, Mansour enrolled in a high school where she was the only Arab, got involved with two musical groups that aim for reconciliation, and, determined to make the fight for peace a career, is applying to university programs in international relations.
Eldad Levy, 31, of Haifa, Israel, arrived at camp in 1998 filled with anger over bombings on buses and elsewhere, and having never had a Palestinian friend. At first, he huddled mostly with other Israeli Jews and even questioned the motives of Palestinians who fouled him in basketball.
Slowly, the perspectives driven by nationalism, ethnicity and religion faded, Levy said, as people of all backgrounds became friends. When it was over, he remembers the heartbreak of saying goodbye. Not long after, when the outbreak of violence known as the Second Intifada came, he received a call from a girl he’d befriended from Gaza.
“I’m so sorry about this,” he remembered her saying. “I’m so sorry you have to go through this.”
Her compassion was startling to him. He stayed involved in Seeds of Peace and, for a time, worked for the program. Today, about half of his social network stems from it. Palestinians and Israelis alike came to his wedding and have come to love his daughter.
Levy continues to have the difficult discussions that began 16 years ago, sometimes angering those he’s close to when he questions Israeli leadership or expresses sorrow for Palestinian hardships.
Mahmoud Jabari, 23, arrived at camp in 2007, telling of the sight of tanks in the street and the sound of neighborhoods being shelled at night; of his childhood game of running from Israeli soldiers; of worrying his parents wouldn’t arrive home safely each day. He had no interest in hearing of Israel’s right to exist; he claimed all of Palestine.
For him, Israelis fell into two categories, soldiers and settlers. But sharing a cabin with them, having them listen to his story, changed him.
“I was sitting in front of someone who cared,” said Jabari, who later enrolled at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. “And that was astonishing.”
The hardest part, Jabari said, was leaving the idyllic camp setting, where open-mindedness and respect reigned and anything seemed possible.
“You go back to a different reality,” he said. “Checkpoints, separation walls, military, settlements, restrictions of movement — and you become stuck between too many questions that sometimes you’re unable to answer.”
Tomer Perry, 31, of Jerusalem, said the deteriorating political climate has made dialogue far more difficult for campers today than when he attended in 1996 .
“The friendship you create in camp is really strained by the realities faced at home,” he said. “And then they start to think of this whole thing as an illusion.”
When a wave of violence like the Gaza war hits, it is particularly difficult, but not unfamiliar to the Seeds alumni. In the tragedy most closely linked with the organization, former camper Asel Asleh, a 17-year-old Israeli Arab, was shot to death by Israeli police while observing stone-throwing clashes in his village in 2000. He was buried in a forest green T-shirt printed with the Seeds of Peace logo — three children and an olive branch.
Amer Kamal slept in the cabin next to Asleh’s at in 1997. He’s still haunted by his friend’s death. Today, Kamal is 31 and living in Minneapolis. Watching the news of Gaza, he gets angry and sad.
“Sometimes you fall into that trap. That’s when you have to remind yourself what you believe,” he said. “Having friends from the other side helps in remembering.”