BY DEBRA BRADLEY RUDER | Until last year Yehoyada, a 15 year old Jewish boy from Jerusalem, had never set foot in the neighborhood inhabited mostly by Arabs. Although part of the same city, East Jerusalem seemed like a foreign country to him.
But East Jerusalem feels much closer these days, now that Yehoyada has a Palestinian friend. “Now I can go there.” The Israeli said with a smile. “I discovered a whole new world 20 kilometers from my home.”
Although their city remains politically divided, the two boys have built a bridge of friendship across the Arab-Israeli rift. They have done so through Seeds of Peace, a program that sends Middle Eastern youths to summer camp in Maine to help them put faces on “the enemy.”
The program kicked off officially at the Kennedy School of Government in mid-August, when 115 Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, Moroccan, and Palestinian teenagers – mostly aged 12 to 14 – gathered for lunch and welcomes by representatives from the Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East, Tufts University, and some consulates.
After a few days in Boston, the youths headed for Camp Powhatan for two weeks of sports, arts, and charged discussions about life in the Middle East. Then they spent a week in Washington, D.C., sightseeing and meeting with dignitaries, before returning home this weekend.
“It’s an incredibly exciting program,” said David Smith, a Harvard graduate student and a counselor with Seeds of Peace. “You have the opportunity to see kids who have long histories of hatred and dislike meet and form friendships that turn out to be long-lasting, and to see them share experiences that we often take for granted, like learning to swim or play baseball.”
Smith’s father, Washington journalist John Wallach, founded the program two years ago “to get the next generation to begin anew, to put aside the hostilities of their parents and grandparents,” Wallach explained. “They become the new peace army.”
Although many of the youths have witnessed the political turmoil and violence that have gripped the region for as long as they can remember, they have also observed recent steps towards peace, noted Wallach, foreign editor for the Hearst Newspapers and author of several books on the Middle East.
Last year’s campers were at the White House to watch the historic signing of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO); this year, Seeds of Peace organizers scrambled to find some Jordanian participants after Israel and Jordan signed a peace pact in July.
The Challenge of Peace
Kennedy School analyst Bishara Bahbah, an advisor to PLO chairman Yassir Arafat, was one of several officials who offered encouraging words during the group’s visit to Harvard last month.
“It is very important to keep your hopes high.” He told the T-shirt clad youngsters in Taubman Auditorium. “It is not a dream to see peace in our part of the world: it is a reality.”
Other speakers included Leonard Hausman, director of the Institute of Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East, who received a special award for his commitment to furthering cooperation and stability in the region. The institute is, among other projects, helping to establish Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“The challenge of peace is harder than the challenge of war,” cautioned Institute Fellow Nafez Nubani, a Palestinian physician from Jerusalem now studying for his master’s degree at the Kennedy School. He urged the youths to learn each others’ languages and then addressed them passionately in both Arabic and Hebrew. (Fellows Ellen Goldberg and Ali Arbagi also spoke.)
The young diplomats had several opportunities to express their feelings about the program to each other and to a bevy of local and national journalists. For security reasons, reporters were asked to use only first names. Nada, 12, of Egypt, was one of almost 800 Middle Eastern children who competed for a spot in the program this year. She said she was looking forward to making some Israeli and Palestinian friends and felt the program was important “for the future—so we all go back to our countries feeling that [the other teens] are not that bad after all.”
Tamer, a 14-year-old from Egypt, believes that “Peace between people is more important than peace between governments. Now we have peace with Israel on paper, but the people are not ready to have them as real friends.” Tamer, however, made some real Israeli friends while attending the 1993 program, and he calls and writes them regularly.
Getting to know Laith, the Palestinian teenager, was an eye-opening experience for Yehoyada, who goes by “Yo Yo.”
“Seeds of Peace changed my whole life,” he said. “I discovered a whole new way of thinking and living. It changed my way of looking at the news. When something happens, like the Hebron massacre, I can call up Laith, and he can tell me exactly what Palestinians feel on the streets.”
Asked why he was participating, 18-year-old Shadi, of Jordan, replied simply: “To make a small peace that will grow into a big peace.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Serving as a counselor for Seeds of Peace is both “hard and wonderful,” according to David Smith, who is a fourth-year doctoral student in American history. “It’s hard to think that kids can have so much [emotional] baggage at such a young age, but it’s great to see them being kids at camp, swimming and playing soccer.”
The crux of the program lies in nightly small-group discussions, where the teens confront their pain, anger, and hatred and find out how tough it is to make peace.
But the sessions also help break down the barriers to peace. At a discussion last summer, one Arab boy upset some Jews by claiming that the Holocaust—the extermination of European Jews and others by Nazi Germany—hadn’t occurred, Smith recalled. But by the program’s end, the boy had read Elie Wiesel’s Night and had asked to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington.
When the youths departed for the airport on the last day, “they were all in tears as each delegation waved good-bye to the other delegations,” Smith remembered. “That made it clear the whole thing had been a tremendous success.”