ELANA PREMACK | Discussing the effects of Arab-Israeli animosity on their lives as young people, four Middle Eastern students gathered in the Student Union Ballroom on Thursday evening to present, “Transforming Hatred: Sowing the Seeds of Peace in the Middle East,” a program sponsored by the University of Massachusetts Office of Jewish Affairs.
Abdasalam al-Khayyat, from Nablus, West Bank, Shani Raz-Silbiger, from Jerusalem, and Shouq Tarawneh, from Amman, Jordan, lived together during the summer of 1997 at a peace encampment in Maine participating in the Seeds of Peace program. The fourth member of the student panel, Samir el-Samman, from Cairo, Egypt, participated in the program during the summer of 1993 and is now a student at Boston University.
Seeds of Peace was founded by a journalist in 1993 as a program bringing student leaders from Egypt, Israel and Palestine together in an attempt to begin resolving some of the conflicts between the people of these countries. Since the program was founded, its base of countries has expanded to include Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar.
“Seeds of Peace gives them a chance to create their own new reality,” Meredith Katz, the Associate Executive Director of Seeds of Peace, said.
The students involved represent a new generation of people working toward peace. Office of Jewish Affairs director Larry Goldbaum said it is the young people’s responsibility for peace; a peace “that surpasses and transforms the hatred that their generation has known.”
“Today, the peace process symbolized by the [Yitzhak] Rabin-[Yasser] Arafat handshake and the Camp David Accords signed 20 years ago seems all but dead,” Goldbaum said.
Serving as a catalyst for creating a new brand of peace are the lives and experiences of the Seeds of Peace participants. Sharing such experiences with others is the first part of the plan for peace.
Al-Khayyat spoke about how living in Nablus, the “city of demonstration,” affected his feelings about participating in Seeds of Peace.
“How can I sleep and eat and discuss sensitive issues with my enemy, an Israeli boy or an Israeli girl?” al-Khayyat said.
After a conflict resolution session, termed facilitated co-existence by the program, during which he was involved in an argument with an Israeli girl, al-Khayyat was able to come one step closer to walking the path to peace.
“Before she is an Israeli, she is a human being like me,” al-Khayyat said.
Raz-Silbiger had never seen an Arab participate in the Seeds of Peace program, but she decided to join the program despite fear of the unknown.
“I was going to have to do something I don’t do every day, something that isn’t realistic,” Raz-Silbiger said.
In time her stereotypes faded away and she realized that Arabs her age are not to be blamed for the events in the Middle East.
“During the bombings in Israel, I felt the need to tell them that they’re not guilty,” Raz-Silbiger said.
Tarawneh spoke of reaching what she called a “logical peace,” a peace whereby history is understood. Part of understanding history is separating the role of the individual and the role of a country’s government.
“I was always asking why you did this, not why your government did this,” Tarawneh said.
El-Semman recognized that the problems in the Middle East cannot be solved with any finality through the Seeds of Peace program.
“What can 13- and 14-year-old boys do to make peace?” el-Semman said. “You can’t solve a problem going back so many years in just three weeks.
After going through the program, the students returned to their home communities to exercise what they gained from their experiences.
“The main challenge was being accused of not being loyal to your country,” el-Semman said.
Despite the challenges presented by a mission to begin working toward peace for a new generation, the participants in the Seeds of Peace program have hope.
“If we all do our little part and other people do their little parts, peace is the sum of the parts,” el-Semman said.