A Separate Peace
By Rina C. Buxbaum
When I was 13, I was privileged to attend Jewish sleepover summer camp in the states, where we sang songs and ate S'mores. This past summer, at 17, I went to camp again. The first thing I heard this time, when the campers gathered in the airport were the Palestinian girls singing songs familiar to me from watching T.V. news coverage of Palestinian riots: "With Blood and Fire we will redeem Palestine".
This camp consisted of forty girls who were hand-picked from four groups called delegations: 10 Americans, 10 Palestinians, 10 Israeli Arabs and 10 Israeli Jews. The program is called Building Bridges for Peace, part of the non-profit organization called Seeking Common Ground (http://s-c-g.org ). In many ways, this program was just like regular camp- we had hikes, art & crafts, song sessions, color war and a lot of dancing. But there were a few things about camp that were very different.
In this camp, each girl was assigned to a dialog group. In each dialog group there were 8 girls, two from each delegation. Instead of each of us expressing our opinions without really listening, we practiced listening skills like mirroring and micro labs. Mirroring is listening to a person, repeating everything he or she says and trying to hear what they are feeling and then using your own words to ask her if you have correctly understood her feelings. Micro lab is the process by which each person in the group speaks for a set amount of time about a subject and no one can retaliate to what he/she says.
During one of the first dialog groups, each girl had to describe her feelings toward her country through writing and art. In the discussion that followed, a few of the Palestinians said things like, "I would happily do anything for my country including die for it." They said they love their nation and really want to revenge the occupation by becoming freedom fighters/suicide bombers. One of the Israeli Jews asked a Palestinian girl that since she wants to be a "freedom fighter/suicide bomber" why doesn't she kill her right now?
She answered half seriously, "Because I don't have a knife". Then she started to
mumble that she didn't really want to kill us "because we were her friends." We argued that in that case any Israeli she might kill is potentially a nice person who could be her friend too. By the end of camp, she decided that she only wanted to kill Israeli soldiers. I told her that in several months, I will be an Israeli soldier myself.
Besides discussing politics we discussed everything from who we admire, how we feel as young women in our society, who and what effects our decisions. On one occasion one of the Israeli Arab girls mentioned she had a boyfriend and without thinking, one of the Israeli girls asked- "you have an Arab boyfriend? Aren't you scared?!" and then there was silence followed by an embarrassed laugh.
In another activity, each delegation was asked to make a timeline of historical events of their nation, including personal stories that affected participants. While the Israelis started their history with the promise of the land to Abraham in the year 1714 B.C.E, both the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs started their chain either in 1918 or in 1948, and all their historical events were related to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The Israeli timeline included independent statehood in ancient times and the Holocaust.
Each delegation had a limited time to speak. Due to lack of time, we ran over the events leaving out our personal stories. In my case, we left out that two 13 year old boys in my grade at school were murdered by Arab terrorists. The Palestinians put the emphasis on their personal stories alone.
When the Israeli group spoke about the Holocaust, we each just said briefly that many of our family members were killed. The Palestinians on the other hand spent their entire time telling us about how, for example, their aunt's window was broken by the I.D.F and about a distant relative that lost their house in the 1948 war or a friend that was hurt by a rock. At one point in the conversation one of the Palestinians said; "You may have had one holocaust but we had eight".
At this point the most left wing Israeli, pro-Arab girl in camp became very upset. This girl is currently serving her Israeli National Service by assisting Arabs. She said "you are saying your political views and not your nation's history." She then added, "How can you compare Israeli retaliation to the evil massacre of 6 million Jews?" She then left the room in tears.
A topic that kept coming up was the situation of Israeli Arabs. The Israeli Arabs were attacked by the Palestinians for choosing comfort over fighting for their nation with the Palestinians. My roommate, a Druze girl was confronted by a Palestinian Arab for treason because her brother serves in the Israeli army. The Druze girl told them that just because she is Arab-speaking does not mean she must be on the Palestinian side. When the Palestinians confronted the other Israeli Arabs and accused them of treason, their inner conflict was greater. They want a Palestinian state but wish to continue to enjoy the rights they enjoy under Israeli government.
One memorable day we played a power game. Randomly, we were divided into three groups after a card game of chance. The counselors spoke slowly and condescendingly toward the group with the smallest amount of points from the card game. The group with the most points on the other hand were given cookies and treated as favorites. Then each group was marked with a badge. The counselors proudly gave the favorite group badges, while tossing the badges disgustedly at the lower group. The counselors tried to make the disliked group sit quietly.
The task grew harder and harder. The disliked group sang and fought the counselor's orders with a united front. There was the option to be promoted to the next 'higher' group, but almost no one chose this privilege. Eventually when the lower group would not sit quietly the counselors built a tight fence of chairs around them, at this point the group broke from their wall and ran outside where they sat talking bitterly about the counselors.
While this was happening the "smart" team had left the room to decide the rules for the next round. After lunch, at which we ate in the order of the groups, we had a discussion about the game and I was shocked to find out how seriously upset the lower team was. They did not see the game as a game, felt VERY angry and humiliated for being treated so unfairly, words were even said about wanting to kill the counselors.
Some girls said they now understand the Palestinians hard unequal life behind the wall. I had been one of the only people who, when given the chance, immediately moved myself from the lower team to the middle team. It was interesting that even though the participants of the lower team were so unhappy they didn't choose to move out of the "stupid" group.
Four nights before the end of camp, we had an evening of trust. We were told that for the past week and a half we had discussed our opinions and that now it was time to really get to know each other by sharing what was really important to us- our feelings and fears. For three overwhelming hours, we sat and shared things some of us had not shared with anyone else. One of the special things about camp was that it was a safe space; you could say anything you wanted to- whether it was I want to kill you or I fear being killed by you. After that everyone was instant best friends and the hike the next morning was peaceful.
Two nights before the end of camp we had a night of silence- we were prohibited from speaking starting after dinner until after breakfast the next morning. It made a lot of sense. After talking so much it was just time to shut up and contemplate what we had just gone through.
On the last night of camp we lay on the grass outside watching a meteor shower and discussed projects we wanted to do as a group during the upcoming year. We also discussed what we learned and how we changed. The camp showed us that we have a lot in common and broke down stigmas and social barriers so we could see each other as human beings.
We ended camp as all girls should with a shopping spree and then we each went our separate ways. The difference camp had made in each of us was apparent on the way back because instead of some of us singing "With Blood and Fire we will redeem Palestine" as the Palestinians were on the way there, we all sang peaceful songs we learned at camp.
The only weird thing was arriving back home- when you realize that nothing and no one around you has changed, that every girl went back to her own environment and returned to her own opinions and ways and then, unfortunately, camp becomes some distant memory of two weeks of peace in Colorado.
Although dialog did wonders for the 40 lucky participants of the program, I am still in search of a greater national plan. Natan Sharansky, in his 2004 book, A Case for Democracy, the Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror says that dialog is unlikely to help bring peace just as détente did not end the Cold War. He says the answer is forcing democracy on the Palestinians:
"When freedom's skeptics argue today that freedom cannot be "imposed" from the outside, or that the free world has no role to play in spreading democracy around the world, I cannot but be amazed. Less than one generation has passed since the West found the Achilles heel of the Soviet Union by pursuing an activist policy that linked the rights of the Soviet people to the USSR's international standing (with the enforcement of the 1972 Jackson Amendment and the 1975 Helsinki Agreements by the Reagan administration 1981-85). The nations of the free world can promote democracy by linking their foreign policies toward non-democratic regimes to how those regimes treat their subjects. Those regimes are much more dependent on the West than the Soviets ever were, giving the West far more leverage to demand change. " (Pg 143)
As long as the Palestinian Authority continues to use murder as the punishment for Palestinians who express desire for freedom of speech or who dissent from the party line, there is little chance of dialog groups bringing peace, because Palestinians are too afraid to express their true views. The vast majority of people will choose life over dying in order to express their opinions.
"We should not assume that all or even most of the Palestinians who hate Israel are willing to die fighting wars or waging a terror campaign against the Jewish state."(pg 77) In a world that does not recognize the moral difference between free and fear societies, dictators have a huge advantage. The Palestinian Authority "has to be given the same choice that once faced the Soviets: Build a free society for your people and be embraced by the world, or build a fear society and be rejected by it." (Pg 160)
Until there is freedom for Palestinians, Israel will be used as the external enemy to maintain whatever dictator is in power. Hate for Israel will be used as an excuse to "divert attention away from their subject's miserable living conditions and the regime's failure to improve them." (Pg 83)
from the December 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine