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Around the firepit at Neve Shalom, the peace village where we met

Last night West Bank Palestinian teens and Israeli teens, as well as members of a peace group called Sulha, gathered for listening circles, and I was lucky enough to attend. First we heard two speakers – an Israeli who regretted things he had done in the army, and a Palestinian who regretted things he had done as a fighter. Then we broke up into groups of approximately eight. We were given two prompts. The first ask, “Who are you, where do you come from, and what do you hope from tonight?” Each person in the circle answered these questions. Then people could respond as they wished to the second prompt: “What are your hopes and fears for September?” (“September” appears to be the shorthand people are using for whatever proposal the Palestinian Authority will set before the UN.)

In my group, each of the three Palestinian students spoke. Two of them spoke about traumatizing events in their lives: being woken from their beds by soldiers during the second intifada, having their dad’s taken away at night and not knowing why, being afraid to go to school after knowing acquaintances who had been killed. The two Israeli students did not choose to speak during the voluntary speaking time. One elderly Jewish Israeli woman spoke of having had her mother killed in the 1948 war and her nephew killed in the 1973 war, but not being afraid of September and believing that only through listening and understanding can we transcend fear. Our facilitator, an Israeli woman about my age, said her husband had been wounded in Lebanon and had a soldier under his command killed. Her mother-in-law had been known to say “the only good Arab is a dead Arab,” and though her husband did not say this, he did not understand why she went to events like Sulha.

Sulha banner

I was fascinated both by the Israeli and the Palestinian teens. The Palestinian network of students seemed more informal – “a friend told me to come so I could see how the Israelis can go wherever they want whenever they want” one said. The Israelis were all from one “mechina” (a year long program after high school and before the army.) One in my circle described the purpose of a mechina as “to prepare us for the army and to serve our country.” This mechina was sponsored by the Reform movement, so the students were probably on the liberal side. Still, I overheard some talking in English afterward (turns out some were new olim from the U.S.) and one at least sounded quite defensive. I believe she was saying something like “They make it sound like everything we do is bad and they don’t do anything back to us.”

Fred Johnson leading us in singing and drumming

There was also singing and chanting led by a “peace singer” from the U.S., Fred Johnson. There were some invented rituals, like one of the leaders walking among us with incense, and the lighting of a tribal fire. These sorts of things I find to be very flaky, but the students and other adults did not seem to be put off. At one point, as a coordinator was speaking to the entire group about his hopes for mutual understanding, three Israeli helicopters came overhead. Everyone laughed as the unintended symbolism interfered with the generated symbolism.

I’ve been reflecting on the failure of so many people-to-people initiatives at the beginning of the second intifada about which Ron Kronish and I spoke a few weeks ago. I suppose to make a serious impact on the conflict overall, the number of people who would have these experiences would have to be huge, and they would have to have them enough times so they could not just write them off with some form of defensive justification. For example, it took full integration in the schools and the workplace for to make a major dent in most white Americans’ racism. It was, nonetheless, interesting to see the kids get more of a sense of the humanity of the other.

Thanks so much to David Gerwin for inviting me.