As Ariel Margolith came bounding onto the Tower Air 747 that would take him to Boston and summer camp, his friend Tomer Nagy greeted him at the plane’s entrance with a smothering embrace.
The two 15-year-olds, who went to camp together last summer, were so excited to see each other that they were practically speechless, unable to repeat more than “How are you?”
Although this may have been a typically awkward moment for teen-agers on their way to summer camp, this heartfelt exchange between Ariel of Jerusalem and Tomer, who is from Cairo, was, for these youngsters, a groundbreaking moment in Arab-Israeli relations.
Although Egypt and Israeli signed a peace treaty in 1979, there are no camps in the region that bring together neighboring countries.
Precisely for this reason, John Wallach, a foreign editor for Hearst newspapers and author of numerous books on the Middle East, founded Seeds of Peace in 1993 as a summer program in the United States for Arab and Israeli youths.
“Beginning with the next generation is the only way to lay rest to he heritage of hatred and propaganda that each of these people has inherited,” Wallach said.
“Unfortunately, because real peace has not yet come to the Middle East, this camp, in the middle of the Maine woods, is the only place where hundreds of young Arabs and Israelis can get to know one another,” he said. “It is an oasis of tolerance.”
During its first year, Seeds of Peace started with 46 boys from Israel – including the West Bank and Gaza Strip – and Egypt. Last year, the program expanded to include girls as well as teens from Morocco and Jordan.
This year the camp goes even farther. Among the 130 participation are eight teen-agers from the war-torn Balkans, both Muslims and Serbs.
“Eventually this terrible war will end, and the Serbian and Muslim peoples will have to live together once again,” Wallach said.
Judging from the jovial laughter and playful manner in which the Muslim and Serbian teen-agers conversed as they sat together on the flight, it appears that there is hope for the future in the Balkans.
Selma Hadzisalinovoc, a 14-year-old Muslim refugee from Sarajevo, now living in Vienna, interrupted the discussion with her new-found friends about rock music to express her hope “that the war will be over so that I can return and everything will be like before.”
Her father, who she has not seen in more than two years, is still fighting against rebel Serbs in Sarajevo, she said, where “my people are still dying of cannons and bullets.”
Wallach is optimistic that the success of the Arab and Israeli teen-agers in overcoming their peoples’ ancient hatreds to form personal friendships will rub off on the Bosnian teens.
The 13-to 16-year olds are “selected in a highly competitive process” with an emphasis on geographic, ethnic and social diversity, Wallach said.
After being recommended by a school principal, each applicant had to write an essay in English on the topic “Why I Want To Make Peace With The Enemy” and have a personal interview.
The camp’s $4400,000 budget is funded through donations, and the staff of counselors volunteer their time to Seeds of Peace.
The teen-agers will spend two weeks at Camp Anderscoggin in Maine, living in integrated bunks and participating in sports on “mixed teams as well as working on joint projects in arts and theater.
“We do everything together, we share the same bunks, the same showers and we eat the same food,” said Ariel.
At first he was somewhat apprehensive about the program, he said, describing his initial feelings as “a little weird.”
But, he said, he immediately formed close and enduring friendships with the Arab teen-agers that surpassed anything he had ever imagined.
In addition to Tomer, whom he visited in Cairo during Passover vacation – reciprocating a trip Tomer had made to Jerusalem in January – Ariel also befriended a Palestinian teen-ager who lives in Azaria, a West Bank village that Ariel said is not even 1,000 yards from his home in Jerusalem.
“Until that point I had never met any kids from Azaria,” said the bubbly youth who considers himself on the left-wing of the Israeli political spectrum.
When Ariel talked about his schoolmates who had questioned his relationship with a Palestinian his voice tinged with emotion.
“They’re so wrong. He’s just like any other good friend of mine,” he said.
The Seeds of Peace program is not always so harmonious. Sessions include controlled confrontations where the participants are broken down into groups of 12 to discuss their feelings in workshops led by professionally trained coexistence facilitators.
For Amgad Mohamed Naguib, a 16-year-old returning junior counselor from Egypt, the group sessions proved to be a chance “to make peace on my own.”
He said he used the opportunity last year to express his view that Egypt had achieved a “moral victory” in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, while Israeli teen-agers spoke only about Israel’s military victory.
On Sunday’s flight, meanwhile, flight attendant Dianna Pfeffer was amazed at how well all the teen-agers were getting along, nothing that “our adults should behave like this.”
“This was supposed to be my day off and when I was signed this flight I was upset, but for a worthwhile cause like this I’m glad to be a part of it,” she said.