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Seeds of Peace founder dies

Seeds of Peace founder John Wallach with campers. (Seeds of Peace)

Seeds of Peace founder John Wallach with campers. (Seeds of Peace)

WASHINGTON, July 14 (JTA) — John Wallach, the founder of Seeds of Peace, died July 10 of lung cancer at age 59 in New York. A longtime journalist, Wallach proposed in 1993 to then-Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that a group be created to bring Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian youths together on neutral soil in the United States. Each summer since then, hundreds of Israeli and Arab teen-agers have gathered in the woods of Maine in an effort to increase mutual understanding. That first summer, the camp hosted 46 Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian children. And just months later, a group of campers attended the signing of agreements between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn . Wallach, a son of Holocaust survivors, described the coexistence sessions at the camp, where everyone is expected to voice all of their emotions, as a “detox program to get rid of all the hatred that we have built up inside.” Wallach also worked to ensure that the benefits of the camp experience lasted for more than a summer. In 1996, he started a regional program that brought together Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian Seeds alumni for school presentations, home visits, workshops and field trips. In 1999, the Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem opened to coordinate and help former campers continue relationships. The camp and center have worked with Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot youths, and Moroccan, Tunisian, Qatari, Yemeni and other Middle Eastern teen-agers have also participated. There have been more than 2,000 “seeds” from 22 non-Middle Eastern nations, including Pakistan, India, Greece, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Afghanistan. From 1968 to 1994, Wallach worked for Hearst Newspapers. He also wrote several books, including a biography of Arafat. Barbara Gottschalk, the executive vice president of Seeds of Peace, worked with Wallach from the very start as the result of a chance meeting. After her book club read Wallach’s book “The New Palestinians,”Wallach came to speak to the club and asked if anyone would be interested in helping him with a new idea. Gottschalk said yes. “We honestly didn’t know what we were facing,” she told JTA. There have always been worries about having enough money to keep the program going but Wallach was a “showman and consummate fund-raiser,” Gottschalk said. “John was synonymous with Seeds of Peace,” she said. “People will continue to support Seeds of Peace, knowing that’s what John would have wanted.” In a July 11 letter to the “Seeds family,” Wallach’s son, Michael, wrote that his father believed passionately in the program and everyone who participated in it. “He knew that you were his dreams come true,” he wrote. While the camp is often cited as one of the last bastions of hope for fostering peace, the escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions have harmed camp life. Last year, the Palestinian Authority refused to send a delegation to the camp. As a result, instead of dealing directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, campers focused on tensions between Arabs and Jews within Israel and on Israel’s regional concerns with its Arab neighbors. And while as many as 400 children have attended the camp some years, only 323 attended last summer. But Wallach’s work will live on, according to Lewis Roth, associate executive director of Americans for Peace Now, which works with the camp program. “Seeds of Peace is” Wallach’s “legacy to a world in need of greater coexistence. It’s now up to the rest of us to help carry out the spirit of his work,” he said. In addition to Michael, Wallach is survived by his wife, Janet, and another son, David.

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