Still Chasing Peace After All These Years


What happens to a dream of peace deferred — for 25 years? “Maybe,” wrote Langston Hughes in his famous poem, “it just sags / like a heavy load.”

In the heady days following the Oslo Accords in 1993, when Yitzchak Rabin and Yasir Arafat improbably shook hands on the White House lawn, the optimistically named Seeds of Peace camp opened its cabin doors in rural Otisfield, Maine, hard by Pleasant Lake. The groundbreaking camp, which would become a model of people-to-people coexistence and bridge building across cultural lines, brought together American Jewish teenagers with fellow campers from Israel and Israel’s Palestinian territories for traditional camping activities and untraditional dialogue sessions.

It transformed some lives, but now, as Seeds of Peace marks its 25th anniversary with events here next week, the group is facing strong political headwinds; the peace camp here and in Israel is sagging like a heavy load, to say the least, amid a generation’s worth of terror attacks, rockets from Gaza, expanded settlements and a growing bitterness and distrust between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“We’re operating in a very different political climate today,” said Leslie Adelson Lewin, Seeds of Peace’s executive director.

And yet, the camp carries on, perhaps tilting at windmills in a world of rising nationalism and widespread suspicion of “the Other.” It is expanding its reach to other countries, and its budget over the years has soared. Many of its “seeds” have borne fruit.

Micah Hendler, for one. In the summer of 2004, the high school student from the Washington, D.C., area, spent three weeks up in Otisfield. For Hendler, who had attended a Jewish day school for six years, his time at the Seeds of Peace camp was his first exposure to Palestinian Arabs and to Palestinians’ first-hand stories about their lives.

“It changed the course of my life,” he told The Jewish Week.

Less than a decade later, after graduating from Yale University, where he majored in international studies and music and sang in the school’s a cappella choirs, he moved to Israel to put into practice the conflict resolution lessons he had learned at the Seeds of Peace camp.

He did it with music.

For the last five years, Hendler, now 28, served as the founder and director of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, a singing group based at the capital’s International YMCA that includes Jewish and Palestinian teens. The Chorus, he said, helped break the mutual stereotypes that Jewish and Palestinian youth had held about each other – just as his experience at the Seeds of Peace camp had done.

Lewin called Hendler’s Chorus, which has toured internationally and kept singing during the 2014 fighting between the Israeli Army and Hamas forces in Gaza, “a good example” of the fruits that the camp has grown during the quarter century since journalist John Wallach launched Seeds of Peace.

The events here next week will take stock, looking back and ahead. A symposium on May 8 at Facebook headquarters in Manhattan will feature moderated discussions about the role of social entrepreneurship and Seeds of Peace’s social, economic and political impact in communities divided by conflict. An alumni showcase will include Israeli singer-songwriter Sun Tailor and Mona El-Naggar, a New York Times video journalist.

Also on tap is a speech by former Vice President Joe Biden at a May 9 dinner at Chelsea Piers, an “After Party” event at Chelsea Piers (featuring entertainment by Middle East musicians) and “A Concert for Social Change” on Thursday, May 10 at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center featuring popular Israeli performers and peace activists Achinoam Nini, Miri Awad and David Broza.

Seeds of Peace, which focuses its leadership development programming on teens 14-16 — when the participants (“seeds,” in the initiative’s nomenclature) have begun to become politically aware but have not hardened their views — has become one of the leading coexistence programs striving to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

Lewin and former campers call the camp’s work successful, training nearly 6,700 alumni (from 27 countries) who bring their camp-time lessons to such fields as journalism and business, art and politics. Lewin and the “seeds” conceded that criticism from outsiders, who consider the camp’s know-your-neighbor goals unrealistically idealistic, or who object to fraternization with people across the political divide, has continued.

And despite experiences like Hendler’s, the long-term results of Seeds of Peace still are unclear.

“The jury is still out on whether peace-building people-to-people programs between Israelis and Palestinians have actually made any noticeable difference to the conflict,” Matthew Kalman wrote in Haaretz in 2014. “I’m hard-pressed to identity a single prominent leader who has emerged on either side who is a graduate of the people-to-people projects, despite the fact that participants are hand-picked and groomed to become leaders in their communities and the first teenagers would now be in their mid-thirties.”

Kalman’s comments came in an article that reported on the findings of a three-year longitudinal study that behavioral science researchers at the University of Chicago had conducted with Seeds of Peace participants.

According to the paper, meetings with the “other” in a “neutral setting” like a camp in the United States, where friendships between young Israelis and Palestinians often developed, typically led to “more positive feelings towards outgroup campers (members of the other ethnic group), which generalized to an increase in positivity toward all outgroup members.”

In other words, Israelis who met Palestinians at Seeds of Peace bore less animus in later years, and vice versa.

“It’s about making space for different groups’ narrative. We’re an apolitical organization working in a political situation.”

The paper, which found that 76 percent of the camp’s graduates were “working to create change and transform conflict through their professional work or volunteer efforts,” did not address the subject of the Seeds’ effect on their respective communities or on outside society.

“This [Seeds of Peace] model is very compelling,” said Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, who is familiar with the camp through her work as the New Israel Fund’s senior director of the NY/Tri-State Region. She said the “deep personal connection” formed by dialogue programs like Seeds for Peace serve to “humanize ‘the Other.’”

The purpose of the camp’s dialogue activities is not to convince one side of the other side’s historical or moral accuracy, Lewin said. “It’s about making space for different groups’ narrative. We’re an apolitical organization working in a political situation.”

The new, more difficult political reality hasn’t stopped the group’s growth. The Seeds of Peace budget has grown since to $6 million today from $399,000 at its launch in 1993. The organization, which has added a series of annual mentoring and professional development activities, has expanded to include participants from Jordan and Egypt, the Balkans and India and Pakistan, focusing on interethnic conflicts in those regions. “Same program, same model,” Lewin said. “Camp is [only] the beginning.”

Though she admitted the climate for this kind of work is “definitely harder,” Lewin added that the political atmosphere has not diminished the enthusiasm of potential campers. “They’re still coming.”

“The same shift is happening in Israel,” said Hamutal Blanc, a Seeds of Peace camper in 2005. “It’s affected people’s ability to stand up against things that used to be a clear red line,” she said, adding that many Israelis today are “more accepting of racism.”

Blanc, who grew up in Haifa, said hearing Palestinians’ stories for the first time at camp “shook the ground” beneath her. She said the experience “influenced her to choose National Service over enlistment in the Israeli Army, to take her current job as an advisor to a Knesset member from the Communist-oriented, largely Arab Hadash party, and to participate in several coalition-building organizations in Israel.

Hendler, who was about to become a high school sophomore when he heard about the camp and decided to apply, said he “knew a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At least I thought I did.”

Like Blanc, he heard the Arabs’ side for the first time while taking part in the two-hours-a-day dialogue sessions with the Israeli and Palestinian campers. “The Palestinians had grievances against Israel that had nothing to do with hatred of Jews,” he said.

He determined “to do more of this work.”

At Yale, he wrote his senior thesis on “Music for Peace in Jerusalem,” which outlined his proposal for the Youth Chorus, which he designed with the support of a friend who was a YMCA executive.

“Music is an extremely powerful tool for creating community.”

“Music,” Hendler said, “is an extremely powerful tool for creating community.”

In Israel, he reached out to “as many people as I could,” including students at Jewish and Arab school, speaking in Hebrew and Arabic.

Some 80 teens – “more Palestinians than Israelis” – applied for 30 openings on the Chorus. “In [Arab] East Jerusalem,” he explained, “there are very few extracurricular possibilities.”

The teens, said Hendler, weren’t primarily attracted by the dialogue facet of the Chorus.

“Most want to sing and have fun.”

He wasn’t preaching to the choir, because most weren’t looking to become pioneers.

Members of the Chorus practice once a week, give 30 concerts a year, travel outside the country occasionally, share their stories and impress outsiders with the possibility of dialogue, Hendler said.

“We go beyond simply singing together, delving deeply into one another’s identities, life experiences, communal narratives, religious traditions and national histories through dialogue, all within the safe space of the musical ensemble,” the Chorus’ website states.

More than 300 campers will take part in the Seeds of Peace 26th summer program, which starts on June 28 this year.

Hendler, who will take part in the organization’s symposium and anniversary dinner next week, is heading back up to Maine next month as a visiting faculty member during a program on “Education in a Diverse Democracy.”

Back from Israel, he is also working to start an initiative in the United States patterned after the Jerusalem Youth Chorus.