Middle East

Seeds of Peace

Seeds participate in a dialogue session at the 2010 Seeds of Peace summer camp in Maine. (Photo: Madeleine Pryor)

Every summer in Maine, a group of teenagers from the Middle East and South Asia gathers at the Seeds of Peace summer camp to experience something they can't find back home: an environment where they can openly and peacefully engage in dialogue with kids they might, under different circumstances, consider enemies. 

Founded in 1993 by journalist John Wallach, Seeds of Peace prides itself in "empowering young leaders from regions of conflict with the leadership skills to advance reconciliation and coexistence." Kids who enter the program (or "Seeds," as they're called) are given the opportunity to forge relationships that ultimately alter their worldview, connecting to cultures that previously seemed diametrically at odds with their own. 

The program began in 1993 with 46 teenagers (14-16 years old) from Israel, Palestine and Egypt attending the summer camp. Since then, more than 4,300 young people have gone through the program, and the organization has expanded to include Seeds from Jordan, the Balkans, Turkey, Cyprus, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan—although the majority still come from the Middle East. The program has also come to include year-round regional conferences, workshops, educational initiatives and dialogue meetings, allowing the Seeds to advance communication and peacemaking years after that initial encounter at summer camp.

Executive Director Leslie Adelson Lewin told Worldpress.org that these ongoing initiatives are part of what distinguishes Seeds of Peace from other conflict-resolution organizations. "While camp is clearly the entry point, it is also the foundation of what we see as a much longer-term program and experience," she said. "Not every kid has to be involved in Seeds of Peace for their entire life, but I feel pretty confident that the experience they've had impacts them and stays with them throughout their life."

The summer camp balances activities that give kids the chance to be kids, with a more serious curriculum designed to stimulate important dialogue and begin building relationships that, in many cases, will end up lasting a lifetime. "For many of our Israelis and Palestinians," Adelson Lewin said, "coming to camp is the first time they're really meeting 'the other.' It's the first time an Israeli is having any kind of real interaction with a Palestinian, and vise verse. They're not just having interaction; they're having a pretty substantive opportunity to get to know these people as people, and to hear the other side of the story, which is pretty impossible to do when you're at home, in your own schools, in your own government, in your own media."

To someone living in the United States—where war is not something experienced on your home turf on a regular basis—it is hard to imagine what the gravity of this first encounter might be like. Amer Kamal is a Palestinian Seed who grew up in East Jerusalem. He told Worldpress.org about the nerves he felt going to camp in 1997, recalling the shock he felt when he learned that he wouldn't have his own room and would have to bunk with the other kids. "On both sides of me there were Israelis," Kamal said. "I didn't feel safe. I was worried about my stuff, even. I kept my stuff in the bag; I didn't unpack."

For the first week Kamal kept to himself, didn't talk to the Israelis in his room. "I would go hang out with the Palestinians, or the Jordanians or the Egyptians." This lasted until, during one of the bunk activities, he started talking to an Israeli. "He was a swimmer, and I was a swimmer. He liked basketball, and I liked basketball, too. Then the situation changed." He no longer saw him through the lens of nationality. "He was now my roommate, who likes basketball and swimming."

Kamal grew up during the first intifada and witnessed the Al Aqsa Massacre in 1990. Apart from the limited interaction he had with Israelis when he would cross the Green Line, which separates East and West Jerusalem, the Israelis he'd encountered were soldiers. "I'd seen people dying on their hands," he said. "That was basically Israel for me." So seeing an Israeli as someone who likes basketball and swimming—seeing him as a friend—was no small leap. These initial connections make it easier to do the harder work that inevitably follows.

Eldad Levy is an Israeli Seed from Haifa who first attended camp in 1998. He has since gone back as peer support, then a full-time counselor, and is now directing the Israeli regional program full time. He, too, found it "stunning" to realize that "there are young, smart, funny people on the other side." He told Worldpress.org that Seeds of Peace "has become the most important tool I have to think with," the experience that has shaped the way he views things more than anything else. But both as a camper and a counselor he has seen how difficult it can be for kids to break through that initial wall.

During one of the dialogue sessions (which are led by professional facilitators) at Levy's first camp, one girl took a while to open up. After she was eventually able to share her thoughts, she closed back up again and was too upset to talk to anyone. Levy wanted to engage her but couldn't. "When you're 15 years old," he said, "you don't normally have someone telling you they don't want to talk to you because of your political views. It's not something that happens to 15-year-olds." He and the girl eventually worked through that friction and connected, but emotions can be high when confronting sensitive issues head on.

"The most important thing I learned," Levy said, "was the ability to not get upset, to control my emotions, while hearing something that I completely disagree with—realizing that the person I'm listening to is coming from a completely different social, cultural, political background, and that that person might respect me, might even love me, but is simply disagreeing with me." He learned not to turn away "from that painful thing that you are hearing."

Kamal echoed the same sentiment. The goal is not to agree with the other person, he said. The important part is "that the other side understand where I'm coming from and why I'm saying this, and that I understand where they're coming from and why they believe in what they believe in." It doesn't happen overnight, but when Seeds learn how to listen and understand each other, he said, "those two things are life-changing … the starting point of it all. If you can reach that stage, then you're able to talk about a peace process."

Both Kamal and Levy have close friends with whom they disagree to this day, friends with whom they continue to engage in dialogue. "We both want the best for our people," Kamal said. "We both are nationalistic, and we both are passionate about our cause and our rights, but we respect each other, and we choose a civilized way to talk to each other. That, I think, is what Seeds of Peace is able to give, and what other organizations or politicians haven't been able to do."

Kamal and Levy also both talk about how the organization is able to "incorporate the wall," using very similar language independently of each other. As Levy put it, "We're not a peace organization in the sense that we're encouraging kids to be peace activists, or to abandon all the values of their nationalism and culture." He stressed that, as an Israeli, there are Israelis with whom he disagrees. Political disagreement is natural. It's the manner in which you have that conversation, built on mutual respect, that makes the difference.

That is not to say that Seeds do not experience doubt along the path. Around 2000, when the second intifada started, at a Seeds of Peace workshop in Ramallah, Kamal watched Israeli tanks roll into town. "Seeing the tanks in front of my eyes, seeing the helicopters, the Apaches, the F-16 fighters coming over and bombing," he said, "it was the first time I'd seen my country really under attack." He saw much of the development and progress achieved in the West Bank in the 1990s being turned to rubble. In a situation like that, anyone's peaceful character gets put to the test.

In the late 1990s, a lot of people in Israel and Palestine were rallying around the peace process. It was much easier for someone to speak out in favor of reconciliation with the other side. Today is much different. Society on both sides is violently charged, with open hands clenched into fists. "When you have the F-16 fighters bombing continuously, and you wake up and read the news and more people are dead, you cannot come out and be loudly supporting peace," Kamal said. "It's tense now. People are full of anger, hatred. Before, I was always okay going to West Jerusalem, but now I'm scared to enter it because I don't feel safe. I'm afraid if I speak Arabic, someone will jump me and start beating me. People believed in the peace process, but now they've seen that it didn't take them anywhere and they're angry. To take them back to the peace process would be very difficult."

Levy agrees that today the spirit in the air is far more hostile than in the late 1990s. "I think both Israeli and Palestinian societies are going through a sad process of radicalization, going to extremes and polarization," he said. "I have nothing but respect for anyone who goes through Seeds of Peace, because I know what they go through at school." In 1998 kids told him he was wasting his time. "Kids today get it way worse. They have to legitimize themselves much more. Therefore they come to the program with bigger baggage. They come filled with more tension."

For those who go through the program, though, the impact can be so penetrative that it becomes a part of who they are. Although every Seed has a different experience, Levy said, "no one can disregard their Seeds of Peace experience. It's impossible to treat as something negligible." And now that many of the Seeds are grown and making their way in the world, the organization can see that broadened perception take effect. "The Seeds of Peace mission statement includes the word 'leadership' a lot," Adelson Lewin said. "I think now, 18 years in, we can really see the 30-plus-year-olds becoming leaders in their respective fields."

As a case in point, "A former camper of mine is a pretty well-known anchor on Israeli television right now," Adelson Lewin said. "He was always interested in media. He studied media. He talks a lot about how he covered the Gaza war, for example, a couple years ago, and how his language and what he wanted to report on and how he approached the situation was different than his colleagues because he had a different outlook on who the people living in Gaza were. His experience and relationships with people living in Gaza played out on a professional level in how he chose to report and the words he chose to use when covering a story like that."

Tomer Perry, an Israeli Seed from Jerusalem, told Worldpress.org about how his Seeds experience lives inside the DNA of his professional path as well. Perry first went to camp in 1996, returned as a counselor, and has participated in several follow-up programs and leadership summits over the last 15 years. "I've learned so much about the limits of the reality as it was told to me in school and as it was told in the news I had heard all my life," he said. "I have learned the limits not only of the news we read, but of the way we read it—the limits of our perspectives." Perry is currently living in Stanford, pursuing his PhD in political theory, and he said his Seeds experience is so entangled with his life and his studies that he couldn't separate it if he tried.

This vision got set in motion when Wallach, the founder of Seeds of Peace, was working as a journalist in the Middle East. "As an American he could go back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian communities," Adelson Lewin said, "and he would see kids playing soccer, listening to music, eating food, hanging out with their friends, and see pretty much the same thing on the other side. He was struck by how much similarity was there, and yet there was no contact. Seeds of Peace was born out of that striking takeaway of so much similarity being there and yet so much hatred and so little opportunity to develop your own conclusion and understanding of these mysterious other people."

She added, "It shouldn't have to take flying a couple hundred kids to Maine to go to summer camp together in order to have that conversation, but unfortunately, for now, it does."

The Seeds of Peace website is www.seedsofpeace.org.

Joshua Pringle is a journalist, novelist and singer living in New York City. He is the senior editor for Worldpress.org. This fall he will begin the master's program in international relations at New York University.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Joshua Pringle.