Roy Cohen believes for real harmony to prevail in the Middle East, it will take peace between people, not just between governments.
“It was a bureaucratic peace with Egypt,” said the Israeli Jew. “I hope peace would be something between people, not just governments. Not just ‘We give them Gaza, and now we don’t have to look at them anymore.'”
At age 16, Cohen may not have the diplomatic experience of his country’s leaders as they seek to hash out a lasting peace between Jews and Arabs. But he has other experience they probably don’t.
Cohen is spending his third summer at Seeds of Peace International Camp in Otisfield, Me., where he lives, eats, plays and sometimes argues not only with other Israeli teen-agers, but with Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Tunisians and Qataris. He knows about face-to-face peace among individuals.
They don’t necessarily come to agree with each other or change the others’ points of view, he said, but they learn to see each other as people nonetheless, even to become friends.
Since 1993, more than 1,000 young people such as Cohen, chosen by their governments for their academic achievement and leadership potential, have come together for about three and a half weeks. They enjoy traditional camp activities at the same time they coexist with peers they would never meet in their daily lives.
Founded by author and journalist John Wallach, the camp aims to serve as a means for breaking the age-old cycle of fear and hatred, said Adam Shapiro, director of development.
The camp is privately funded by individuals and foundations and does not take money from government sources.
“The camp brings young people together and gives them a chance to get to know each other on neutral, common ground,” Shapiro said, adding that the groups include young people from every strata of society. “Some come from refugee camps and others from the wealthiest families in Tel Aviv. They represent the demographics of the region.”
In addition to play, the groups engage in daily issue-oriented discussions, dubbed “coexistence,” which are led by professional facilitators. Here they discuss issues of daily life and often find themselves at odds with their new friends.
“There’s a pattern to camp that seems pretty consistent,” Shapiro said. “Initially, they are very interested in meeting new people, and they’re on their best behavior. No one wants to start a disagreement; they seem to be getting along right away.”
After a few days, however, the facilitated sessions become more political and personal. “They get more honest with themselves and take stronger positions. But because of the relationships they’ve formed, they can still play, eat and share cabins together. They put differences aside when it’s time to play games.”
While some tense moments can develop during the coexistence sessions, Shapiro said, most campers leave with the positive feeling that they have been heard, even if they didn’t change another’s perspective. “That’s a big accomplishment.”
Dina Jaber, 16, of Palestine Nablus on the West Bank, said she experienced her share of tense moments last summer, her first year at Seeds of Peace camp. “Last year it was hard to meet Israeli teen-agers, talk to them, coexist with them. We yelled at each other a lot at first.”
But over time she was able to consider the perspectives of her new friends. She understood, she said, many issues from the Palestinian perspective but now can see them from the Israeli side. For example, she didn’t know much about the Holocaust before her camp experience but learned a great deal about it from her Israeli friends.
After a summer of arguing, listening, contemplating and playing, Jaber said she counts many Israelis she met in Maine among her closest friends. And because the Seeds of Peace mission extends beyond the summer camp experience, she has been able to visit her friends’ homes and host them at her own.
“When I first told friends that I had an Israeli friend that slept over, they couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It’s not something normal. Without Seeds of Peace, I could never imagine having an Israeli friend, even knowing an Israeli teen-ager.” Although some of her Palestinian friends have been skeptical about Jaber’s relationships, most view coexistence and exchange of opinions in a positive light. Family members — her father in particular — were extremely interested in her Israeli friend and spent hours talking to her about her life in the camp, Jaber said.
Because of travel restrictions, Jaber could not make some of these visits without Seeds of Peace intervention. Camp administrators consider such efforts a critical and natural extension of the summer program.
Shapiro said the organization recently obtained a building in Jerusalem where they can set up offices. From there, two staff members help camp alumni keep in touch by arranging visits, publishing a newsletter and maintaining an e-mail network as well as holding workshops and seminars.
“When an Israeli kid visits a friend in Gaza,” Shapiro added, “all the family and friends have the opportunity to meet someone they never would have known. So we’re affecting thousands of communities.” He added that campers’ leadership training makes them particularly effective representatives of their respective groups.
Staff members helped Cohen arrange a visit to his school and a presentation by a Palestinian friend from camp. Though he received some negative reaction from some students, he said, this was to be expected. “Most people were really enthusiastic about the idea.” He said he feels compelled to carry out the work of Seeds of Peace throughout the year, to expose others to the humanity of those they consider enemies. He added, “The major thing is really what you do when you get home.”