Dozens of Israeli youths returned last week from a summer camp with fellow teenagers from the Middle East, including the Palestinian Authority.
They ate and slept together, weighed in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and discussed the feelings and difficulties they encounter due to their environment.
“In one of the dialogues I said the word ‘occupation’ in quotation marks. One of the Palestinian students got really mad and shouted at me,” Michael, a participant, recounted.
“I didn’t think at that moment about the repercussions of my actions, and then I understood that though I disagree, if I were at his place I would also have called it occupation.”
He and his friends described the camp as a “once in a lifetime experience,” and added that in the course of the project “we talked about historical events and shared our fears with them, and they described to us their way of life and their daily difficulties vis-à-vis the IDF .
“I’ve made five new friends, and what’s sad is that they live 30 km away from us but we had to travel tens of thousands of kilometers to meet.”
The Seeds of Peace NGO, the group behind the summer camp, was established in 1993 to encourage teenagers from the Middle East to meet in a neutral location and promote peace.
Every summer Israeli youth travel to camps in Maine, New England, where they meet with teens from neighboring countries.
This time, the Israelis met with teenagers from the Palestinian Authority, east Jerusalem, Gaza, Egypt, Jordan and the United States.
“The meaning is that our children are at the front,” Iris Cohen, the Education Ministry appointed delegation head, explained.
“All the beliefs, opinions and sometimes facts that the others arrive with sound to their ears obtuse and unpleasant. The first meetings were very charged, they saw the enemy.
“But slowly they discover one another, learn to listen, and something is built.”
“It was just something I heard about everyday, but [I] never really understood the [complexity of] the conflict,” said Larissa Ho, a student from Toronto who took the unique opportunity to join Coexistence 2013 in order to develop a better understanding of the conflict and the people it involves.
“You get to talk to lecturers, NGOs, activists and different groups that all have different perspectives and motivations,” she said of the learning opportunities afforded by the program.
The participants, who come from different backgrounds and religions and are joining the program from countries including Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, Germany, Holland, India, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Singapore, Sweden, the UK, the USA and Venezuela, have been travelling throughout Israel for the last three weeks.
So far, they have heard personal narratives from Palestinians and Israelis, visited West Bank settlements as well as Arab towns in Israel, met with diplomats in the situation room at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, toured the Old City of Jerusalem and spoke with leading clerics from Islam, Judaism and Christianity about the challenges and benefits of living together in the cradle of the monotheistic faiths.
They have also had the opportunity to visit landmarks like Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and to hear from young Israeli political leaders from various parties along the political spectrum.
Even though the month-long program is drawing to a close in only a week’s time, the enthusiastic group of participants have so much left to see and do, including, among many other excursions and lectures, an overnight trip to a kibbutz in the north of Israel with a stop along the way to meet with the Druze government advisor on Syria, a visit to the Golan Heights, to Nazareth, and to the security fence, where their tour will be led by one of the people who planned the path where it would be built.
Like Ho, participant Randy Schliemann who studies in Ottawa also appreciated the opportunity to see the sights firsthand and from various viewpoints. “To some degree, there’s a lack of big picture vision,” she said of the Mideast conflict, adding that the ability to step back from the conflict and acknowledge the various perspectives can help people understand each other more effectively.
The program will come to a close with an encounter with members of the Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF), a grassroots organization of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis, but not before the participants go on another overnight trip, where they will sleep in a Bedouin tent, ride camels through the desert and wake up bright and early to climb the Masada fortress at sunrise before enjoying a dip in the Dead Sea.
Each field trip is coupled with in-class lectures and meetings from officials, academics and civilians who have experienced the Mideast conflict through different lenses and have diverse thoughts and opinions to share. While many of the participants arrived with some basic knowledge about the conflict, at the end of the month they will be taking home the countless invaluable perspectives they have gathered throughout their time in Israel and using their newfound insights to plant the seeds of coexistence in their home communities around the globe.
Schliemann, like many other participants, is looking forward to bringing the experiences and awareness she accumulated in Israel back home. “The most powerful thing we can really bring back to our respective countries is an understanding of the ‘other side.’”
If you would like to learn more about Coexistence in the Middle East or to join one of our future sessions, please sign up at our website for more information: http://www.coexistencetrip.net/index.php?cp=signInForm
“We can’t change the world, but we can give an example of how coexistence is possible,” ORPHANED LAND singer Kobi Farhi told The Guardian. “Sharing a stage and sharing a bus is stronger than a thousand words. We’ll show how two people from different backgrounds who live in a conflict zone can perform together.”
“We are metal brothers before everything,” added KHALAS lead guitaristAbed Hathut. “There is no bigger message for peace than through this tour.”
Previous collaborations between Jewish and Arab artists in Israel have led to calls for boycotts from pro-Palestinian activists as part of a campaign to isolate the Jewish state culturally and economically.
“I’m strongly against boycotts of any kind,” Farhi told The Guardian. “The purpose of art is to represent harmony in places of disharmony, to bring hope.”
Ali-Selah’s academic excellence not only marks her own personal achievement but also proves that contrary to propaganda spouted by proponents of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement — whose latest convert is Stephen Hawking — an academic boycott of Israel is the wrong approach to solving the Israel-Arab conflict. Moreover, it ultimately hurts the very people it claims to help. Ali-Selah put it best when she said, “An academic boycott of Israel is a passive move, and it doesn’t achieve any of its purported objectives.”
After Ali-Selah’s first class at the Technion, in Haifa, northern Israel, she was ready to call it quits. Ali-Selah had studied Hebrew from elementary school through high school but in the predominantly Arab area around Nazareth, she rarely used Hebrew and her vocabulary was limited. During Ali-Selah’s first Chemistry lecture, she couldn’t understand why her professor kept talking about malls. What did shopping malls have to do with Chemistry? She then realized the professor was speaking about moles, a standard scientific unit for measuring quantities of minute entities.
It did not take long for her to break through her limited language skills and rise to the top of her class. In fact, in 2011, she was one of eight students from around Israel who were presented with academic awards of excellence at the Knesset, Israel’s Senate.
Ali-Selah claims that her academic drive is “part genes and part family background.” After raising four children, Ali-Selah’s mother, Fahima, went back to school to complete her college education and is now studying for a PhD in education. (Ali-Selah’s father, Rohi, would have liked to continue his education but his father died when he was a high school senior and he was forced to go to work to support his younger siblings.) Ali-Selah said that the atmosphere in the village, Jaffa-Nazareth, is liberal and many of its residents encourage young women to further their education.
Ali-Selah is currently doing an Obstetrics/Gynecology residency at Carmel Hospital in Haifa. She said that in her village, Jaffa-Nazareth, she knew of only one female Arab doctor. She decided to take on the field, despite its demanding hours, because she knew that many Arab women are more comfortable going to a female doctor rather than a male. She says that in addition to her personal goals, she wants to make a contribution to Israeli-Arab society.
Michael Mayer has lived in Los Angeles for the past 17 years. He has spent many of those working in Hollywood, making trailers for movies and American television series. From time to time he produced a documentary or directed a short film, but the trailers were the focus of his life. They were his livelihood, but he also loved to make them.
About a decade ago a friend from back home in Israel came to see him, but Mayer never imagined the visit was going to change his life. The friend told him he volunteered with the Israeli National LGBT Task Force (aka Aguda), and explained that part of this organization’s activity is devoted to helping gay Palestinians. Many of them, he told Mayer, are forced to flee the Palestinian Authority and hide from their families and acquaintances, because they refuse to accept their sexual orientation. Sometimes, he added, their lives are in real danger.
Mayer listened, riveted. He learned that many gay men who have fled their homes in the territories find refuge in Tel Aviv; he understood that their delicate situation often makes them vulnerable to extortion, by Palestinians and Israelis alike. Moreover, he was surprised to hear that, not infrequently, they have no choice but to flee and obtain political asylum abroad.
“I was surprised to hear the things this friend told me and surprised about the extent of the problem. Suddenly I said to myself, ‘Hey, this is a story I want to tell,'” he recollects, during a recent interview in Tel Aviv.
Mayer realized this was his chance to do what he had always dreamed of: write and direct a full-length feature film by himself: “This topic suddenly came along and turned me on. For years I was entirely submerged in the trailers business … but it was always clear that if I got up and made a film, it would only be with a subject that speaks to me. When this idea came up, I felt it was the first time I’d connected with something in such a powerful manner. So, I decided to do it.”
The result, “Out in the Dark,” premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and won the best film prize in the official competition at the Haifa International Film Festival last fall, together with the highly acclaimed “Fill the Void” (Rama Burshtein’s debut feature).
Mayer’s film may not have won important international awards yet, but it has won the hearts of overseas distributors: So far it has been sold to 35 countries – an extraordinary achievement for a low-budget Israeli film by an unknown director – and the American cable network HBO bought the TV broadcast rights.
“Out in the Dark” (“Alata” in Hebrew) opened in local theaters last week. At its heart is a love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian, who try to prove to themselves and the world that love is stronger than any conflict or political reality, no matter how cruel.
Young Palestinian Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) is a psychology student who leads a double life. At home in Ramallah, with his family, nobody knows about his sexual orientation. At night he goes out to the big city beyond the fence, Tel Aviv, to enjoy the freedom and sexual adventures the city brings. When he meets Roy (Michael Aloni), a young Israeli lawyer, a love story develops that gives him hope for a better future. But things soon get complicated and, after being forced to come out of the closet, Nimr finds himself being persecuted, extorted and threatened in both worlds.