While Israelis and Palestinians were killing one another in the streets of Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Gaza, Israeli and Arab teenagers were confronting each other on the sports field and across the dinner table — not with weapons, but with mutual suspicions and stereotypes.
For Seeds of Peace, the summer of 2002 was not about holding hands and singing camp songs. It was certainly not about trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, without the process of reconciliation that began that summer for 150 Middle Eastern youth, there can be no hope for a meaningful Arab-Israeli peace. For the past five years, I’ve observed this process of learning and understanding close up as a camper and a counselor — but the summer of 2002 was unlike previous ones.
I heard many stories — some filled with hope, but most filled with fear. The last two years of non-stop conflict had touched these kids personally. Their friends had died in suicide attacks. They had seen their relatives arrested and their neighbors’ homes demolished. The brother of one Israeli Seed was injured in the August bombing at Hebrew University — a bombing that occurred during camp. Incidents of violence had occurred during camp before, but never daily. Seeds of Peace was founded on the premise that individuals cannot establish trust amidst the cacophony of conflict. Only in the quiet and neutral Maine woods is this project possible.
I feared the camp could not function with so many intrusions. To my surprise, the headlines hardly interrupted camp life. We posted news twice every day, but the kids paid little attention. As one young Israeli explained, “We spend enough time at home being depressed about the news. We’re here to make a difference, and we don’t have a lot of time.” Seeds of Peace is a tiny paradise, because it provides many of the kids with freedoms they lack at home. The first freedom is one that, even after September 11, I believe most Americans increasingly take for granted — the ability to live without fear. Friends of mine, Israeli and Jordanian Seeds, describe this Middle Eastern mentality as “the fear you have of simply walking down the street. Even if you don’t worry for your own safety, there is still the chance that something could happen, that minute, to someone you love.”
While no one completely detaches from the situation at home, at Seeds of Peace, kids walk unafraid. There are no threats of violence, and there’s only one curfew — 10 p.m., lights out. There is also the freedom of expression. Aside from regular activities, “co-ex” sessions (camper-slang for coexistence) form a crucial part of each day. Led by professional facilitators, co-ex is where the debates about history, identity, and politics happen.
The sessions are always heated. Having participated in them as a camper, I have seen first hand how painful they can be. Formal coexistence forces the kids to expose their insecurity and anger. But it also gives each individual control over his or her story. They have the freedom to talk, argue, and even cry. They do these things face-to-face — without the pressuring voices of politicians and other authorities. Clearly, the Seeds camp creates a very special atmosphere for its participants.
But what happens when they return home? Since the intifada began, I’ve wondered whether the organization risks hurting the kids who attend by giving them a false sense of security and hope. I think about Asel Asleh, a fellow camper and one of our most dedicated Seeds. In October 2000, Asel was killed by Israel police in the olive grove near his home. With this in mind, I wonder: how can Seeds of Peace give a kid three weeks on a quiet lake, and then throw him back into a tumultuous sea where even the most peace-loving are gunned down? And even more glaring than the threat of violence is group pressure. When they return home, kids find themselves beleaguered by the media, the politicians, and the religious authorities.
But most kids who have been through camp no longer see the conflict as winner-takes-all. The Seeds graduates feel alienated when people at home cannot understand the experiences of camp. Even though Seeds does not dim most kids’ intense national pride, they return home to be called traitors to their people. How does a kid deal with that? The graduates help each other. This is the most important thing about Seeds — the support network it creates.
As difficult as their camp experience can be — and most summers they struggled — the experience helps the majority of kids fundamentally change the way they relate to “the other side.” Interactions based on anger and hatred become those based on empathy and respect. This does not change when the kids go home. No matter how dire the situation becomes, most kids can’t return to their old stereotypes and prejudices. Not when they remember the soccer game they won together or the discussions they had long after lights out.
Seeds of Peace doesn’t make life any easier or less painful for its kids. But it does give them an option — to engage not in those confrontations that breed hatred but in the ones that give birth to hope. As one Palestinian told me, “It’s hard to be talking with Israelis when everyone at home is suffering. But at least they’re trying to understand my situation. They’re listening.”
Jen Miller attended Seeds of Peace as an American camper and has spent the last few summers working as a counselor at the camp. Her father, Aaron Miller, has recently assumed the position as president of Seeds of Peace.
Originally published in the 2003 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.