More than 20 years after peace-building people-to-people programs between Israelis and Palestinians began, the jury is still out on whether they have actually made any noticeable difference to the conflict.
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I’m hard-pressed to identify 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.
In a new study, scholars from the University of Chicago say they may have found the secret to making these activities more effective. Their findings at the end of a three-year research project on Seeds of Peace suggest that participants who make one good friend from the “other side” are more likely to sustain positive feelings about all the people they meet at the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine.
Nitsan Machlis, a smart 16-year-old from Modi'in who is impressively eloquent and self-analytical in both English and Hebrew, returned from her second Seeds of Peace camp this summer and was one of the subjects of the Chicago study.
She says the experience changed her life.
“It gave me so much empowerment,” says Nitsan of her first camp in 2012, which she attended at age 14. “I went straight from there to being a leader in Scouts. It really did empower me to take leadership roles and my ability to change things.”
“The personal impact was great and that is one of their main goals before any political goals. They have the idea of giving teenagers empowerment to change their communities because they are the ones who will have the most control and the most power as the years go by,” she says.
This year’s camp took place while the Gaza war was raging back home. That prevented most of the Gaza teens from attending and created whole new challenges. The camp directors refuse to allow any formal expression of political activism, channeling the political discussions to the moderated encounters between the participants, which can get heated.
But because of the war, a memorial service traditionally held on the penultimate night of each camp for Seeds who have passed away was transformed into a silent candlelit meditation that Nitsan says was more moving than any political demonstration.
“It was a powerful moment to understand that it’s something that can unite us in a way instead of driving us apart. We can support each other,” she says. “It was more moving than speeches and arguments. We were just silent in this pain together. You realize that maybe there is something in this experience if people can stand together after such terrible stories. It was one of the experiences that really gave me hope – not in a naïve way.”
Nitsan says her involvement has exposed her to the experiences of Palestinians whose stories she previously knew only in the abstract. Now they have become her friends. At the same time, she has an increased awareness of the complexity of the politics because she also experienced at first hand the hostility towards Israel from those same new friends.
“I believe the Seeds of Peace directors understand the complexity of the situation and they understand that they are not raising a group of peace-loving hippies disconnected from reality who go home and that will make no difference whatsoever. They understand that ‘seeds of peace’ really does mean the beginning of a very long process,” she says.
For Nitsan, the divide between the two sides was thrown into sharp relief when she received her first army call-up papers in the middle of the camp.
“There is an understanding that we are under danger, that we are genuinely in a place where if we don’t defend ourselves, we’re not going to have a country. I don’t think I understood that enough before I came to camp,” she says.
The idea of bringing together ordinary Israelis, Palestinians and others from conflict zones in a neutral setting so they can meet and get to know each other across the sectarian divide is such an obviously good idea that few in Israel have dared to challenge its basic assumptions.
Not so on the Palestinian side, where any hint of “normalization” with the Israeli occupier has become a crippling curse. The Seeds of Peace center in Jerusalem was closed at the start of the Second Intifada after Palestinian schools, including those operated by UNRWA, refused to endorse their pupils participating in its activities.
The Canadian Foreign Ministry was shocked to discover several years ago that many of the Palestinian groups receiving funds from foreign donors to operate people-to-people programs were refusing to publicize them on their own websites because of the “normalization” stigma.
Even committed peace activists are divided over the effectiveness of the programs. In 2008, the Palestine-Israel Journal, the in-house bible of the bilateral peace camp, devoted a special edition to the question “People-to-People: What went wrong?”
Bir Zeit University sociologist Salim Tamari described a lucrative peace business created by the enthusiasm of donors for such feel-good projects that helped create “a bonanza for an army of unemployed—and sometimes unemployable—young scholars. Drawn in by the attractive enticements, serious scholars joined in, producing thick volumes of unreadable research based on impressive feasibility studies. The number of these institutions multiplied several times over, and their output, often cloning earlier research, grew to alarming proportions. A second generation of ‘kissing cousins’ mutated into academia, generating a heap of theses and dissertations. What began as an idea evolved into an industry.”
The results of the first quantitative survey of Palestinian participants in such programs in 2008 were so shocking they were suppressed by the donor government that commissioned it.
91% of Palestinian youths who responded said they were no longer in contact with any Israelis that they had met through the program. 93% said there was no follow-up to initial activity that they had participated in. Only 5% agreed that their program had helped "promote peace culture and dialogue between participants" and a mere 11% came away believing that "there is something that unites us with the other party."
"The long-term positive impact, if any, fades with time, because these meetings end with the termination of the program and there is absence of communication and follow-up at various levels. It is noted that these activities expire with the end of the meeting and the closure of the project," said the report, echoing the anecdotal reports in the Palestine-Israel Journal.
“Befriending the Enemy,” a new study by Jane Risen and Juliana Schroeder at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, confirms that “re-entry” to the Middle East from the rarified atmosphere of Maine causes the positive feelings to the “outgroup” encouraged by camp relationships to dissipate fast. But “campers who made at least one close outgroup friend developed more positive feelings about campers from the outgroup and those who had positive feelings about campers felt more positively toward the outgroup at postcamp.”
Nitsan says she feels that the close relationship she developed with a girl from Gaza has spurred her to re-connect with other campers from two years ago with whom she had lost touch. She does not harbor starry-eyed expectations that her summer camp experience will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but she is convinced it is making a positive contribution.
“I couldn’t write a solution out for you, and I would be very scared of any politician who says he can. We are so far away from it and we have to take the first steps,” she says. “I refuse to believe it’s impossible because I see no other way."