When I was initially accepted into the Hands of Peace (HoP) program I was skeptical, not sure if I wanted to go. The brochure said I would be spending two and a half weeks with 24 teenagers: Israelis, Palestinians and Americans from varying backgrounds. The mission was to promote dialogue, coexistence and understanding of the ‘other side’ of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It sounded cheesy and pointless. To justify sending us over to San Diego, the organizers would be taking Israelis who are totally unrepresentative of the political majority in their country, Palestinians who are totally unrepresentative of the political majority in their country and a bunch of Americans who were just there. Ultimately, I stowed my cynicism and decided to go because I felt that the program would help “expand my horizons” and “develop my opinions on the conflict.”
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At the orientation in Jerusalem, a month before HoP started, I met the rest of both of the Middle Eastern delegations; for the most part they met all the expectations that I had of the program. There was no talk of politics, mainly just logistics. The participants afterwards had a private Q&A with our facilitators where the raging questions were who everyone supported in the World Cup, and how much football if any would be played during our free time there. Up till that point my expectations were low; I might enjoy myself, but what I was doing there wouldn’t have a lasting impact on me.
On July 6, I met at Ben-Gurion Airport with my delegation and chaperone and the delegation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. We flew to Istanbul where we met the Palestinian delegation from the West Bank who had flown in from Amman. We were still at an awkward, getting-to-know-each-other stage and conversation was still basic and innocent, but that was about to change.
Once we arrived in San Diego, we met our host families and got some rest. The next day we were thrown into the encounter. It all started off quite peacefully: more icebreakers, learning about each other and just getting more comfortable.
Day 2 was where things got heated. Our facilitators split us up into small groups, each with at least one Israeli, one Palestinian and one American. We were given questions to discuss; one was to talk about an influential historical figure in our own societies. I couldn’t select the one figure towering above others, but surprisingly enough a Palestinian girl in my group asked me about Herzl. I went on to say that Herzl was the founder of Zionism and so forth, but then the Palestinians in my group stopped me and asked me if I was a Zionist. I said yes, obviously; if there was one thing I knew for sure it was that I was a Zionist. Their faces looked as if they’d just seen a ghost. “Zionism is terrorism,” “Zionism is racism,” “You’re a terrorist,” they yelled. I’d always known that Zionism wasn’t the least controversial movement out there and that we’d fought our fair share of wars to defend it, but it made me very uneasy, to say the least, that all these peers of mine, with whom I had just start getting along, were bombarding me with examples of IDF war crimes, and personal stories of the effect of the occupation on them; I felt this attack was intended to prove to me that my cause was evil, my beliefs were evil and by extension or association I myself was evil. I felt so surrounded that, as a form of self-defense, I started lashing out with exactly the kind of right-wing propaganda that I’ve always argued against and could never have imagined myself saying. Most of the early and middle dialogue sessions in our program went past in a similar vein: two and a half hours a day of yelling matches between Israeli and Palestinian teens.
About halfway through the program, there was a call by the staff for a moment of silence for all those suffering in our region. The room was much tenser and sadder than usual. Some people were crying. The Muslims in the program were looking into their hands, praying quietly. I asked what was going on. I was told that Israel had just started its ground invasion in Gaza.
Despite the tension, anger and stress that affected all the delegations, we decided to come together as a group, and try not to let politics get in the way of our new friendships. This felt unnatural, but it was the right thing to do. We learned as a group that despite opposite, conflicting worldviews, we could not let those views affect how we see each other as people and individuals. One thing we could all agree on was that anger and hate would not lead to progress, and they surely would not lead to peace – which above all was what every person in that room wanted, one way or another.
It would be an overstatement to say that by the final few dialogue sessions, any of the delegations had experienced any significant change of heart in regards to the significant and highly sensitive subjects such as Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. But this was not the point. There had clearly been a shift of attitude in that room, from hatred to friendship, from speaking to listening and from lack of acknowledgement to an understanding of one another.
Extreme times lead to extreme views, extreme feelings and extreme leaders. Right now we are experiencing extreme times; but if I learned one thing throughout my experience, it was that fueling extremes tears people apart. In the program I attended, we were able to fight this tearing apart, because that was built into the mission and facilitation of the event. Outside of this charmed circle, reality is different: Every pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel rally, and every piece of Facebook propaganda triggers even more people to take sides and stop listening to the other. In wartime, I learned that it if you want peace, then you have to bring people together.
Iddo Schejter, 15, was a participant in the Hands of Peace program and lives in Tel Aviv.