When Palestinian Identity Goes to Jewish Summer Camp: Behind the Flag Controversy

Nobody present seemed terribly fussed when the camp added the Palestinian colors, but now reconciliation work between young Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians is being overshadowed

Tallulah, a Christian Kids4Peace participant from Seattle, at Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington, summer 2017.
Jordan Goldwarg

For 15-year-old Zeina Abu Ghosh it was a sign of friendship and welcome the morning after her arrival at Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington: The Palestinian flag was raised alongside its U.S., Israeli and Canadian counterparts.

“I was very honored that they raised a Palestinian flag in a Jewish camp – it was a memorable moment for me,” said Abu Ghosh, a Palestinian Muslim resident of East Jerusalem and one of the 13 members of the interfaith Kids4Peace delegation to the camp last week.

“It did feel like a big deal,” agreed Jordan Goldwarg, the director of the Seattle Kids4Peace chapter who accompanied the group, which had brought the flag. When he asked the previous day if it could be raised with the other flags, the camp management agreed.

“The Palestinian kids expressed gratitude; they thought it was a really meaningful gesture on the part of the camp,” Goldwarg said. “They told the campers about the pride they felt, and appreciation for flying the flag.”

In the moment, there was little evidence the event would ignite enough controversy in the Pacific Northwest Jewish community to make it to Fox News and the international media, and to take social networks by storm.

Reactions were mixed when the flag made its first appearance, but they were very low-key: some smiles, a bit of applause, and a few disapproving looks and head-shaking, according to several people present. But there was no visible anger or protest, neither that morning nor the other mornings when the flags were raised.

“It was clear that the big blowup over the flag took place externally,” Goldwarg said. “The loudest voices, the ones expressing real outrage, were coming from people well outside the camp community.”

The pushback from those who saw the flag not as a symbol of identity, but as a political statement or an endorsement of violence, was strong enough for the camp board to issue a statement saying that “camp leaders erred by raising the Palestinian flag.” According to the board, “we deeply apologize for the misunderstanding, pain and disruption this caused the greater Jewish community.”

There’s a bit of irony in all this. Kids4Peace’s stated goal is to transcend simplistic symbols and slogans, bringing the sides in divided societies closer  through nuanced personal connections. And now it finds itself at the red-hot center of a controversy involving a flag.

The 16-year-old organization’s stated mission is to “break down stereotypes and foster supportive, mature friendships rooted in spiritual values of equality and respect.” The group also seeks to “facilitate honest dialogue about different historical narratives and current realities,” bringing youth together “to listen to each other, to proudly share their own identities, and to hear painful and unfamiliar stories in a respectful environment.”

A Palestinian demonstrator waves a Palestinian flag during a protest against the separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bilin, near Ramallah, Friday, Nov. 6, 2009.
Bernat Armangue, AP

Intensive training

Goldwarg remains hopeful the flag flap won’t overshadow the breakthrough by the Kids4Peace Solomon Schechter group and the three other Kids4Peace groups that were dispersed to other U.S. Jewish camps this summer. The four delegations, comprised of Israeli Jews, Christian and Muslim Palestinians, and Americans from various faiths, came to the camps to bring their message of dialogue and coexistence after taking part in Kids4Peace’s summer Global Institute in Washington, D.C.

For the past several summers Kids4Peace has held the institute, in which participants, most of whom have been taking part in Kids4Peace for four or five years, undergo intensive training in communication and facilitation skills. They also visit Congress and the State Department.

According to Goldwarg, dividing up among summer camps to talk to American youth about conflict resolution, interfaith dialogue and the Israeli-Palestinian puts into practice the skills learned in D.C. The goal is to teach young people more about life in Israel and achieve "a more complex, mature, nuanced discussion” as part of training to be interfaith peace leaders.

This year – for the first time – the organization did something different. Instead of sending the participants to non-denominational camps, the four groups went to Jewish camps. In addition to Camp Solomon Schechter, delegations visited the Reform movement’s Camp Eisner in Massachusetts, the JCC Capital camps and the BBYO camp in Pennsylvania.

In each of these settings, the Kids4Peace youth shared their personal stories with the campers in peer-led sessions. The Israelis and Palestinians discussed their daily lives, struggles and experiences over the past five years as participants in monthly interfaith encounters and activities during the school year in Jerusalem, and in Kids4Peace camps over the summer.

For the Palestinian participants, it was their first close look at institutional life in the American Jewish community, as embodied in summer camp.

Fourteen-year-old Bashar Masalha, who hails from Kafr Qara near Haifa but lives and studies in Jerusalem, said he found the campers and staff “open-minded about meeting Palestinians coming from an interfaith group who are trying to solve the conflict and make peace.” But the experience wasn’t always easy.

The dialogue sessions, which the group held each day of the stay with a different age group, were more exhausting and demanding than Masalha expected.

“They asked important questions – some very hard questions about the conflict,” he said. “They follow the news and know everything, even at a young age. We had eighth- and ninth-graders asking about Gaza Strip, about the settlements. We came ready to talk about our interfaith conversations and personal stories, but we were asked about politics pretty intensively.”

The surprise of the visit for both Abu Ghosh and Masalha was the number of Israeli campers at Solomon Schechter who were as new to the experience of speaking with Palestinians as their American counterparts.

“It was quite amazing that there were so many Israelis in the camp, kids who came from places like Tel Aviv and Haifa,” Abu Ghosh said. “And for them it was their first time meeting Palestinians even though they live in Israel.”

Masalha was taken back by the views Israelis had brought with them from their schools. “They were repeating things their teachers had told them about Islam that were just wrong,” he said. “They’re learning in school that my religion teaches them to kill and encourages terror. It was very hard to hear that. I told them it wasn’t true; I hope I managed to change their minds.”

Dispelling prejudices and getting to know the “other” is a process they’ve become familiar with in their years with Kids4Peace.

Beyond the checkpoints

Abu Ghosh says that when he began participating in Kids4Peace as a sixth-grader, he “didn’t really know any Israelis except as cashiers at stores or soldiers at checkpoints. But in the group, I found that Israeli kids read the same books I read, go to movies I like. I became best friends with an Israeli kid. It changed my perspective on how Israelis live their life, and how similar it is to mine – even though they’re on the other side.”

Assaf Ben Tzur-Montell, a 14-year-old Jewish Israeli in the group, said he was drawn to Kids4Peace because it felt wrong that he didn’t know any Palestinians. “Through Kids4Peace, some of them have become my best friends,” he said.

Ben Tzur-Mondell said he was impressed by the Solomon Schechter campers’ interest and curiosity about the daily lives of the Palestinian teens.

“A lot of them have never met a Palestinian; they don’t know who they are and what they think,” he said. “A lot of them believed things that were completely wrong. But they got the message. They learned they are people just like us.”

Goldwarg is confident that, despite the flag controversy, a growing number of Jewish camps will be interested in Kids4Peace visits in the future. “I heard multiple times from campers and staff that this was the first time they had conversations like this about Israel, they had wanted to have these deeper conversations, but never had the opportunity to do it until now,” he said.

Joel Braunold is the executive director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace, an umbrella group for organizations that foster peace and reconciliation work, to which Kids4Peace belongs. For Braunold, the flag controversy carried an important lesson for Jews engaged in interfaith work.

“Many in the Jewish community who want to reach out to Muslims in America or to Palestinians hold an incorrect assumption that our spaces are inherently neutral. They’re not,” he said. “I think what the camp did was right. They didn’t take down the Israeli flag. They did something to make the Palestinian kids feel more welcome – they added the Palestinian flag.”

Braunold acknowledges the discomfort triggered by the flag at the camp, but says the reactions didn’t make it a mistake.

“Peace-building happens when we leave our comfort zones. That is inherently an uncomfortable thing – especially if when we do it in places that are the bedrock of our Jewish identity like our summer camp or youth movements,” he said.

“Real peace is controversial. It’s not all ‘Kumbaya.’ When you try to tackle difficult issues and make lives better, it’s always going to be hard.“