In the News
Seeds of Peace
-Mary Dixie Carter
After the last two weeks of violence in Gaza, I’ve been feeling pessimistic about the conflict in the Middle East, as have many Americans. At times like these, I’m grateful to organizations like Seeds of Peace for providing a potential light at the end of the tunnel. Founded in 1993, this organization brings together young people from various regions of conflict to a picturesque summer camp in Otisfield, Maine with the goal of fostering relationships and advancing reconciliation and coexistence.
The organization just held its Fourth Annual Stand Up For Peace Comedy Night, a benefit at Gotham Comedy Club in New York, hosted by Aasif Mandvi, which I attended. The crowd of almost 300 was revved up, and they seemed glad, almost relieved, to be there. The comedians (a group including Arabs and Jews) did not joke about the present situation in Gaza, but they did include religious and racial humor, mostly self-deprecating, and suggested that laughter is an effective way of finding common ground.
At the end of the evening, I had the chance to speak with two “Seeds,” Karen Karniol-Tambour, 23, from Israel, and Laith Alkhouri, 25, from Jordan, who have been through the program. Karen said she finds the recent violence a lot more painful having done Seeds of Peace, because she knows entire families in Gaza. “It’s harder to say ‘It’s a cost we have to bear,'” she said. “It’s not that I’m a nicer person or a better person … It’s just by virtue of having met some of these people… “
The application process for this program is quite competitive: The governments of each participating country choose their own “Seeds” – intelligent young people (usually 13 or 14 years old) with leadership ability who can and will represent them well and speak up for their country. Karen acknowledged that her father, a pro-Israel Rightist, wasn’t enthusiastic about her hanging out with Palestinian kids at a peace camp, but agreed because of the program’s prestige.
During the three-week program, the “Seeds” spend an hour and a half each day in a “dialogue session” and the rest of the day in normal camp activities. According to Karen and Laith, tensions run high for the first few days. Karen, who had never seen an Arab face-to-face, said she was scared to sleep in her cabin with Palestinian girls. She thought, “What if one of them takes out a knife and kills me?” She described group activities, which began with each person introducing him or herself; that doesn’t seem like it would cause mayhem. But, if someone said, “My name is so-and-so and I’m from Palestine,” someone else would explode, “There is no Palestine!” Laith described painful situations such as when one Palestinian “Seed” learned, while at camp, that his cousin had been shot, and the difficult conversations that followed.
Karen said she believes the success of the camp lies not in the dialogue sessions, which focus on the specifics of the Middle Eastern conflict, such as where to “draw the line.” The success lies in the interactions that happen throughout the day – the late-night conversations with the girls in her bunk about boys and movies and music. While you’re swimming or playing softball, you realize that the other kids are similar to you.
However, she added, the real work begins when you go home and back to school where you argue with friends and family who “tend to accuse you of being brainwashed.” The “brainwashed” accusations finally stopped when her Palestinian friends were so concerned about her after an outbreak of violence that they called to see if she was all right.
Today, Karen said she’s come to believe that the current generation of leadership is not capable of bringing about peace – that we need a new generation of leaders. That’s where Seeds of Peace comes in. Talking to Laith and Karen gave me a shot in the arm – a glimpse of how things might change and a few happy moments of hope.