Lessons from Jenin

June 21-23

Wow. I just returned last night from the international camp preparation event in Jenin. Let me tell you, three days and two nights with 50 fifteen and sixteen year olds is quite the challenge. It was a wonderful experience, though. I’ll add a disclaimer right now: I apologize for the length of this post, but it covers what I learned in three days, and it was a lot of valuable lessons.  All of the campers, peer supports (PSs), and delegation leaders (DLs) were there, along with the staff and some volunteers. After all of my work at the office doing research for activities and helping with the planning of the event, I was excited to go and see how it all played out. I was actually disappointed with my role during the preparation, for the most part, because there was not much for me to do. Everything for the first two days was in Arabic, so I could not understand what was going on unless someone translated for me, which only happened occasionally. Since I had a role in planning the activities, I knew in general what was happening, but I would have liked to be able to understand the kids’ responses to questions, their thoughts during debriefings, and the stories that they had to tell about their experiences. I would have gained some great perspectives this way.

            Despite the difficulties presented by the language barrier, I did learn a lot from being at the preparation. The first day, I was talking with one of the PSs about Seeds of Peace and what I thought of the idea of having Israelis and Palestinians sit together to talk about the conflict. I told her that I really like this idea because my interest in conflict resolution is largely on the impact of dialogue and relationship building as a basis for understanding, transformation, and peace. She responded that she liked the dialogues at camp because she had the chance to tell her point of view and hear about what her enemy thought about the conflict, but she also said that she never wanted to form a relationship with her enemy. After Seeds of Peace, she said, she hated Israelis more than she ever had before. I was shocked by this, since the goal of the organization is to build relationships and understandings between the groups so that they see that they do not have to be enemies, but instead they can work together to change the situation and establish peace. I asked her why she felt that way, and she said that at camp they sit down and the Israelis make them cry and then the Palestinians make them cry, but they leave and nothing changes. The resentment just builds. Hearing this from someone that participated in the camp and was going back as a PS made me have questions about the whole organization, and especially made me concerned about the type of information and how it was being presented at the preparation.

            The majority of the activities at preparation focused on history and the hot-button issues of the conflict, like settlements, house demolitions, checkpoints, and the like. I understand that the point of this was to make sure that the kids were well-informed about their history and situation so that they could give an educated account to the Israelis in dialogue. However, after talking to the PS who said she came back harboring even more hatred than before, I was concerned that the focus on all of the horrible things that “they” have done to “us” was contrary to the Seeds of Peace goal of creating minds open to the idea of a partnership for peace. This concern was raised especially by a documentary that was shown, called Occupation 101. It is a film made for Americans to present the Palestinian perspective on the conflict, and was a lot of propaganda emphasizing the evilness of Israel in all of the things they have done to the Palestinians. While I agree that the Israelis have done horrible things, to show this film to kids that live the occupation, it just seemed as though it would be inflammatory and arouse anger rather than preparing the kids to open their minds and see that the Israelis do not have to be their enemy. I started to wonder why it was that the bad was being emphasized rather than emphasizing the potential for peace.

            Luckily, I was able to talk with Mohammed, the program director, about my concerns and questions, and my mind was eased. He said that my conception of the goal of Seeds of Peace was correct; they want the kids to build relationships and respect for one another so that they may work together as friends for peace rather than be enemies. However, he said that they actually want the kids to get angry because this is the first step to creating the drive for change. He said if they get angry about what happens to them, they will have motivation to change it, and when they sit down with the Israelis and listen to their perspective, they can choose which path to take: holding onto their anger or choosing to work for change. While I do not necessarily agree with this approach, I am glad that I understand why the preparation was playing out as it did.

            Hearing from the PS about her anger and hatred and then about the rationale behind the type and manner of the information presented made me think about how the experience relates to some of the concepts I have learned in the classroom and how the concepts relate to the actual practice of peace-building. Hearing about the intense feelings of hatred from the PS reminded me of the concept of chosen traumas. The things that the Palestinians have experienced under Israeli occupation become ingrained, so much so that they are passed through generations and anger is harbored about past events that the bearer did not even personally experience. Knowing that the PS had participated in a program designed to build peace and now had more anger was eye-opening. The process of healing from these traumas is obviously very long, and it must continue to be pursued in order to prevent the anger from coming back and taking over, destroying the willingess to become partners n peace after the dialogue opportunity is over.

Talking with some of the volunteers who had been campers and then PSs, they said that the anger, frustration, and hatred expressed by this particular PS was actually typical for seeds that have returned from camp. They said that they get used to the environment where they are able to discuss what needs to change and the political issues that feed the conflict, and they come back feeling the potential for change and holding dear the relationships with the other side that they have built. However, after the first year at camp, the space for that dialogue about the issues closes,  because there is not much opportunity to stay connected with the Israelis they have met, society is critical of them having relationships with the Israelis at all, and even retuning to camp as a PS, the dialogues then focus on leadership, and they are not allowed to discuss the real issues between the sides. With that space closed, anger just builds back up. What I learned, then, is the importance of following up after the conclusion of a peace-building program, especially one like Seeds of Peace that works with dialogue and relationship building. In order to heal the traumas that both sides have suffered at the hands of one another, keeping the space for dialogue open and ongoing is extremely important. I think that I had come under the illusion, from reading theory and never actually having the experience with peace-building, that programs were successful if you only take the time to implement them, and peace magically blossoms as a result. Of curse I knew it is not that easy, that there is something that had to occur to get from the point of implementing the program to seeing it succeed. I was just unclear as to what exactly went on during that transition. But actually working on a peace-building program is showing me the work that must go into that transition period, what is important to build the momentum required to get over the hill of transition into the result of peace. In the case of Seeds of Peace, it seems that what is required is more work on events after camp where the space is still open to meet with the other side and discuss issues of importance, both to continue relationships and to feel that something is being done to address the problems. Since I want to be a practitioner that works with dialogue, it was important for me to hear this feedback on the Seeds of Peace program and learn what fills the gap between peace-building theory that I have read in class and the success of peace-building  in practice.

            One other experience from these few days in Jenin was very valuable for my education. I was able to facilitate a dialogue for the kids on the last day. Mohammed wanted them to have an activity with me so that they could get used to hearing an American accent, since he said many of them had never even seen a foreigner before, and they will be speaking English in the dialogues at camp. I suggested that I have a dialogue with them about their hopes and fears for camp and meeting Israelis for the first time. I thought that it would be good for them as far as forming a sense of unity amongst them by hearing what the delegation’s goals were as a whole, as well as feeling connected and supportive of one another by expressing what they are afraid of. However, this was much more challenging than I had anticipated. I thought that it would go well because over the last semester as a facilitator with DDG, I had become comfortable with facilitation and my personal style. The experience with Palestinians with a topic concerning the Israelis was very different from my dialogue with American university students, even with a topic as potentially inflammatory as religion.

The first issue was the language. Like I learned in dialogue class, power dynamics within a group affect the results of dialogue. In this particular group, I had a definite monopoly on power because part of the point of the activity was to speak in English, and I am a native speaker. Many of the kids did not feel comfortable speaking English in front of me or their peers, so the conversation was limited to the few kids that did feel confident in their English. I am sure that some of them struggled to understand me, as well, which made them unable to participate. This got me to think about some challenges that I will face if I want to use dialogues in my work in international conflict resolution, since I will not always be able to speak the languages of the parties participating. This means that the goal of reaching understanding that can lead to peace efforts is severely limited, since language leaves open the possibility for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. As either Isaacs or Bohm, dialogue theorists, mentioned, I think that participants need to be able to express their thought with the language in which they can articulate them best, but in conflict situations, this sometimes means that it will not be understood by the other party or that certain members or a certain group will have all of the power to direct the conversation because they are privileged with greater ability to speak the language chosen in which to host the dialogue. This is a challenge that I do not have a good solution for, but it definitely affected the value of the dialogue that I had with the kids, since only a few of them would or were able to participate.

            Another thing from this short dialogue session that I contrasted with the theory I have learned and my DDG experience is that the kids that spoke said that they want to convince the other side to see their perspective about what the occupation is doing to them, and they were afraid that the other side would not believe them. In the DDG model and the theory I studied in class, one of the big points was that dialogue is not about convincing the other of something, exchanging facts, or proving a point. However, I think that it is important for the kids to have the opportunity to share what is happening to them and present the facts.  As I experienced in talking to the PS, this forum is extremely important in order for them to ease their frustration and anger at the other side. The dialogues at Seeds of Peace do focus on the exchange of facts as well as personal experiences with and opinions of the situation. I think that for conflict resolution work, the model for dialogue must be adapted to allow these types of exchanges, or else it become restrictive to both understanding and the formation of relationships. For Seeds of Peace and other similar programs, the balance of content and process is crucial. I learned that there needs to be ample room for the content part to avoid the frustration that comes with closing it out, and at least with the Seeds model, it seems that process complements the content and relationships develop as a result of the availability of the space to release the anger. Even though in my dialogue with them there were no Israelis present, I learned a lot about what it takes to hold a dialogue between parties for the purpose of conflict resolution. I believe that a different model than those I have studied and practiced is necessary for conflict resolution dialogue , since tensions, as well as the stakes, are high and it is unreasonable to expect that in such emotionally charged environments, people suspend them, which is key to the process I have learned about. I think as a facilitator, I would struggle with where to draw the line between what is becoming too much of a destructive argument and what is the necessary release of emotions that is part of the process of coming to terms and then developing the openness to working with the other for change.

Even though it was not what I expected, I am very appreciative of the opportunity to facilitate this dialogue, since I learned these lessons and encountered difficulties I had not, or maybe had to a much lesser degree, experienced in DDG facilitation of class dialogues. I hope that going to the multinational camp in Jordan with Seeds in July will give me more of an opportunity to experience this unique type of dialogue, especially since Israelis will be present there. Overall, the preparation in Jenin was a wonderful learning experience regarding my studies and career expectations, probably one of the best I have had at my internship so far.