Teens meet in San Diego to share and grapple with competing experiences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal, August 2016 issue
By Natalie Jacobs
Remember the opening line to MTV’s wildly popular reality television show, “The Real World,” the one that defined reality tv during its 31 seasons on the air? It went like this: “This is the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped…to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” The summer program Hands of Peace is kind of like that, except without the cameras, and, presumably, so much drama. But the “getting real” part is definitely the key point of the 19-day cultural immersion. The idea is that a select group of teens from four different sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gather in one U.S. city – currently either Chicago or San Diego – to live with host families and spend their days engaging in moderated dialogues with each other.
“We have the kids in two and a half hour, nearly daily dialogues,” says Scott Silk, a teacher with a background in conflict resolution and law, who was involved in expanding Hands of Peace from Chicago to San Diego in 2014. The dialogues are “facilitated by professional facilitators, usually a Palestinian and an Israeli working together in a given room.”
Silk says the moderators guide the teens through conversations that are “both highly organized and also organic,” meaning that they are coordinated in phases, meant to ease the young people into difficult discussions about personal experiences, familial beliefs, and cultural expectations. Hands of Peace also intends for the participants to be friends after all is said and done, so there are lots of outings and events to help establish those bonds.
Each summer group consists of teens from the host city (San Diego or Chicago) plus Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Citizens of Israel (PCIs), and West Bank Palestinians.
“Our goal,” Silk says of the Hands of Peace program, “is to expose them to different narratives of the conflict, to debunk stereotypes, and to develop them as young leaders.”
That third part comes in later, when a select few choose to return for a second year of intensive leadership and community organizing training. The first two aspects of the Hands of Peace goal – to expose teenagers to competing narratives about the conflict, and to debunk stereotypes commonly associated with people from “the other side” – that work starts on day one and it doesn’t really stop.
“Honestly I was very worried about the dialogues,” recalls Noran, 17, a West Bank Palestinian who participated in Hands of Peace last year in Chicago and came to San Diego for year two of the program this summer. (Hands of Peace asked that the last names of participants be kept out of this article in consideration of participants’ privacy and security.)
“At first it was really, really hard because I have my own history and they have their own history. … For me, I’ve never listened to a story from the other side. … The story has so many faces. So listening to it was like listening to a whole other, new story or history.”
Over Skype, Noran says that in her society, everyone has the same history and the same point of view, so they all tell the same story.
“It was pretty hard to accept [other people’s stories] because, I don’t know, it’s a whole different reality and you get to a point where you think it’s never going to end because they believe in something and I believe in something. So it was pretty hard to accept it.”
She says that at a certain point, though, she felt something in her shift. Ultimately she says she felt that her personality improved through the dialogue process.
“It got me to have a lot of thoughts. It got me to be more attached to my community, and it got me to want to be a very active person in my society. I want to see a change and I want to change what’s happening.”
For the Middle Eastern participants, Hands of Peace is also about experiencing what it’s like to live in the United States. One participant I spoke with said he and the other Hands of Peace participants would talk about how it was like living an imaginary life.
“Life in the U.S. is obviously a great life,” Ehad, 18, says via Skype from an Arab village in Israel, “compared to people who live here, [or] in the West Bank for example. There is a big difference.”
As second-year participants, the Israelis, PCIs, and West Bank Palestinians have been meeting throughout the year to work on leadership skills and to learn those community organizing techniques that they’ll be studying in more depth this summer. Ehad remembers one of those meetings specifically, because it was mysteriously canceled.
“It was postponed and we find out it was because the people from the West Bank did not have any…they couldn’t get in here [Israel]. … I don’t know why, they couldn’t get permission to pass the checkpoints to get from there to Israel. It was very sad. We were like how could this happen to people like us, who just want to achieve an understanding of other cultures?”
Ehad says it’s ironic that the barriers kept out people who were trying to meet in order to achieve peace.
“I get sad sometimes, so yeah I feel actually connected to the Palestinian delegation for example in Hands of Peace, because it’s just a fact that there’s no difference between me and them except I have an Israeli ID and they have a green ID, I think, in the West Bank.”
Guga, 17, is a Jewish Israeli who also returned to San Diego this summer. She lives just outside Tel Aviv, a place where, she says, rockets don’t normally land, so the conflict, though just a few miles away, feels distant.
“What I felt was that I kind of don’t know that much about actually what I’m living,” she says via Skype when asked about why she was interested in Hands of Peace two years ago. She says at the time she thought she wasn’t living the conflict as much as other people, like those in the south of Israel, or those in the West Bank, that her understanding was more focused on the politics and following the news of Benjamin Netanyahu’s decisions on this or that issue.
“Many people don’t really understand that there are two sides to the conflict.”
She says Jewish Israelis are either thinking about their side, or trying not to think about it at all.
“That’s something that I learned in Hands of Peace, not only about the conflict, about everything – there are two narratives. For the exact same story to happen at the exact same time, two people, it sounds different to them.”
She uses Israeli Independence and the Nakbah as one example.
“It’s something that suddenly you understand, that everything you were taught is by a specific narrative and by what people want to pass to you and to bring to you. It seems to me as a child that these are the facts, but after I saw this and I understand that it’s not black and white, it’s not ‘these are the facts,’ it’s ‘this is the way we choose to see the situation.’”
Where Ehad felt sadness at the seemingly arbitrary distinctions made between him and people who live on the other side of a certain line, Guga came to feel something closer to anger.
“I live in this open community but we are all living and saying we’re open and saying we know a lot and know a lot about the conflict but then I understood that I actually don’t know anything.”
She says she had never heard about the checkpoints until Hands of Peace.
“I can drive an hour and get to the checkpoints, but I’ve never seen them. I’d never heard of somebody that was stopped there or checked or anything like that.”
For the Americans in Hands of Peace, the separation between realities and experiences is even greater. There’s an entire world between Israel and the United States. Sophia, 18, from Encinitas, struggled to find her voice through much of last year’s program.
“Generally I know people from one nationality who have lived really comfortable lives,” she says. She joined Hands of Peace to expose herself “to different opportunities and different ways of looking at the world.”
Sophia remembers meeting the Middle Eastern delegates on their first day in San Diego. They had all come on the same plane, and had ridden together on the same bus to be picked up by their host families.
“When the Israelis and the Palestinians got off the bus together, they were friends,” Sophia recalls. “After meeting each other face to face, whatever imaginary lines that were drawn between them were totally disintegrated.”
As the American, Sophia felt like the observer for much of the experience. She came to realize, with the help of a couple Middle Easterners in the group, that she and Americans broadly have important stories to tell too.
“I think the role of the American is to be a mediator. It’s to give an unemotional opinion which is really hard to do,” she says. “I struggled with that a lot because as an American you kind of feel like maybe it’s not your place to share because you haven’t experienced the conflict – you’ve just grown up in a really nice neighborhood with nice people around you. So it’s hard to share your opinion because, personally, I felt like I didn’t know enough or hadn’t experienced enough of the world to even share my thoughts about something as horrific as what people are experiencing in the Middle East, but that unemotional perspective is really valuable.”
A fresh group of Americans, Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Citizens of Israel, and West Bank Palestinians spent 19 days together this past July. They lived together, shared deeply personal stories, and stopped being politically correct and started getting real. What happens next is for the world to watch and see.