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WHAT IS A FAIR PLAYING GROUND?
When the Triumph teens first arrive they are whisked from LAX on a driving tour of Los Angeles, which includes moving up the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu on the way to Newbury Park and the West Hills. They are hosted for an introductory barbecue by a Rotary family, and meet some of the people who brought them there. For a lot of them, this is the first time in an environment where English is the prevalent language. It serves as a uniting force for the kids, who can communicate via Arabic and Hebrew amongst each other, but a reminder to their hosts of the barrier they must break through in short order.
Not only that, but the West Hills provides a safe environment and luxuries the likes of which many of these kids may never see. Upon asking them what they think initially, most of the teens can’t help respond that it’s what they see in American movies, which posits the question: Is the United States, governed by people who donate billions of dollars in aid to Israel, a place any Palestinian could truly feel at home? After all, SOP gets some of its funding from USAID grants. Certainly, as much as those teens might wish to see America, their participation could easily be dismissed by peers as the West once again pushing its agenda on the Middle East.
And that’s where critics like Kalman and Nasser Edin levy their strongest issue: the failure of these camps is solidified from moment one -- because creating a neutral environment for conflict resolution is simply impossible.
This is somewhat acknowledged by Aaron Hahn Tapper, himself a former volunteer for both SOP and SCG-BBFP, and creator of Abraham’s Vision, an educational program that seeks to educate American high school teens and college students from Jewish and Muslim religious backgrounds about their commonalities and differences. As an administrator of his own program, he’s believes finding a neutral space is next to impossible, as all environments reflect some form of ideology in some way.
“If you’re working with Group X and Group Y and you take them to a place where it’s Group X and their symbols all over the place, I’d say that’s going to be disempowering to Group Y. And I’d say that’s a challenge to some of the groups in our field.”
Hahn Tapper's organization is based in Northern California and offers programs which focus on educating Jews, Muslims & Palestinians – both in the U.S. and Middle East –on viewing old conflicts in new ways. However, most of the American-based conflict resolution groups pull students from the actual conflict area and seek as neutral a site as they can on American soil. For Seeds of Peace, the playing field is a camp in Maine. For SCG-BFFP, it’s a camp outside of Denver, and for Project Triumph, the teens’ taste of the good life at the estate is immediately replaced by wooden cabins of the Brandeis Bardin Institute in L.A.'s West Hills.
The directors of these programs also are inherently sensitive to growing their facilitators from within. Melodye Feldman, the recently retired founder of SCG-BBFP says 98% of her staff is past participants. SOP estimates that 10%-15% of its 4,000 graduates have gone on to leadership positions within the organization. Thus, as it may be the first time abroad for many of the participants, they are met by peers who speak their native tongue.
When I sat down with Paul Mailhot in December 2009 he was the Director of Global Programming for Seeds of Peace in Jerusalem (he has since become Director of South Asian Programs). He argues that taking the kids out of the area of conflict is necessary to provide a stress free environment which keeps the teens focused to the goal at hand. Not only that, it introduces them simply to each other as human beings, something that isn't done very often.
“It’s about three and half weeks, their experience with camp. And it is removed from the region so that the kids can sort of set aside some of the daily pain from this. But because that’s so, it changes them in ways often that make them want to continue to at least explore the idea of the conflict.”
Mailhot, a former U.S. Diplomat and Foreign Service officer, concedes there is a fall off particularly as the kids reach age 18 and the Jewish kids head to the Army. Feldman echoes Mailhot's sentiments, and adds that the change of scenery is necessary when the politics of your home country are in flux and violence can erupt at the drop of a hat.
“Since 2002, there have been no peace accords. And kids are going back into situations where there's no support in the communities for what they're doing, or little support.”
DO WE DEAL WITH THE NARRATIVE?
To address Israel as having Statehood lies at the very root of the problem when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians addressing each other. For the Palestinians living in the territory prior to 1948, Israel's birth was a slap in the face because many of them feel original “Israelis” were really Jews from Eastern Europe and not natives. Not only that, but the process that occurred after the United Nations passed resolution 181 calling for the partition that created a Jewish State in Palestine – that of the subsequent Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948 and the new Israelis creating the borders of their new country (an event which Palestinians refer to as The Nakba or “Cataclysm”) – is for Palestinians a story they compare to the Jewish displacement in Europe. The numbers vary depending on who is relating the tale, but Palestinians insist that 650,000 – 750,000 people were forcibly exiled from the new state. Israelis claim that many left willingly due to the impending invasion by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. And the tales of racial hatred and violence perpetrated by the new Israeli armies pervade nearly every Palestinian narrative, and involve anything from simple taunting to violence.
In Project Triumph's curriculum, debating the past is a useless gesture, fraught with circular discussions that often degenerate into argument about right and wrong.
“In my view, all peace begins within yourself,” says Tom Voccola, leadership instructor and program co-organizer of Triumph. “And if you're not at peace with yourself, you can never be at peace with anybody else. What does being at peace with yourself mean? In our view it means being clear with who you are and what your life's purpose is, and being confident you are fulfilling this purpose in alignment with your values.”
Voccola and his co-organizer/wife Francis Fujii both found themselves as successful young chief executives, yet both were unfulfilled. They eventually founded CEO2, conceived from this idea you need a 'Purpose and Passion' to train and transform CEOs with the objective of reversing the productivity downturns that often follow company leadership change. Not long after, the two of them figured these methods could work in a larger forum, i.e. conflict resolution. Thus, Triumph focuses on self, and participants begin by creating a mission statement of who they are and what they hope to do with their lives. It is something they take home with them so they can be reminded of it during times of trouble.
“In our video, Ilan [Migdali] puts it very clearly, that when you know who you are and you connect to that part of yourself, there's no need to go to war with another person.”
Triumph's philosophy is to help teens distinguish their own truths from the narrative their parents and grandparents have fed them, which is usually system of truths or half-truths steeped in the bitterness and resentment of the past combined with unwillingness to focus on now, and more importantly the future.
“Over the years we found the great divide is rooted in the past,” Voccola points out rather emphatically. “There is no common future for the two sides coming from that place. It's a lot of finger pointing and a lot of 'you killed me and I'm going to kill you.' And so, much like in this country, the two right and left wings are screwing it up for everybody in the middle, which is most of the population.”
SOP and SCG-BBfP choose to approach the issues of the past head-on, feeling that any attempt to talk about the future without confronting the past is futile. Because their facilitators are often program graduates, they have Jewish Israelis and also Palestinians there for each side of the discussion. After each discussion with the facilitators, there is a debriefing, or down time, to let the kids voice their feelings with facilitators one-on-one.
Gottschalk says these talks are very necessary because the kids don't come to the camps empty-handed.
“They've been coached by their governments about what they're going so say, so for awhile they just have to get that out, because they feel obligated by their governments to say these things. And so all that stuff gets kind of regurgitated, and that's when they start to hurt each other's feelings and you see some crying…then I think they start taking another look at the words they're using and the impact it's having.”
SOP graduate Tomer adds that the two sides have passed down such similar anti-narratives about the other, that with no contact, they don't even realize how similar those narratives are.
“The most common narrative you’ll find on both sides now is we’re defending ourselves and they’re vulgarian, blood thirsty people who just want to kill babies. And it’s remarkable how similar it sounds when it comes from both sides.”
While SOP graduates over 300 students in two camp sessions per summer, SCG-BBfP works in slightly smaller groups, maybe 100 per summer in part because of funding and in part because of their desire to address the concerns and thoughts of each camper fully.
“Our program isn't about the fact we agree,” says Feldman, “and it's not about the fact that they even walk away making peace with each other. It's about the beginning process of learning how to listen to the other.”
Kalman asserts the elation achieved by this communication is lost quickly because the purpose for each teen being there is so different. For Jews their kids go because they want Israel to be safe and secure, and just wish to be left alone. For Palestinians, they hope to go and convince the Jews that the situation they are in is a discriminatory one, and persuade the Jewish teens away from joining the army.
Professor Menachem Klein, a teacher at Bar Ilan University's political science department, was involved in many of the Tract II discussions regarding the two-state solution, and is a board member of B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. He sees the recent trending of Israeli politics as something that supports Kalman's assertion. When I sat down with him, the Gaza conflict was just heating up in December 2009.
“I don't see any NGO or know of any party or organization that has graduates that have a voice here in the public debate. That's not the case. It exists on the memories of the participants but it does not exist in the public sphere.”
For Project Triumph's 2008 class, the topic of the past continues to rear its ugly head within the first week of their activities. Voccola and Fujii are left with no choice but to let the kids have their discussion. It's the first time in Triumph's three years this has happened, and the discussion is pointed but doesn't divide the kids. However, as they go back and forth, it's clear the issue can't be settled in any short term forum, and Voccola's sentiment about arguments of the past leading to nothingness manifests itself.
In the case of these two societies, the narratives are heavily ingrained by the time these kids reach their teens, relates Gerald Steinberg, professor at Bar Ilan University, and founder of NGO Monitor, a group that specifically monitors and exposes any of the political agendas behind NGOs. Though Israel is a more pluralist society, the Jewish narrative isn't any less permeating. The Palestinian para-military group Hamas simply continues a theme that runs deep into the heart of Jewish history, that in every generation someone seeks to destroy the Jewish populace. And for Palestinians, particularly from areas of the West Bank or Jerusalem, the society is completely different.
Unlike Jewish society, “it [Palestinian Society] is very homogenous -- you tow the line, you don't ask questions,” Steinberg points out. “You don't even think about asking questions. There's something strange about people that don't ask questions.”