Monday, December 6, 2010

TRIUMPH OVER HATE? - The uphill battles of conflict resolution camps as it pertains to Israel & Palestine

In May 2008, I stumbled upon a new program in the West Hills of Los Angeles.  A former Israeli paratrooper named Ilan Migdali had engaged in trying to change the face of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict first hand.  Through the Rotary Clubs of Southern California, the Brandeis Bardin Institute ande Beit Hagefen, the Arab-Jewish cultural center in Haifa, he launched Project Triumph, which brought teenagers out to Los Angeles of both Palestinian Christian and Muslim descent, as well as Israeli Jews, from probably the least conflicted city of Haifa.  The approach was almost the exact opposite of the in-your-face, direct dialogue programs like Seeds of Peace.  At the same time, the San Francisco Chronicle released a rather simplistic article by a local journalist proclaiming every single one of these programs a failure.  Six months later, I traveled to Israel to track down the teens and find out if anything had stuck. In an effort to get a true sense of these teens lives, and because of the kindness and generosity of many families, I stayed with them in their home environments for a few days.  I interviewed the teens, and then separately their parents.  I met with some academics, and graduates from other programs, as well as meeting with some key players amongst the biggest programs of these kind.  What follows is the 2000-word article I attempted to get published discussing these programs as a whole: what the experience was for the participants in Los Angeles, what some of the graduates think, and the comments of those that actually create the programs.  Keep in mind, what isn't discussed is the millions of dollars these programs take in from donors and private funds. 

Thank you for you interest.  And here is PART I

Jonathan Phillips


Sixteen year-old Eliana is staring up into a blinding California sun, which is pushing an obtrusive beam of light into her eyes. “Yella! Yella!” (Go On! Go on!), she encourages. Standing next to her, teenagers Jamele and Rawan also are yelling up words of advice. The object of their attention, Iris, is fighting not only her long straight hair, which is being blown into her glasses, but a crippling fear of heights. She is harnessed by a rope while attempting to climb a seventy-five foot tower and is petrified. Twenty feet up she has frozen, looking down as if to say, that's where I'd much rather be. All of this would seem like a normal ropes exercise except that that Eliana, Jamele and Rawan are Palestinians. Iris is a Jew. And in this particular situation, Iris has put her very goal in the hand of these three supporters. It's a fitting metaphor for the situation these teens are surrounded by every day in their home country of Israel. The Jews of Israel are outnumbered and surrounded by Arab countries. They have nowhere to go, and looking down will lead to shattered hopes, past miseries and unsolvable discussions. The only road may be to look up and plow ahead. For Iris, the moment is an eternity. Yet at the behest of her new cohorts, she turns her head skyward as well. An hour later, she has reached the apex. The cheers from below are audible and her smile tangible.

This is Day Nine of a two-week delegation called Project Triumph, which fosters conflict resolution through these kinds of self discoveries. It's the kind of moment that programs like these treasure verifying that limiting beliefs (self-doubts that cause people to put road blocks in their own way before addressing a situation) do exist and can be broken.

“All my life I felt that I'm less than my age group in terms of physical abilities,” Iris tells me later, “It came out the most today in the Tower Challenge. I had a huge limiting belief in my physical ability and I did it… it helped me, and another thing I now know I can be independent.”

Triumph is in just its third year. Its goals are lofty, perhaps too lofty, and its means, meager. For its founder, Ilan Migdali, its ideals are symbolized in the three girls standing below encouraging their new friend to exceed beyond her own limits.

Migdali is no stranger to conflict. In fact, one might say he was an antagonist of it. In 1982, with Lebanon on the verge of a civil war, and Israel's security to the north in question, Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided the only way to protect Israel from their troubled neighbor was to flex their muscle and invade. Migdali was one of the paratroopers who moved in with the initial invasion. However, much like the United States has discovered from its recent Iraqi dilemma, there's a difference between winning the initial battles and occupying a country. World opinion waned quickly on whether Israel was holding the moral high ground.

When the Oslo peace accords broke down, and the Second Intifada began in 2000, Migdali felt he had to do something. With the assistance of the Rotary Clubs of Southern California and Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish Cultural Center in Haifa, he went to work on coordinating a program that would plant seeds of acceptance into teenagers, hoping that as they move into adulthood, those notions of tolerance would challenge their own behavior in moments of high tension, and perhaps even the rest of their lives.

This is not a novel idea by any means. In fact, many conflict resolution programs have cropped up since the first Intifada in 1987, with a good portion of them coming out of the United States. Each of them propose their methodology will work in providing youth with the tools to stave off the dangerous fervor that really lies within of us. The prototype organization is Seeds of Peace (SOP), founded in 1993 by journalist John Wallach. Having viewed the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through a reporter's eyes, Wallach figured the adults were lost, and the only way the objective of peace would be achieved would be through children. Through family connections, he obtained permission to use a summer camp in Maine to ignite a world movement which many have sought to emulate; that of beginning conflict resolution through communication skills using elements of Contact and Social Identity theories with kids before they reach adulthood. Since then, over 4,000 students have attended the SOP camp sessions, and the board of advisors boasts such names as Israeli President Shimon Peres, Queen Noor of Jordan and former President Bill Clinton.

In October 2008, an article published by correspondent Matthew Kalman in the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed that there were little results, if any, from such peace camps. The conclusions were based primarily on, at the time, an unpublished report initiated by PALVision, a youth empowerment organization that attempts to educate young Palestinians in skill sets that will advance the culture from within. The report itself addressed the Palestinian side directly and reported overwhelmingly that the majority of Palestinian youths who attend such camps have little or no change in their belief systems, or that it simply strengthened their resolve against changing the narrative. The article set off a series of strongly worded responses, both from SOP and Seeking Common Ground, an international program out of Denver, Colorado, whose flagship program Building Bridges for Peace (SCG-BBFP) originally for women has also seen thousands of graduates of its own come together from both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Both organizations lambasted Kalman’s findings and went on to debunk what they considered a loosely researched and rather simplistic article for a very complex subject.

Yet, when I sit down with Iris six months later in her modest bedroom in Haifa, Israel, she spoke of that same moment as if it happened in a 3D theater and now she had misplaced her glasses. “I barely remember it,” she says. “It doesn't have so much impact. Back then it looked like a big thing to me, but now when I think of it it's not so significant.”

What had been a life-altering breakthrough for Iris had dissipated in the whirling dervish that is these teens' normal everyday lives in an area of imminent conflict. For these organizations, her response represents the most disturbing of notions that somehow their message didn't stick. What went wrong?

For the sponsors of Triumph, turning on the television to see last year's Gaza conflict was already unnerving enough. But with Triumph’s small scale viral approach (they’ve graduated 60 kids in three years), the idea of these breakthrough moments simply being dismissed within six months is what many would consider a failure. Yet therein lay the bigger problem. How does one define these groups in terms of success or failure, and what does either mean on a playing field as large and varied as the participants themselves? While Iris claims to have a more informed opinion and lays some of the blame on herself for not staying in touch with some of those Palestinian cohorts that urged her to success, she is a microcosm of the major issues that plagues these groups at the outset; political narratives, societal influence, education, parental influence, and the direct or perceived intent of the specific conflict-resolution group. Are the goals of such a program misplaced on teens, whose impressionable lives are already entwined within self-discovery, hormones and fashion fads, much less solving a peace problem that has existed for over 60 years?


Rami Nasser Eddin, the head of PALVision, purposely waltzes into the King David Hotel. He is a tall and rather lanky man, dressed in westernized denim wear, all of which seems to suit him. It is December 2009, and his group has since published their 38 page report debunking such programs, and he is not shy about laying out his argument. He says a lot of the problem is that there are so many Non-Governmental Organizations (he estimates over 5,000 NGOs in Palestine alone) and often they are tied financially to companies with agendas. He also believes that teenage recruits are too young and too undefined as human beings to be adequate agents of change.

“We realize we can affect more on the kids, you know when he [a child] is 18 or 20. The issue is not just about selecting, the problem is the planning of the program. We shouldn't meet with kids at all because frankly speaking they don't know anything.”

Nasser Eddin makes it no secret he is pessimistic about these larger organizations, claiming their follow up is limited and that the children are helping the groups more than vice versa because rarely do the teenagers know what they've signed up for.

I spoke to graduates from SOP, SCG-BBFP and of course the recent Project Triumph graduates of 2009. Nearly all of them concurred that they didn't completely understand what they were getting into.

Lama, now age 27, who is a Muslim Palestinian Israeli graduate of SOP put it this way, “They tried to explain it but I think at fifteen years old all I heard was America, America. I knew that there would be Israelis, but I didn’t think that they would be right next to me or they would be sharing the bunk or whatever.”

SOP Haifa coordinator Bashar is also a Palestinian Israeli graduate, and he puts it more bluntly, “…most of it came out cause I wanted to get the hell out of my house and just go have fun.”

Tomer, a Jewish Israeli graduate echoes these thoughts except he thinks most participants think they got the better of the deal. “I think most of them [the participants] feel that they tricked the system into going.”

Nasser Eddin also points out that the programs recruiters don't investigate the language barrier thoroughly enough. While Israelis have it in their educational system to be taught English, Palestinians do not. Nasser Eddin worries that this creates an uneven playing field between Israelis and Palestinians once in the United States, and that some Palestinians aren't educated enough to even know how to express their own point of view, especially in English. It also means that these programs are generally unable to tap into the deepest radical areas.

Bobbie Gottschalk is the co-founder of SOP and former Executive Director. She's a rich mixture of Jewish and Quaker backgrounds, has a Masters of Social Work from the University of Chicago and believes that the foundation has to be laid when participants are teens.

“During that time of life they're [teenagers] wanting to have their own experiences and wanting to test what they've been taught. They're starting to trust their own opinions, even against people who are supposedly very knowledgeable….their minds are not completely closed yet.”

Ironically, Nasser Eddin is a graduate from the same type of programs he criticizes. In 2001, at age 24, he attended a forum called Peace Boat, a Japanese-based NGO whose website states their cause is to “promote peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment.” It was his first time abroad and also his first time meeting an Israeli. He admits that at this point of his life he was ultra sensitive, having participated in the Second Intifada and served prison time. He credits an Israeli woman named Keren Asaaf for changing his life. They began working on bringing Palestinians and Israelis together and were recognized internationally with the Mount Zion award, a German Prize given for cross-cultural programs enhancing tolerance in the Holy Land.

These days Nasser Eddin works independently because of his belief that Palestinians need better education about the issues, and has set up many programs within Pal Vision to educate and facilitate Palestinian youth to claim their identity and educate themselves in dealing with societal issues living in the West Bank and Jerusalem.