Although Israelis and Palestinians have been meeting and communicating at a grassroots level to better understand one another and work toward a more peaceful future, the initiatives that bring them together do not receive the recognition that they deserve. Until a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found, these grassroots initiatives remain vitally important.
One of these initiatives is Hands of Peace, which began in spring 2002 when Gretchen Grad and Deanna Jacobson, a Christian and Jew living in Northbrook, Illinois, began talking about how glad they were that their children were growing up with peers of different faiths. The two neighbours had a vision to spread intercultural understanding beyond their own neighbourhood and foster it in youth from the Middle East.
With the help of Nuha Dabbouseh, a member of the local Islamic Cultural Center (ICC), Gretchen and Deanna secured sponsorship from Glenview Community Church, B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE), a Reform Jewish congregation, and the ICC, as well as the support of individual donors and local businesses.
Hands of Peace was born with the belief that bringing Israeli and Palestinian teens together in a safe, supportive and neutral setting could begin a dialogue that would promote understanding—and therefore a more peaceful future. While they realise that cultural appreciation alone is not enough to mend the animosities that have fuelled generations of conflict, they recognise that putting a face on the “other” is part of the necessary groundwork for peaceful coexistence.
This summer, from 17 July to 3 August, 21 local families volunteered to host five Arab citizens of Israel, eight Palestinians and eight Jewish Israelis. The students and staff visited the Illinois-based Islamic Foundation in Libertyville, Glenview Community Church and the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston to observe religious services and take advantage of educational opportunities.
Dialogue sessions are the heart of the Hands of Peace Summer Program and encourage participants to discuss contentious issues and develop critical thinking and communication skills. Each group is led by two facilitators who work to create a safe environment in which participants can express their thoughts and feelings. Beginning with introductions and trust-building exercises, the groups establish ground rules and move on to discuss more contentious issues, gaining deeper understanding of the conflict.
As 18-year-old participant Jafar Qutob of Nablus explains, “I want to represent my people as they are: humans who are eager to have a better life than the one they are living today, a peaceful life without war, killing or any kind of violence. I will try to communicate and socialise with all different people regardless of their religion or nationality, and especially with Israelis, who I believe are humans like me".
During the intensive two-week programme, American teens who serve as hosts join their Middle Eastern counterparts for daily dialogue sessions, team-building exercises and cultural activities. “It's also a great learning experience for the Americans who become much more aware of the conflict and its impact on their teen peers from the region. We've had programme alumni go on to study Arabic or international relations, and to generally take a serious interest in world affairs”, says Julie Kanak, Hands of Peace's executive director.
Board chair Debby Fosdick describes some of the longer-term results for Middle Eastern participants: “Many of these young people had no contact with the other side prior to Hands of Peace, and when they return home they make the effort to come together to continue the dialogue they started here. We've also had some parents in the region come together with their children in informal settings. Many of our participants have made presentations at their schools, not only about Hands of Peace specifically, but about the merits of non-violent conflict resolution.”
While there is still a great deal of work in ensuring a peaceful coexistence in the Middle East, groups like Hands of Peace are essential in creating one part of that foundation.
* Naazish YarKhan (www.naazishyarkhan.blogspot.com) blogs for the Huffington Post, is an NPR commentator and writes a column, “Musings from America” for the Oman Observer. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).