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(photo credit: Hannah Weitzer)
As the young Israeli and Palestinian children sat against the wall, waiting to finish the chorus of their song, it was virtually impossible to differentiate Jew from Arab.
There was much debate about ideas for the chorus. Against all probable assumptions, however, the arguments over the lyrics weren't due to political or ideological differences, but were about phrasing and structure.
These 19 children and their educators were participating in a program called Windows-Channels for Communication, a nonprofit, joint Palestinian-Israeli organization that brings together youth aged 12 to 18 from three different identity groups: Jewish Israelis, "Palestinian citizens of Israel" and "Palestinians from the occupied territories." The children work with media and art to promote understanding and peace in the region.
After 15 years of Windows groups producing Hebrew-Arabic magazines and videos, this particular group of young musicians/journalists has been working together with the prestigious London-based music college Point Blank in a two-week session that began June 26, recording a song and an accompanying video.
Rob Cowan, CEO and founder of Point Blank, says he is adapting "the same model" of a Point Blank program that works with troubled youth back in London.
"The idea was really simple: Let's try and use music to bring people together," says Cowan, 43. "I believe in the power of music and creative activities to help do that."
Cowan has always been interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his curiosity led him on a search for the right organization to get involved with peace activism. His search ended when he found Windows.
"I like Windows; I like the feel of Windows," says Cowan. "It's a most genuine organization."
The Point Blank founder spent much time listening to what each child had to say about the conflict and their relationship to it. But of all the lessons learned, Cowan believes his most valuable lesson was in discovering how similar the Israeli and Palestinian children were.
"When you do music with young people, they respond exactly the same; and that's when you realize - they are exactly the same," he says.
The harmonious relationship between the Palestinian and Israeli youth was no fairy tale story of instant friendship. Hard work, lessons in tolerance, and above all, a lot of very serious correspondence aimed at understanding each other preceded any meeting between the sides.
Copies of some of the letters sent between the young journalists can be read in the Windows magazine.
Rutie Atsmon, 51, founder and director of Windows, says her organization was established for one simple reason: To "struggle together to find a solution. Because if we don't, then we will go on killing each other together."
Based on the idea that "as human beings, we are all equal," Rutie runs her program using the strategy of "with what we share, we can find a way to live with the differences."
The actual creation of the music, from the melody to the lyrics, is done completely by the children. With the help of the Point Blank team, the young journalists have also been trained to become music producers, learning how to use advanced musical equipment and programs.
Muhammad Nazam - known around the Windows office as "Mo" - is the Point Blank member in charge of overseeing the musical end of the project, which is funded by Rayne Trust, along with some private donors.
Making a piece of music with youth who aren't exactly musicians is "a challenge that I'm used to," says 48-year-old Nazam, adding, "If we wanted an easy life, we wouldn't get into these types of things."
Realizing the musical limitations for the project, Nazam believes the project is "not about getting a perfect musical result. It's about getting them to be creative."
"They are very articulate and very intelligent kids," says Hannah Weitzer, 26, who works in resource development and as a coordinator for the organization. "They have a lot to say." And they're not afraid to say it. Huda, 14, from Jaffa - a member of the "Palestinian citizens of Israel" group - exudes the maturity of someone twice her age. She speaks with clear conviction, yet her tone never loses its youthful innocence.
"[At Windows] I could express myself about the kind of stuff we talk about at home. The Israeli Jews didn't know the Israeli Arabs had troubles, too, that we don't have the same rights. But when I say my problems, it's not because I want sympathy, I just want them to know."
Many of the Palestinian children in the program have to deal with discouragement from their peers back home about participating with Windows.
Huda hopes "that the guys that think we are stupid for coming here, they will see that we were right. That if we can put hand in hand, we can make peace."
Natalie, 15, from Bethlehem, whose light skin, pink bangs, light blue eyes, short pink dress, and command of English would swiftly break most stereotypes of people living in the West Bank, speaks about overcoming cultural barriers.
"At first it was kind of weird. We all have different stories. We all had a bit of trouble trying to understand each other. Just our traditions are different; we are living different lives. After some time, we got to know each other and be friends."
Natalie adds, "They are just like us - normal teenagers."
Gili, 14, from Tel-Aviv, speaks bluntly about her experience at Windows.
"It's weird that Palestinians and Jews are talking, because we are supposed to be enemies," she says. "I came to Windows because I wanted to hear the other side and hear their stories. The things they've said - I've already heard them before from my mother. But it was weird to hear it from them - more real."
She adds, "It is hard for me to talk about the hard things they go through. There is something in their voice that says, 'You did it, you did it,' but I can't blame them."
Fellow Tel Aviv resident Orin, also 14, came to Windows just looking for something to do in the afternoon. But now, she says, "it has become a big part of my life. I feel like I'm taking part in something that can make a change. I love it."
Orin thinks the song, due on YouTube later this summer, "won't make people meet the other side, but it will change the way they think about the conflict."