Fresh off the plane from grey London, and armed with the scantiest knowledge of Middle Eastern history, I was the newest intern at the Peres Center for Peace.
Suffering from acute disorientation, I’d been in Tel Aviv for two weeks, but had yet to see the sea. I walked down toward the Center, and confronted the crashing waves.
I was almost swept away when I arrived, battling with the wind when trying to open the door, much to the security guard’s amusement – a running theme for January. I walked down the sparse, neat Holocaust memorial garden, opposite the faded stones of the Muslim cemetery, and onto the patio stretching out to the sea.
Reaching upwards and outwards in horizontal stripes of glass and stone, ever so slightly dusty, the Center was blue, green and incongruous next to the neighboring run-down, graffitied houses, strung with washing lines.
I had only recently heard of the Center, but I soon learned that it was “the place” to be for peace. I was in the Community and Leadership department, which develops projects in education, leadership, technology, culture and the arts.
The outgoing intern; an idealistic, tanned Christian American, was wandering around looking dazed at the thought of leaving. The young, mainly female office followed Israel’s official casual dress code, but still looked well-polished in their skinny jeans and over-sized glasses. There were a couple of girls working at the Center as part of their army service; it was certainly cooler than combat.
I was interning through a Masa scheme for Jews in the Diaspora. Other interns included the son of a US Senator (he got a special handshake) and a political science student from Berlin.
The frenetic activity of the Center belies the fact that it is located in out-of-the way Ajami, which is one of the poorest, predominantly Arab areas of Jaffa. We would lunch in the only nearby restaurant, with its faded photograph of Shimon Peres.
I was idealistic, admittedly without a clear vision – and it was easy to be. I thought, and still do, that it is very valuable to be able to change a person’s mindset through educating them about coexistence, or introducing them to new ideas and people. The Center presents a simple message: peace between Israel and its neighbors, especially Palestinians; and between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
This is to be achieved through activities for all ages – sport, art, and peace education; as well as economic, health and technological cooperation. Crucially, the Center positions itself above the political fray, although it is inevitably affected by it.
The idea of an active Peace Center with a neutral stance is arguably naive. Fundraisers often needed to convince donors that the work was non-partisan – and the frustration was palpable when they failed.
The political paradox is embodied by President Shimon Peres, with his role in government and world leader status. At the Israeli presidential conference in June, Peres spoke often of the need for peace.
Speakers such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair tripped over themselves to congratulate him on his message, but there was no detailed peace plan to critique.
The Center contains the Peres archives, where one hapless intern spent her days collecting references to Peres in the press, and it is clear that the nonagenarian sees his legacy in his peace work.
His work, or status, as a figurehead at the Center is kept as separate as possible from his presidential role. The non-aligned approach of the Center means that business will continue as usual regardless of the outcome of the ongoing rounds of peace talks, brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry. This is lucky, given the uncertainty about the negotiations in Israel.
According to the September survey by the Peace Index, a project of Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute, a majority of the Jewish public (61 percent) and the Arab public (88%) in Israel do support the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, but almost all of the Jewish public (81%) and a majority of the Arab public (64%) can see no real chance that the talks currently being held will lead to a genuine agreement.
This skepticism was acknowledged by people I spoke to at the Center, but it did not impact on the running of their general work and projects. I enjoyed working on projects such as girls’ football, bringing together Israeli and Palestinian girls. It was sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and I went to their Tel Aviv office to train in using their software – (I needed my passport to enter, and found myself being escorted when I went to the restroom.) As well as boosting the numbers of girls involved in football, the project allows the girls to meet, and strike up friendships with the “other side.” The project provides an outside incentive (in this case football) for participants to join up, regardless of whether they are interested in taking part in peace education.
The Peres Center manages to attract highlevel domestic and international donors, partly, I think, because its message is so simple and uncontroversial. In the spirit of the Silicon Valley ethic of Tel Aviv, the Center has recently launched Hanging out for Peace, a project sponsored by Google Israel.
Arab and Jewish students use the Google+ Hangout tool to “hang out” in Jewish-Arab circles according to their area of study, encouraging them to socialize with one another. There was a great buzz when they came to the Center to meet in person for the first time.
Anti-normalization activists try to sabotage any cooperation between Israel and Palestine, as they argue that by doing so they would be recognizing Israel as a “normal” state. They threaten West Bank teachers who encourage their pupils to take part in peace projects.
Yet projects continue; such as PeaceMaker, which combines the PeaceMaker© video game and educational workshops. Children take on the role of Palestinian or Israeli leaders and are tasked with solving the conflict through tools such as diplomacy. They learn about the obstacles and difficulties facing each society.
On a typical day, I found my supervisor trying to concurrently organize a meeting between President Peres and the president of the Barcelona football team, a concert by Mira Awad, the first Israeli Arab to represent Israel at the Eurovision song contest, and an evening tour of the Center by UK DJ Mark Ronson, friend of the late Amy Winehouse.
I went to the opening of the Frames of Reality photography exhibition, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian photojournalists.
Drinking a glass of wine at 11 a.m. in the morning, and wandering around the sequined guests, I particularly liked the series “Freedom’s Sun,” showing close-ups of young men staring into the sun, from their position in the West Bank, behind the separation barrier.
The Peres Center is paradoxical: a leading NGO washed up on a beach in Jaffa; and an apolitical organization which swears allegiance to peace, and which clings to glamor in spite of its unglamorous grass-roots work.
But if peace talks stall, at least there is a place fighting for a life outside politics. As long as there are coach-loads of clammy children, and bustling business men scrambling to take part in activities, there is peace on some level.The author spent five months in Israel, interning at the Peres Center for Peace and Itach Maaki, Women Lawyers for Social Justice. She currently works for the Charities Advisory Trust in London.