A political conflict with a spiritual solution

Interfaith group fosters tolerance among Jewish and Arab pre-teens from Jerusalem.

Kids4Peace 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kids4Peace 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'The political side doesn't have to come in every second," says 12-year-old Tal, referring to his involvement in Kids4Peace, a program that began under the auspices of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East in 2002. Kids4Peace is a nonpolitical, interfaith dialogue organization in Jerusalem that seeks to encourage children - Jews, Christians and Muslims aged 10-12 - to explore their differences and similarities in order that they may learn tolerance, understanding and respect across the lines of conflict. The program was founded in 2002 by Christian theologian Dr. Henry Ralph Carse, now its executive director. Having lived in the Middle East for 40 years, Carse acknowledges that the region's conflict is "certainly political." However, he firmly believes that it is "a political conflict with a spiritual solution, [using] dialogue and cooperation." K4P places a strong emphasis on faith identity and practice as a means to promote dialogue. Additionally, it is one of the few coexistence groups whose focus is specifically on pre-teens. Kids4Peace is expanding, its popularity growing within the Jerusalem area by word of mouth. This year there were more than 100 applicants for 36 places. The children meet on a regular basis, hosted by St. George's College in east Jerusalem, as K4P is one of the church's special programs. The children are divided into groups, or chapters, of 12: four Christians, four Muslims and four Jews. Each group is led by three advisers, who are also representatives of the three faiths. At the end of this month the children travel to the US to attend a peace camp, where they will meet their American counterparts. Communication across the Atlantic happens prior to this by the use of "peace pals." Jerusalem children are linked up with children in the US so that there is some written connection made before the camp takes place. The camps are run with the support of the Kids4Peace host communities in Georgia, North Carolina and Vermont. They also subsidize the airfare for the children traveling from Jerusalem. According to Carse, the camp experience transforms the lives of the children within the hosting community, as they too become engaged in the dialogue process. Yakir Englander, director of Kids4Peace in Jerusalem, is a veteran facilitator of religious-secular dialogue groups. Like all the staff, he works as a volunteer while he studies for his PhD in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He explains that K4P is a feminist organization; his three coordinators are women (two Muslims and one Jew), and many of the advisers are also women. Religion and not politics is central to K4P; however, religious leaders are not allowed to make decisions about how the organization is run. Englander wants children involved from the most secular and religious schools in Jerusalem. "I want to have dialogue…" This year they have children from the Ramallah and Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority, and his aim is for these numbers to increase. He points out that the 19 schools they have worked with have seen changes in the children who have participated in the program. The Jewish schools want dialogue with the Arab schools. "This is what Kids4Peace is for," he says. SITTING OUTSIDE in Tal's family's attractive garden in Baka, the birds serenading us and the distant sound of music playing from inside the house, Tal and Noa appear relaxed and willing to talk about their involvement with Kids4Peace. Noa, a sophisticated 13-year-old, is thoughtful and definite in her answers, the less vocal of the two. Tal is a talkative, articulate and expressive boy, often using his hands when speaking. Both had participated in a program at elementary school run by the Center for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage (CCECH), which uses folklore as a means of fostering contact between Arab and Israeli schoolchildren. They had found it interesting, but Noa expressed frustration that "We didn't keep in contact with the Arab children that we'd met" and that after two years "the program just stopped." She had heard about Kids4Peace from friends who had joined and they had told her that "it was great fun. They said that I should try it out. I didn't want to go alone, but then I heard that Tal was going." Tal felt that the relationship between Jews and Arabs "is [an] important [one] to try and develop. I could do it and I like doing it." He explained the quite lengthy selection process. "We each had a chat - interview - with two of the advisers and they asked us all kinds of questions, checking for things like how we express our thoughts and what we know about our religion. Whoever got past that stage, went on to take part in a workshop. They try to see how you work in a team. There were people watching. My dad was there! But he isn't involved with us." According to Tal's father, a professional facilitator for the staff, they are looking for balance when they are selecting children for the program, children from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. They do not want to take too many children from the same school but want young people who can demonstrate interest, social and language skills, as well as some knowledge of their traditions. With more applications than places, the staff is keen to ensure that they select the children carefully. In fact this year, he commented, there were not enough "good Jewish kids." Although there was a genuine sense of enthusiasm about the meetings and an obvious excitement about the upcoming camp in Atlanta, Tal and Noa expressed caution at who they had told about their involvement in K4P. They were clear that their close friends were supportive, "they think it's pretty cool," Tal commented. But "if I were to tell the kids in my class what I'm doing, not necessarily my friends, I know that there would be discussion. I know that not everybody would think that it's a good thing," explained Noa. Knowing of children with racist views toward Arabs, Tal made it clear that he completely disagreed with them. "Each side has made big mistakes, maybe some more than others. Some of the Israelis have been wrong, some of the Arab community has been wrong. I think that's the way to look at it." Noa agreed, nodding. "There's no one who's right in this situation." The six or seven group meetings take place in an area of the city that neither child ordinarily goes to. Although Noa was aware that it was a place where some Jews do go, she realized afterward that she had felt outside her comfort zone. "When Mum took me at the beginning, I was a bit freaked out as I didn't know where we were going. I found myself surrounded with big posters with Arabic writing on them. I thought 'What am I doing here?' It was very uncomfortable. But I got used to it and [now] it doesn't really bother me." However, both children agreed that the mere fact of traveling to a new place was positive. Tal described how the area had felt "different" - not because of any sense of geography but because the meetings are held in "this huge cathedral." He found it "quite awesome," never having been in a religious building of this scale before. They mentioned that a slight awkwardness can be apparent during the sessions. They put this down to the limited amount of time that the group has spent together so far, but felt that this dynamic could change after camp. At this stage, their expectations of what they hope to achieve from camp are limited to friendship and having fun, but they do seem to enjoy learning about other children's religions and cultural traditions - key aims of Kids4Peace. But both are undecided as to whether they would participate in the post-camp continuation program. "It's too early to say," according to Noa. "After camp we'll have a clearer picture of what could be in the future." One of the many challenges posed by attending an interfaith, cross-cultural group of this nature is language. Being fluent English speakers, Tal and Noa are in a minority. Although English is the neutral language of the group, the ability to speak it is varied, and the group functions with the support of translators who work in both Arabic and Hebrew. In spite of the potential language difficulties, they both enjoy the sessions and appreciate that they all have to work together. "It's mostly learning about religion, a lot about having fun, [learning to] bond with everyone because you [are] together at the camp. It's like a youth movement, I guess. We do all kinds of activities, such as building towers out of balloons," said Tal. Working together "proves the point that kids are kids, whoever they are, wherever they come from. They can have fun and enjoy themselves." He understands how the political situation could interfere in this process but explained that politics does not enter the meetings. "They are all about learning and bonding with the others, and I think it's great. I would not like to be at the stage where it's mostly political." During the war in Gaza "there were internal tensions with the staff," explained Tal's father, "but everyone was genuinely on board because of the aims." "There were stresses, I can't deny it," says Zoubaida S., a junior high school science teacher, former adviser for K4P and now one of the coordinators. "For example, we couldn't meet during the war, but we did communicate." She mentioned that the staff is taught how to deal with conflict between the children, but in her experience there have been no incidents of this nature. Perhaps the children model the positive example and commitment set by the staff or perhaps, as Tal's father described, it is because K4P is about fostering tolerance among the children, giving them a sense of empathy and identification with others. The aim, he explained, is that they grow up and see each other with a human face. There is no doubt that without parental support and encouragement, it would be difficult for the children to participate in such a program. Both Noa and Tal are children of liberal-minded, American olim who have ensured that their children are engaged in interfaith dialogue. Tal's parents explain that "We live in a completely Jewish environment, so within the context of the problematic relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel, we feel it is very important that our children have opportunities to interact on a personal level with non-Jews in general, and Arabs in particular, in order to avoid stereotyping. We want them to think of Arabs first and foremost as human beings, who are like them in many ways. It is vital, in our opinion, that our children avoid the demonizing of the other, which is so easy to do given the realities we live in." Noa's mother is delighted that Noa chose to take part in K4P and sees it as an opportunity for the children to experience the normality of being with each other by meeting outside of their usual context of living in a conflict zone. She believes that being in the US - a neutral place - will also be good for them, "as the strangeness of being there will make them feel familiar with each other." Highlighting the potential frustrations of language, she commented that "You can only get to be so familiar when you need a translator at all times." Tal's parents believe that the children need to be secure in their own identities and that involvement in a program like K4P can have the effect of strengthening it. The process of "explaining one's own traditions and culture to others in a way forces the kids to focus on their own identities and clarify who they are and what is important to them from their culture," they said. One of the Christian dialogue facilitators, Josh Thomas, is experienced in working on other peace programs. In Bosnia he conducted developmental psychological research with children, youth and adults, and has been involved in K4P camps for the last four years. He explained that the K4P peace camps are run on an experiential educational model. The children participate in a series of hands-on activities, and at the end of each day they discuss what they have learned and raise any issues of disagreement. EACH OF the three camps is different, but most include some cooperative arts-driven projects, sports, as well as time to play together, "which is actually very significant, since the kids otherwise would not be able to play and be kids together," he said. At all the camps there is the opportunity for each religious group to share their beliefs, practices and rituals while the staff and other children observe. They work together to create a production called the Abraham Tent, where "each religion from Jerusalem, along with their US peace pals, showcase some aspect of their religious tradition, Thomas explains. He says the children tend to have a lot of questions for each other. Aware that some of their views are based on stereotypes, they are unsure what is true and what is not. At the beginning there is an element of hesitation between them; conversation can be slow and frustrating because of language issues, but the children learn to listen and, overall, he says, their attitudes remain positive. It is hoped that they retain what they have learnt from this intense early-in-life experience and that they will engage in the K4P continuation program, which is now at a significant stage in its development. In 2009/10 the first K4P group will be going into the army. "These young people are still involved, but this is the main challenge," says Zoubaida, "waiting to see how K4P affects these young men and women and how each one will treat the other side. I ask that they treat people with respect, understand their needs; their need for freedom, land, to have their own country." Her hope is that the K4P "kids will be peacemakers one day." Sustaining the children's interest and commitment are fundamental for the future. Englander's wish is that dialogue continues, and he is keen for the follow-on program to work but appreciates that this is no easy task. In Zoubaida's opinion, "The continuation program is a measure of whether we succeed or not." However, 40 young people are part of this program, and as well as meetings and outings; the plan is for them to volunteer within the Jerusalem community. Last year, for example, K4P children helped children at an Arab-Israeli shelter for battered women. With his characteristic optimism and enthusiasm, Carse's vision is that Kids4Peace will "form a generation of leaders for tomorrow." But it will be some time before we learn whether Noa and Tal fulfill these expectations.