Planting separate seeds?

Why is the Seeds of Peace Coexistence Center closing its Jerusalem base?

peace 88 (photo credit: courtesy photo)
peace 88
(photo credit: courtesy photo)
The opening of the Seeds of Peace Coexistence Center on French Hill in Jerusalem in October 1999 was celebrated by more than 400 Arab, Israeli, Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot "Seeds" (as the graduates of the program are affectionately known). The center, the organizers promised, would serve as the focal point for Seeds of Peace's activities in the region. But now Seeds of Peace is closing its Jerusalem center and opening national offices in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. Seeds of Peace will continue to promote coexistence - separately. Seeds of Peace was founded in 1999 by journalist John Wallach. It was the charismatic and dedicated Wallach who, after the bombing of the World Trade Center, concluded that "today's adults were not succeeding in finding a peace process." Wallach decided to devote his efforts and funds to developing leaders for a more peaceful future and established the Seeds of Peace organization. Seeds of Peace is best known for its summer camp in Wayne, Maine, where teens from conflict areas throughout the world - with the largest contingent from Israel and the Palestinian Authority - live together in cabins and collaboratively engage in everything from sports and arts and crafts to "coexistence" sessions. "Camp was awesome," says Jerusalemite Ilana, 20, now an officer in the IDF and so unwilling to give her full name. "I met people from all over the world. And I had to go all the way to Maine to meet [them] because we never meet here in Jerusalem." She says that the experience at camp "proved that meeting together really is important," at least for the participants themselves. "Over the past few weeks, during the war, some of the Palestinian Seeds called me. They were against the war, and they were even glad that Israel was being bombed. But they were also worried about my brother, who lives up North, because they'd visited him when they were in Israel. They know I'm in the army and that bothers them. But we learned that we can talk about anything," Ilana says confidently. After camp, Seeds are expected to go back to their own regions and implement the coexistence tools they learned. The center in Jerusalem was meant to provide a base for these efforts. For the Palestinian and Israeli Jerusalem Seeds, says Avivit, 19, a Seed currently serving in the army, the center was "sort of a drop-in center for peace." Although the center was established in the heady pre-Intifada period, Seeds of Peace seems to have been able to continue to meet, unlike many other coexistence and dialogue-oriented groups. Ned Lazarus, co-director of the Jerusalem Center until two years ago, says that "the combination of emphasis on personal relationships, honest dialogue and personal example set by the staff, which is composed of Palestinians, Israelis and foreigners, played a big part in getting us through the really hard times." The "really hard times" included the riots of October 2000, when Asel Asleh, a 17-year-old charismatic and popular Seed from Arabeh was shot by Israeli forces; the building of the security barrier in Jerusalem; the dismal political climate; and the ongoing violence and terror, especially in Jerusalem. According to the Seeds of Peace Web site, between 2003-2004, at the height of the violence, hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian Seeds, from Jerusalem and the territories, met weekly as part of an advanced coexistence group. An active parents' group was founded. And as reported in In Jerusalem ("Meeting over coffee," May 19), the center recently began a series of "Seeds Cafe" programs, which were widely attended. Yet over the past two years, despite these activities, the center has been devoting increasing attention to uninational activities, in which the Seeds meet only with teens from their own side. Seeds of Peace officials deny that this represents an ideological change. Tim Wilson, outgoing director of Seeds of Peace, says that the increased uninational emphasis is due to "current realities" and that the decision to relocate to the two uninational offices is both cost effective and consistent with the will of the Seeds themselves. "The center was perfect during the golden years, when kids could come back and forth, with some provisions by the IDF," Wilson tells IJ in a telephone interview from the camp in Maine. "But it's not right for now." Avivit does not agree. "Everyone says that Jerusalem is the heart of the conflict, so that even if we were mostly Jerusalemites, it was really important. Jerusalem is the city with the most bombings, the city with the wall in the middle. Seeds is supposed to change reality, not just give in to it. That's what they taught us at camp." Hannan and Rami, parents of a Seed from Beit Hanina, participated regularly in the ongoing parents' group. Acknowledging that the current atmosphere does not encourage meetings between Israelis and Palestinians and that this is why they preferred not to give their full names, Hannan said, "This group was very important to us. At a time when the wall is dividing Jerusalem in half, it was important to have a place to meet. I am very, very sad, and if the center closes, it will feel as if we have failed." Wilson contends that the decision to close the Center and open separate offices in Tel Aviv and Ramallah also reflects the will of the Seeds graduates, who have begun to take on leadership positions and prefer to minimize joint activities. Says Janet Wallach, president of Seeds of Peace and widow of founder John Wallach (who died in 2002), "This is coming from the kids - they want to work on their own and then come together." Although she did not explain further, it is well-known that many Palestinian organizations have taken increasingly strident stands against what they term "normalization" activities, especially when these require permits from the Israeli forces for the Palestinians to enter Jerusalem. But Abdullah, a 23-year-old Seed from Ramallah said: "I don't know if they caved in to pressure. Sure, there is pressure not to meet. But not from most of us Seeds. Yes, it's a bit dangerous right now and, like during the war, I don't think we could meet. But I want to continue meeting together. It'll be convenient to have an office in Ramallah, but I'll just be talking to other Palestinians." The situation on the Israeli side and among the American Jewish donors who support the program, is also ambiguous. A former employee of Seeds in the United States tells IJ, "American Jews have turned to the Right, even those who support peace and dialogue organizations. And in Israel, the authorities have always been a bit conflicted, because what they really wanted was to send out the kids as 'ambassadors' who would reflect Israel's side, not as individuals who would really think about the situation and who might change their opinions." The Education Ministry did not respond to IJ's request for comment. Officials also emphasize financial difficulties. Wilson says, "The Center is extremely costly, and not getting enough activities for the cost." Yet, in apparent contradiction, Wallach also says, "I don't want to go into the past. I am aware of how the kids feel and, in part, they're right." She promises there will be more binational activities in the near future, including a delegation of 30 Palestinian and Israeli Seeds who will travel to New York this fall. She further promises that the organization will be looking for other, cheaper, sites in Jerusalem and that programs such as the Seeds Cafe would continue, although it is not clear where. Seeds are also furious about the firing of Sammi al-Jundi, the Palestinian director of the Jerusalem center since its opening. Says Avivit, "Sammi was always honest. He is a Palestinian patriot, and he was in jail during the first Intifada. But even in the worst of times - when Asel died, when the buses were blowing up - he believed in dialogue and peace and he pulled us through this. "I remember calling Sammi late at night, when a friend was blown up downtown - doesn't that mean something? That I, a Jew, called Sammi, a Palestinian, because I knew that he could help me?!" She continues, "I even talked to him about going into the army. He didn't approve, of course, but he helped me make my own decision. He is a real madrich [counselor]. Says Jamal, 22, a Palestinian Seed from Jenin: "Sammi was always an example for all of us. He convinced me to go to camp - and that was one of the most important things I've ever done in my entire life." Wallach responds that "Sammi has been wonderful, loyal and incredible for Seeds - but the circumstances have changed, and we have had to eliminate the jobs, and focus more on different activities." Wilson would only say, "Sammi is so close to the kids, he's been involved for a long time and I know the kids love him. But there comes a time when things have to be done differently. There were many considerations." Citing severance issues, al-Jundi did not speak with IJ. Wallach concludes, "The situation has made the Seeds campers realize how important these activities really are. They're really serious and dedicated to changing the future. These are courageous kids."