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Special Report
Last Updated: 03/16/2007
Violence Next Door: “Third Party” People-to-People Initiatives in the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict
Daniel Noah Moses

This past Thursday, in Hebron, I stood on a hill, at the edge of the Old City. Looking down, I could see the place where, according to tradition, Abraham and Sarah are buried. The Jews live down there, to be close to the graves. The light from the military installation gives off a particular glow, even during the day. The old rocks of the old buildings are dirty. The faces of the people are the sad faces of people barely getting by. It is a scene of destruction and isolation. If Abraham and Sarah could see what I saw—they would cry. To those who ask about the role of “third parties” in overcoming the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I would argue that it is a shared human responsibility.  Those of us whose tax money find its way to the region have a responsibility as citizens. Those of us who trace our spiritual traditions to Abraham have a responsibility to resolve what amounts to a devastating family squabble.


            The scriptures speak of Jerusalem as the City of Peace, as the center to which humanity will one day turn. Today, although it is a splendid city, it is also a divided city of palpable misunderstanding, fragile coexistence, and hate. On one level, the unwillingness of an Israeli taxi driver to take a passenger to Ramallah, only fifteen minutes away, is no different from a taxi driver in New York who, until recently, would not go to many Black neighborhoods. But what is local in Jerusalem takes on cosmic significance.   


             In a world where human beings have amassed power once reserved for pagan gods and superheroes, we live closer than ever before to planetary annhilation. And yet--never before have the conditions been so right for what the German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas calls “cosmopolitan solidarity".1 One can experience this dangling human predicament by turning on a television anywhere in the world: the conflict in the Holy Land is at center stage.


            Palestinians and Israelis obviously live this conflict day to day and viscerally. But their opinions are not the only ones that matter. People are killing one another everywhere—but violence in the Holy Land comes with additional layers of pain. This symbolic power of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict contains within it particular tension—and unique promise. Resolution of this conflict is of global concern. It is the ultimate test for the cultivation of cosmopolitan solidarity. God could not have planned it any better. What we need, across borders, at an international scale, and multiplying at an exponential rate, are what Habermas calls “public spheres.”


            A public sphere is a metaphorical place where citizens gather, listen, talk, come to a decision, act. Positions on controversial topics once “out of bounds” are tested in the light of day. On some level, it becomes a matter of what the group decides--a matter, in other words, of “public opinion.” When talking of large groups--Israelis, Palestinians, world-wide Jewry, Arabs, Europeans, Americans--the formation of such opinion is complicated. It is formed partly by what the generations pass down. What one thinks about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has a great deal to do with what one learned around the dinner table, on the street, in a youth group, or in a church, mosque, or synagogue. The state interferes to varying degrees in views of this conflict—by shaping the curriculum, by selecting certain facts and letting others slip away. Israeli maps and Palestinian maps, for example, literally ignore one another. The media distorts the conversation. Partisans of one side or the other go to great lenghths to manipulate public opinion. From all off this, the enemy loses its face. As Dr. Dajani shows so well in his Big Dreams/Small Hopes presentations, on countless levels, Israelis, Palestinians and their supporters are not exposed to the human face of the other side.


            There is an alternative. When partisans put aside their rhetorical weapons and engage in dialogue—the possibility opens up to transform individual perceptions, public opinion, and the conflict itself. Political leaders, even in relatively closed countries, do pay attention to public opinion. This opinion can be transformed. If public opinion changes—leaders change or are replaced over the long haul.


            When it comes to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, between Jews and Arabs, the options are limited. One side might destroy the other; the two sides might destroy everything; there might be a constant deadlock of destruction and suffering—or, people will engage with one another across borders and figure out a peaceful consensus in the public sphere.


            If people from different sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict refuse to recognize legitimate needs of those on the other sides, the violence will continue and get worse. If, on the other hand, people want to end the conflict—they will listen to those from the other side in good faith. They will listen to the radically different perspectives, where heroes and villians switch places; where victories and defeats turn upside down. They will test their own beliefs. In some ways, they might change their minds. Perhaps they will complicate their own perspectives.


            Perhaps they will make room for other perspectives while remaining loyal to their own. In various ways—engagement with “those people” makes it almost impossible to ignore that “those people” have, as John Wallach, co-founder of Seeds of Peace, put it, a “human face.” Individuals who are serious will learn to understand the needs and the cherished values of the other side. As Bobbie Gotshalk, co-founder of Seeds of Peace, says: individuals will enlarge their circle of concern and commitment.


            What I’ve just described actually happens on a frequent basis with Seeds of Peace and other people-to-people peace building initiatives. Fifteen year olds do it. Sixty year olds do it. I have gone rock climbing with Israelis and Palestinians on an island off the coast of Maine. I have seen them stay up late at night, exchanging stories about their lives. Such experiences do make a difference. People from all walks of life reach out across the lines of conflict, gain trust in one another, create cooperation across the lines of conflict, strengthen the middle and cut off the extremes on both ends. Doing so, they cultivate and grow public spheres, they transform public opinion—and push governments to act.


            To put it another way, Seeds of Peace is a “greenhouse of public spheres.” It is a greenhouse for cosmopolitan solidarity. At the beginning of each session of the Seeds of Peace camp, in Otisfield, Maine, standing outside the main gates, campers raise their own national flags and sing their own anthems. Afterwards, the entire camp sings a Seeds of Peace song. The Director of the camp says: you are still what you were; you are a Palestinian or an Israeli; a Pakistani or an Indian; but we hope that you will also be a Seed of Peace. While singing the Seeds of Peace song, with the refrain, “I am a Seed of Peace,” the camp community walks through the gates. This ritual fosters a new identity that can flourish next to the old; this is cosmopolitan solidarity.


            Organizations such as Seeds of Peace must walk a delicate line. If they are to maintain the space for dialogue—they cannot become advocates for specific positions. Individuals, once engaged as citizens, once inspired to be leaders—often want to take political action. “Seeds,” as the campers are called, even as they grow, sometimes get frustrated, for example, that Seeds of Peace will not “take a stand.” People who come through Seeds of Peace often want to “do more” than they can do under the umbrella of the organization.


              This is as it should be. A good school, a good “greenhouse of public spheres,” educates citizens: citizens go into the flux and fury of the world. Organizations that nurture public spheres are different from organizations that do advocacy work. There is a difference between education and organizing. There is a need for both: but the distinctions matter.


            Veterans of the Seeds of Peace become active in countless ways: theatres, picket lines, courts of law, schools, corporate offices, community organizations and political parties, for example. At the same time, “Seeds” and others like them, grow and nurture new metaphorical places for dialogue, new public spheres; they help others to cultivate the skills of leadership and dialogue, the values of tolerance, the awareness, so hard to get rid of once its there, that an enemy to the death is almost always just somebody we don’t know yet. 


            It doesn’t take a genius to point out that these people-to-people initiatives do not seem to be having much impact. True. But I would point out that, at the moment, such initiatives are drops in the bucket: we need buckets.


            What does this mean for a Jew in New York; for a Christian in Korea; for a Muslim in Paris? What is the role, in other word, of “third parties?” In my opinion, we have at least two tasks.


            First, it is our job to bring together Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli government has enforced a separation: Israelis cannot go to the West Bank and Gaza; Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza have very difficult time getting a pass to go to the other side of the Green Line.  As “outsiders” with American, Canadian, or European passports, we have the ability to jump worlds. We have the responsibilty to link these worlds together, by going between them, and by bringing Palestinians and Israelis to “third” places,  where they can speak and listen to one another, where they can learn about the narrative of the other, the needs and “small hopes” of the other.


            Second, we “third party actors,” have a responsibilty to learn about the different sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. We have a responsibility to explore how we contribute to enflaming the conflict, as citizens of particular states, as members and supporters of specific religious, ethnic, and charitable institutions.


            In President Bush’s war, the vast bulk of Americans have been asked to sacrifice almost nothing. For the sake of dialogue and peace, I want more effort. We should be creating public spheres everywhere, in our schools and universities, in our churches, mosques and synagogues. Every high school in the United States and across Europe, Russia, Latin America, should organize exchange programs reaching out to Palestinians, Israelis, and the larger Middle East. Diaspora communities of Jews and Arabs should be joined by all Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups that want to take the best parts of their traditions—and do something real. There should be active sister city projects between American and European and Russian and Latin American and Asian cities and cities in Israel and in the Arab world. Invite the Korean Christians. Bring the Kenyans and the Californians.


            Why not bring people from other conflict regions to Jerusalem. Let Armenians and Azerbaijanis, for example, do workshops in the Old City of Jerusalem. Invite the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the Tibetans and the Chinese, to Jerusalem. The air is thick with history. The stones bleed. The visitors could find no better place to discuss their own conflict, to try to figure out the future. The more interaction among people in conflict, the better. The strange conflicts are similar enough. The same dynamics come up. People see their own situations from new perspectives. This happens each year when the Indians and Pakistanis, the Arabs and Israelis, come to the Seeds of Peace camp.


            There should be a movement to give hundreds of thousands of teenagers and educators the chance to co-exist at a summer camp with people from “the other side.” We should dedicate our resources to follow-up programs in the region. We should be putting every ounce of energy into multiplying forums for contact and dialogue. Individuals from around the world should be meeting Israelis and Palestinians on a regular basis (not to mention Iraqis and others). It is the responsibility of each of us to find ways to learn about “the other side,” to engage with people from across the lines of conflict, to challenge ourselves, to enlarge the circle of concern and commitment, to grow public spheres where world citizens can engage with one another, in their homelands and across the world. If not now—when? And if not this—what? We are living through the growing pains of a cosmpolitan solidarity, or we are facing the most devastating human violence. Imagine a Jerusalem at peace. Imagine Abraham, in Hebron, at rest. For people who only watch the news on television—such words might seem to be silly dreams. But “third party actors” would be surprised by our power if we get off the metaphorical couch.

1As Habermas puts it: “Thus the decisive question is whether the civil society and the political public sphere of increasingly large regimes can foster an obligatory cosmopolitan solidarity. Only the transformed consciousness of citizens, as it imposes itself in areas of domestic policy, can pressure global actors to change their own self-understanding sufficiently to begin to see themselves as members of an international community who are compelled to cooperate with one another, and hence to take one another’s interests into account” (Jurgen Habermas, The Post-National Constellation, p. 55).
2Thus the first addresses for the ‘project’ are not governments. They are social movements, and non-governmental organizations; the active members of a civil society that stretches beyond national borders. The idea that the regulatory power of politics has to grow to catch up with globalized markets, in any event, refers to the complex relationships between the coordinative capacities of political regimes on the one hand, and on the other a new mode of integration: cosmopolitan solidarity” (Ibid, p. 57).

Daniel Noah Moses is Director of the Delegation Leaders Program of Seeds of Peace