Nineteen-year-old Inas had traveled to the United States, from her home near Jenin, in the Palestine’s West Bank, to sit and talk with 22 Palestinian and Israeli teenage girls. As they conversed in a circle this last summer, their faces expressed a mixture of apprehension, fear and hope, as they gazed at each other, seeing “the enemy.”
All Israelis and Americans, Inas believed, were her enemies. The only Jews she knew carried guns and drove tanks; the same tanks and guns that kept her father from reaching the hospital when he had a heart attack last year. Now her widowed mother worked long hours in the olive groves to support her six children, and Inas wondered if she would be able to continue her university studies in hospital management. Her mother could not afford the tuition, and the Israeli-mandated curfews often kept her from attending class. Anger and frustration spilled over into her quiet words to the Israeli girls: “If you call us terrorists, then I am proud to be a terrorist.”
Her words struck deep into the hearts of the teens listening. Yet all of them, regardless of their various political beliefs, had come to take part in a unique program called “Building Bridges for Peace,” to meet in a neutral place to take the first step toward understanding the “other side.”
The girls listened, intent on understanding and validating Inas, even if they didn’t agree with her. Each girl would have a chance to share her story — a chance to be heard. Even more importantly, the teens would live together and get to know each other outside of the situations that caused such hatred.
By the end of the two-week program, the girls who once stared at each other with revulsion wept at the thought of separation.
Such unlikely friendships are the result of a program called “Building Bridges for Peace.” This Colorado-based program is run by a non-profit group called Seeking Common Ground. For the past 11 summers, the nonprofit organization has brought teenage girls from Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip together to attend a camp in Colorado’s high country. American girls of all ethnic groups also attend. The idea behind the program is simple: It’s hard to hate someone who has become your friend.
The program is the brainchild of Denver resident Melodye Feldman, a 48-year-old social worker. Melodye, a proclaimed devoted Jew, says that the camp offers a safe, neutral place for the girls to share their stories and hear the experiences of others.
She works with girls, Melodye says, “because I think it’s a voice and perspective that has not been heard. I think in order for peace in the Middle East, women have to be part of the democratic process. The girls live, eat and hang out together, and the barriers come tumbling down.” ”
The program is intense, and the goal is to teach communication skills. “Before you can get along with someone, you have to listen and understand how they feel,” Melodye says.
While the young women may never agree on the conflict in their home countries, at least they understand another’s point of view. That, Melodye says, is the first step toward living together peacefully.
Pursuing peace, one person at a time, is one of Melodye’s passions. But this wasn’t always the case.
Raised in Miami, where she attended Jewish private schools, Melodye says she was not exposed to the Palestinian views.
“Fifteen years ago, I was ignorant of Palestinian issues,” she says. “My perspective changed when I went to visit my mom in Israel and crossed into the West Bank for the first time.”
“What I saw there were human beings. People shopping, listening to music in cafes — just people.”
After the visit, Melodye went home and researched the conflict in the Middle East. She met with Israelis and Palestinians who were working toward a peaceful co-existence.
“I began to dream of a way to bring people in conflict together, so that they could just get to know each other,” Melodye says, “Seeking ‘Common Ground’ is the result of that dream.”
So far, more than 500 Israeli, Palestinian and American girls have attended. Melodye admits that this is a drop in the bucket compared to the oceans of hatred boiling over in the Middle East, but she believes it’s an effective way to wage peace.
“People pat me on the head and think I’m naive about achieving peace,” she says. “But I’m not naive. This is well-grounded in experience. Making peace is a long process; it’s messy and proactive and may take generations. A professor once told me that the best way to ensure your own safety was to ensure the safety of the other.”
That lesson is not lost on camp attendees. “These kids understand all too well what is going on,” Melodye says. “There is legitimate fear based on real situations on both sides. But if we can look at each other as human beings and understand by hearing the story of the other, it makes it more difficult to pick up a stone or rifle.”
That understanding does not come easily. When the girls arrive at the camp, they are wary of each other. There is a great deal of conflict, yet the girls work through this with active listening and communicating techniques. The point is to listen — and try to understand — even though you may not agree.
That first night is a purposeful demonstration on how communication breaks down. After that, the girls are taught a communication skill called “Intentional Listening” based on the mirroring process that often is used in couples counseling. The girls are put in pairs, and then one tells her story while the other listens without interruption, later repeating as accurately as possible what she heard.
“I had never met a Palestinian before I went to camp,” says Adva, an Israeli attendee who has since interned at Seeking Common Ground. “At first, I thought the Palestinian girls there should apologize to me for what the Palestinians had done, but then I learned about what Israel had done to them.”
“Here I was, sitting with my supposed enemy,” Adva says. “But she’s telling me her story, and she’s crying. How can I not hug her?”
Working toward peace brings criticism from communities on both sides of the conflict. Camp attendees report being harassed and criticized by family and friends for their newfound views. Befriending “the enemy” can be dangerous.
Gal, an 18-year-old Israeli girl, has faced disapproval from her family for attending the camp. “One aunt even tried to brainwash me not to go,” Gal says. “She told me Arabs only want to kill us.” That was not the case. Instead, Gal met 19-year-old Razan, a Palestinian, and the two have become best friends.
“We talk to each other all the time,” says Razan. “She’s honest with me and tells me everything. Our friendship is built on trust and honesty. My enemy is actually my best friend.”
At times it is hard for Gal to share her beliefs in the Israeli community. At first, she tried to speak out when others spoke ill of her friends or made jokes belittling Palestinians. “I would shout at them or just get sick inside,” she says. But these confrontations were upsetting, and now she chooses when to speak up and when to be silent.
“If the words come from a position of hate, I don’t say anything,” Gal says. “But if they come from ignorance or misunderstanding, I speak up.” Gal is now doing her mandatory military service and struggles to hold tight to her beliefs. Yet she feels that she can make changes within the system.
“It’s a miserable time in the Middle East,” Melodye says, “for both the Palestinian and Israeli teens. But what they have to go back to are those interpersonal relationships and friendships that they’ve built.”
Inas, who came into the program hating all Jews, now converses often with her Israeli friends. “I began to look at [the Israeli girls] as individuals, not as a group,” she says. “I see that not all Jews are soldiers; they are human beings just like us.”
Though she still has disagreements with her Jewish friends, Inas says that this is not enough to keep them apart. Although it can be risky, former participants meet in Jerusalem or elsewhere whenever they can. Others keep in contact by phone, e-mail or in an Internet chat room they’ve established.
“I have changed,” Inas says. “Before, I only saw myself, my hurts, my pain. Now I also think of my friends and the pain of others. There are times when people in the Palestinian community wonder ‘how she can befriend Jews.’ I tell them they are just girls; kids like us. Now many of my Palestinian friends are curious; they would like to attend the program, too.”
Inas is coming back to Colorado as a camp counselor this year. She dreams of the day when Israelis and Palestinians will live side by side in peace. “Someday, I will tell my children that I had Jewish friends,” she says. “But my hope is that they will believe this is nothing unusual, because they will have Jewish friends themselves.”
Seeking Common Ground
P.O. Box 101958
Denver, CO 80250