In a cabin where Israeli teenagers sleep on a bunk below Palestinian students, a discussion about Leonardo DiCaprio can be what unites individuals who have been taught to hate each other.
Each summer, these adolescents flock to Otisfield, Maine, for Seeds of Peace — a camp where counselors and professional mediators teach teens how to resolve tensions between each other caused by their country’s religious rifts.
“I had a girl say she wouldn’t bunk with another camper,” said Tufts University senior Jessica Wolff, 21, a counselor at Seeds of Peace. “I had a girl who wouldn’t talk to the others. It was stunning the extent to which it was personal.”
An image from Seeds of Peace’s hosts “Color Games,” where campers shed national identity to coalesce with their blue or green team. When it’s over, everyone wears the same color t-shirt and reunites with friends.
The three-week sessions feature team-building experiences made up of diverse populations — highlighting human similarities instead of historical conflicts. Founded 20 years ago, there are six Seeds of Peace programs across the world for other areas of religious conflict, like South Asia and Cyprus.
“Going from seeing my own campers who barely speak to each other on the first night to sobbing and hugging each other on the last night, I know there’s something going on where they see an opportunity for peace,” said Tufts University senior Justin McCallum, 22, another camp counselor. “They see how trivial identity can be in conflict, how it’s imposed and how you can go past that.”
Their model to incorporate diverse populations in each camp — like Arab and Jewish Israelis alongside those from the West Bank and Gaza Strip — is something McCallum said he recommends for the Israeli and Palestinian governments’ peace talks.
“Getting multiple parties to the table to really listen and just to try to understand by placing the other person in your shoes could definitely be beneficial,” McCallum said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas invited Israeli politicians to the West Bank for peace discussions earlier this week and tips like McCallum’s could help to mediate a resolution on a national scale.
Though Seeds of Peace is apolitical, many students involved in college organizations like J Street U and Students for Justice in Palestine said they hope for a two-state solution — and are optimistic about Abbas’ offer.
“Most people have realized that two states for two peoples is basically the best feasible solution,” said Danielle Ellison, 19, president of Friends of Israel at Yale University. “The vast majority of people agree, it’s just frustrating that it hasn’t happened yet.”
Recent election results for the Israeli Prime Minister and parliament could help resolve their turmoil with Palestine, said Ruben, 19, president of Friends of Israel at the University of Pennsylvania.
While such conversations and party realignment will help, any proposal will have adverse affects on some of those in this region, McCallum said.
“No matter what there will be people who carry a burden and weight of ancestry,” McCallum said. “Anything that creates sustainable peace will be the best solution. I don’t think anything perfect could come out of this.”
It’s a result comparable to Seeds of Peace campers’ homecoming.
While the campers return united, association with those from another country at camp is enough for friends at home to stop talking once the individual has returned, Wolff said.
“It’s once they talk to their friends again and students from their school the next year,” Wolff said. “That’s the essence of Seeds, you can have this experience but it’s worth more when you go home and share it. It’s going home and affecting change in your community.”
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