Co-existence efforts and grassroots interaction as a foundation for peace

As I prepare for the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, much of my time is centered on the BDS overtures that commissioners will be asked to consider. It is ironic that the Church’s entire focus on Israel is supposed to be about promoting peace, because in so many ways, the BDS Movement is completely counter-productive to the peace-process. It claims to be a human rights campaign aimed at helping children and providing justice for an oppressed people.  Yet, when you look at the underlying goals of the movement, its true purposes become clear. BDS seeks to delegitimize Israel, demonizing it through a global campaign designed to isolate and undermine the sovereignty of the democratic state of Israel.

BDS offers no solutions to the conflict other than trying to shut down communications and the exchange of information between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Jews and Arabs within Israel. BDS places 100 percent of the responsibility for the failure of the peace process on Israel, exonerating the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It does nothing to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians. It refuses to even acknowledge the vast human rights abuses of both Fatah and Hamas, while pointing out every possible criticism of Israel and the IDF, whether merited or not.

I believe strongly that a two state solution is the only real path to peace. But such a solution can only come about when there is real grassroots, person-to-person interaction. It is an essential precursor to building the trust necessary for peace. For me, the importance of co-existence and interaction cannot be understated. When I think about co-existence, I always return to the wise words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. In his book The Dignity of Difference, and then again in his more recent and compelling book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Sacks provides the theological foundation for co-existence.

I believe that we are being summoned by God to see in the human other a trace of the divine other. The test — so lamentably failed by the great powers of the twentieth century — is to see the divine presence in the face of a stranger.

We are summoned by God to see in the human other a trace of the divine other. Those are powerful words. It is when you can get beyond labels, pre-conceptions, and stereotypes, making it possible to see the humanity in “the other,” then the “other” fades away, and the possibility for cooperation and for understanding becomes possible. More importantly, it is when you can see beyond the other, that there can be active empathy for the other person’s situation.

There are many organizations committed to co-existence and seeking to see beyond the other. The Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) is a network of over 80 organizations that conduct civil society work in conflict transformation, development, coexistence and cooperative activities on the ground. Its work is based on the premise that without the collective support of the people in the region, a just peace agreement will be hard to accomplish.

It is really impressive how many different efforts exist in Israel, for kids, for teenagers, for adults, aimed at social interaction, aimed at understanding, aimed at co-existence, and even reconciliation. Some have singular missions, like Friends Forever USA, a non-political co-existence program which brings groups of 10 Israeli teens, 5 Jewish, 5 Arab, to the US for a two week leadership development program designed to create trust, empathy, and friendships among cultures in conflict. Friends Forever doesn’t take political positions on the conflict, but is instead focused on peacemaking through building relationships and providing the next generation’s leadership with the skills to make an impact, and to build active empathy for the other side. There are numerous other similar programs run by organizations like Seeds of Peace, the Peres Center for Peace, and Kids4Peace. I particularly am impressed by the scope of Kids4Peace, a Jerusalem-based program where kids begin participating in co-existence projects in 6th grade, all the way through high school. Kids4Peace not only involves kids, but requires participation of families as well. It includes Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Another example is the dialogue through cinema program run by Jewish and Arab teachers in Yagur and Nazareth, in which 80 teenagers worked on a common project creating film, as a way to promote dialogue.

In Haifa and Jaffa there are Arab-Jewish community centers. The center in Jaffa is a beautiful modern facility overlooking the Med. It is so much more than just a “boys and girls” club. In a city with a population of 55,000 people, split between approximately 35,000 Jews and 20,000 Arabs, the Community Center provides a unique place for co-existence. The facility includes after school programs, dance classes, martial arts programs, a library, gymnasium, and a workout gym for women. It offers programs with a tolerance focus. The Center sponsors a youth parliament for high school students and a classroom exchange program in 3-4th grade, between Jewish and Arab public schools, where the kids do joint programs twice a month at the community center (and visit each other’s school at the end of the year). There is a youth camp organized by the teenagers as well. Think about the model that the community center provides. Its success demonstrates that Jews and Arabs are capable of getting along, of co-existing.

Many of these programs occur in Israel, and don’t cross the Green Line, but others do. EcoPeace comes to mind as a model program. EcoPeace is an environmental NGO with a primary focus on environmental water sustainability, but with a peace component. EcoPeace has projects that pairs Israeli and West Bank communities together on specific projects, while also promoting dialogue and building trust. Joint efforts at a particular task provide that all-important first step.

Other programs are more explicitly political, like Combatants for Peace, in which former Israelis and Palestinian soldiers use non-violent direct action and dialogue to promote a two state solution. And then there are other programs, like Breaking the Impasse, which are focused on business leaders in Israel and Palestine, seeking to use economic clout to push for peace.

In Gush Etzion, a group of settlers and Palestinians engage in a project called Roots, dedicated to co-existence and shared living. This is perhaps one of the most impressive efforts I have encountered. It is an initiative of Jewish settlers and Palestinians, engaged in their own communities, seeking to promote dialogue, transforming hatred and mistrust into empathy and mutual support. The Roots program includes family meetings, grassroots development, and a dual narrative program for young adults, aimed at seeing beyond “the other.”

If Israelis and Palestinians can learn to cooperate and co-exist, the possibility for reconciliation improves dramatically. This is not easy. Tensions can increase any time there is a flare in violence, making the work harder, but not insurmountable. Certainly many people struggle seeing beyond their ingrained narratives. Yet, this makes co-existence even more important. It provides an important foundation for a two state solution. BDS seeks to shut down these endeavors, when true efforts at peacemaking require they be supported and expanded.

About the Author
Michael Gizzi is an active member of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, and an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). A political scientist and professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University, Gizzi is actively involved in research on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. His opinions are his own, and not those of Illinois State University.