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Spotlighting Teen Voices in Times of War

This past summer, I attended Seeds of Peace International Camp—a camp that brings together teens from across regions of conflict, including the Middle East (Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan) and South Asia (India and Pakistan). An American cohort is also included. At camp, we built friendships across these lines of differences through recreational activities—like sports, arts, and games—and shared lived experiences during daily Dialogue sessions. I recently checked in with some of my peers to understand how October 7th and its aftermath have impacted them and their communities. While Seeds of Peace may have brought us together, the war, and the responses to it in each of our home countries, may be tearing us apart. 

During our time at camp, it was clear that some people’s opinions on the conflict had been challenged. As Kinda, a 16-year-old Palestinian from Ramallah, puts it: “My opinions definitely changed. I had some kind of understanding about what life in Israel is like, but I learned about the things that they face due to the conflict. Before, I used to think that we were the only ones suffering. Also, no matter how much you disagree with someone, there’s no reason to hate them.” Oshri, a 17-year-old Ethiopian-Israeli from Haifa, feels similarly: “You have to speak with everyone, no matter their background or where they come from. Seeds taught me just how important dialogue is.” However, not everyone came out of Dialogue sessions with the same takeaways. Gilad, a 16-year-old Israeli from Ramat Hasharon, says that “after Seeds of Peace, I got a feeling that we don’t have a partner in Peace. We didn’t have people on the other side that wanted to seriously talk about options—and not just point fingers.” 

Post October 7th, some people’s opinions have taken a turn again. Kinda says, “Since October 7th, I have become more empathetic to Israelis. Making their suffering seem okay because we are suffering is not right.” Gilad has had a change of heart politically: “We knew Hamas was a threat, but now we realize it is a much, much bigger threat than we understood. Leaving them as the ruling party in Gaza after the war is no longer an option.” For Rebecca, an 18-year-old American Jew from Baltimore, October 7th has invoked feelings of pride: “I am more proud now of being Jewish.” While some people have had positive feelings, others are simply feeling down. Charlotte, a 17-year-old American Jew from New York City, explains that some of her friends are destroying the friendships that they worked hard to foster at camp: “We made progress at Seeds of Peace as a group. Unfortunately, after October 7th, we all started fighting in our big group chat. I’ve had to block some people for being openly antisemitic.” Perhaps, the intense feelings at home may have spoiled some people’s attempts to work towards peace and coexistence. 

While we have each had our own reactions to the past few months, individual opinions have, evidently, been affected by external pressures. We are no longer safe in the Seeds of Peace bubble and now face the rage of many back home. Kinda explains that “some people became more aggressive to the other side. Many people have had breakdowns. My community in Ramallah has become very depressed. We don’t celebrate anything anymore. We don’t go a day without feeling guilty when people are dying in Gaza.” In Jordan, A., a 17-year-old from Amman (who would prefer to remain anonymous), notes that “a lot of my friends at school are originally Palestinian. I have friends who have family in Gaza. Everyone is with Palestine, obviously.” Many Israelis are praying for the safety of the hostages and soldiers, as Oshri has been thinking about his family members who are serving in the IDF: “My cousin is fighting in Gaza, so is my uncle. I have a friend who just got injured in Gaza, so it’s been crazy.” In the US, Rebecca feels that there is a biased response to the war at her high school: “There wasn’t much talk when Israel was attacked, but once Gazans were attacked, everyone had a big reaction. My school is less than one percent Jewish, and Zionists are now ‘the problem,’ which is scary. My friend on the soccer team posted on Instagram that the ‘biggest genocide ever’ is happening in Gaza. I was thinking: Have you ever heard of the Holocaust?” There are similar feelings for Charlotte: “In New York, people were ripping down hostage posters, so my [Jewish] school has really come together, hanging up posters around the city. Yet on the street, I don’t feel comfortable wearing my [religious] skirt anymore, especially when I see the posters being defaced.” 

My fellow Seeds feel that, in many respects, the world does not understand what they are feeling. Kinda says that “people don’t understand that the conflict started 75 years ago. It didn’t just start now.” A. agrees: “The world should know that this has been going on since before October 7th. This has been going on for more than 70 years. We want people to know this, especially in the West.” For Gilad, the world should focus on the threat of radical Islam, which he argues is “the worst thing the region and the world can experience. Supporting Hamas or the Palestinian movement just means you’re next. Now it’s Israel; the West is next. It’s your enemy too, they are coming for you.” The contrast here is telling: The Israelis and Arabs are thinking about totally different issues in the wake of October 7th. The Israelis have the threat of terrorism at the center of their minds, while the Arabs see the attacks—while horrific—as a piece of a larger story of occupation. Gilad adds that “it’s not a genocide, it’s not an apartheid, look up the definitions. There are Arabs in Parliament.” Wishing that people would concentrate on the rise of anti-Jewish hate, Charlotte claims, “There’s so much subconscious antisemitism. People should realize that Israel and Jews are being held to a different standard.” Similarly, Oshri wants the world to understand just how rampant antisemitism is: “You see what happens to Jews in other countries; this is why we need Israel.” 

During this turbulent time in the region, my peers have been enacting change in their communities. Rebecca went to the March for Israel in Washington but faced backlash for doing so: “Before I went, a friend asked me why I was going. He said: ‘Israel’s taking it too far.’ He was basically telling me not to go.” Although the pro-Palestinian movement has gained significant traction in the US, Charlotte has been steadfast in her beliefs and has also been attending rallies: “We also went to a rally at the UN which condemned the UN for failing to acknowledge the rape that Hamas perpetrated on October 7th.” While A. recognizes that speaking out is crucial, she has also focused on engaging in conversation: “Being a part of Seeds, you have a feeling where you want to be part of change.” However, she adds that discussing her experience at camp is taboo: “Talking about Seeds is very limited in Jordan. You couldn’t really talk about it before, but now you really can’t.”

While the war has been devastatingly ugly for both sides, I encouraged my peers to consider how they believe this will all come to an end. According to A., “It’s going to get worse, if not way worse.” For Gilad, a new government must rule over Gaza after the war: “The war should end with the release of all the hostages, of course. We should do whatever we can to dismantle Hamas and to establish a new Palestinian government in the Gaza Strip—hopefully with UN support or with the support of another Arab country, or even with the government in the West Bank.” 

Despite the political and emotional ramifications of the war, the Seeds have found ways to be hopeful. Gilad has hope in the IDF: “We have never lost a war, and I feel sure of our country and our ability to minimize casualties on both sides.” Yet for Kinda, searching for hope may be too difficult: “I am not stable enough to think about hope right now. At my [international] school in Tel Aviv, a 12th grader had his Palestinian flag ripped away by two Israeli kids. The Israeli kids said, ‘They need to die. They are terrorists.’ Palestinians have been harassed at school. We get called names and get followed around. At these times, it’s hard to find hope.” In Charlotte’s opinion, hope is difficult to have with the current political leadership: “Netanyahu does not have the Israeli public at heart. He’s only focusing on his political agenda, and it’s the same on the other side: Hamas is not fighting this war for the sake of the Palestinians. I believe that Hamas would fight down to the last Palestinian if it meant that they didn’t have to recognize Israel. If we are the next generation of leaders, we—as youth—need to be the change and need to have more conversations together.” She ends with a message to other teens who care about building a brighter future: “You have to put in the work to make it work.” 

 

About the Author
James Covit is a high school student at the Heschel School in New York City. He is an alumni of Seeds of Peace International Camp and the American Jewish Committee's Leaders for Tomorrow fellowship.
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