The kids are lathered in sunscreen, bags are packed and everyone piles into the car to get to camp in the morning rush. Summer camp in Israel is like school without pressure. You can show up late without facing the judgemental locked gate, and you don’t have to do a midnight load of laundry for the next day’s school uniform shirt. Regardless of where and what the main focus is, camp in Israel is, for the most part, laid-back childcare, so that us grownups can work through July and August in order to keep our jobs.
But last month, a different kind of camp experience took place. It was filled with laughter, new friendships, and art like all the rest. But it was also a glimpse into a utopian reality in which Israelis and Palestinians could play and learn and even argue, and see one another as nothing less than equals.
Off the highway that winds past the Green Line and through the tree-dotted Judean Hills, stands an unassuming cluster of wood and stone buildings. It is the home of a grassroots organization that stubbornly refuses to abandon the pursuit of peace between the most unlikely of partners: Israelis and Palestinians that live in the West Bank. This is Roots.
Last week, one hundred and ten children from communities that might as well be worlds apart, were brought together to share six days of normal kid activities, because they are in fact, actually neighbors.
Often I hear the jaded Israeli narrative, that, of course, we Israelis want peace, and of course, we are willing to make an effort, but we simply don’t have anyone to try with. One of the astounding and most unexpected realities about Roots (and their summer camp specifically), is the number of Palestinian children that participated. Fifty-five Palestinian children from real families and towns under the Palestinian Authority showed up for an experience of coexistence and mutual respect with Israelis.
There was a day camp for elementary school kids, and also a six-day sleep away camp for teenagers. It was a quiet initiative. No political party parades Roots around on their platform, and no politicians endorse or exploit them for votes or publicity. In my opinion, it is their integrity and discretion that demands attention and support.
Despite immense pressure to avoid interaction with Israelis, it is pertinent to note that it was difficult to match the number of Palestinian children with the same amount of West Bank Israeli children for the sleepaway camp. Many of the Israeli teenage participants were from other parts of the country. Politicians have certainly given us little to be hopeful about, but incredibly, these real people on the ground, paint a very different picture of the desire and effort being made by both Palestinians and Israelis to coexist peacefully.
How can an effort that doesn’t pick a side get us anywhere? Roots is the outcast of both the Right and the Left because it does not require either Israeli or Palestinian to denounce their narrative or minimize their pain. It is a place where both come to simply exist, as they are, and learn to see the other.
So what is the point?
Will this grassroots effort really affect the deep hole, or rather, the colossal crater that we are stuck in? And who is “we?” Because so often I think Israelis talk about the situation like it’s just us, trying to navigate a challenge instead of a relationship. What Roots reminds us of, simply by bringing both parties together, is that “we,” Israelis and Palestinians alike, are stuck in this hole together. Will some friendships make a difference? I believe the answer is simple but not necessarily what anyone wants to hear: It’s better than nothing.
For the individual children who participated in the camp, this summer could mean that a real young man decides not to throw rocks at an Israeli car speeding by one afternoon, or one decides not to unnecessarily beat a Palestinian in a raid when he becomes a soldier. These individual children do matter, and their perspectives will affect their families and friends as well. And if Roots continues to grow, as it has remarkably each year, then this impact will be larger-scale.
Roots and their summer camp demands support and recognition because when most of us Israelis are too busy, hurt, and jaded to believe in a future that is better than today, they are persevering. At a time when we have so many opinions being thrown at us every day, it is easy to want to shut everything out and simply focus on our tiny bubble around us. It’s almost like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too big and daunting to think about anymore. But the “problem” will not go away if we ignore it. In fact, it will get exponentially worse.
We cannot hope and pray for a fruitful future if we refuse to plant seeds.
Last week, one hundred and ten children with every reason to grow up shutting out “the other” did the opposite. Considering today’s political climate in Israel and with elections next week, there is nothing more worthwhile than recognizing that our goal for a strong and flourishing, peaceful country, truly begins at the roots.
To join a Roots event or arrange for Roots to visit and speak in your community, contact Shaul by email: firstname.lastname@example.org