Sewn in Rough Soil, Seeds of Peace Continue to Grow
By Oren Lee-Parritz
Seeds of Peace is a program started by John Wallach to bring the youth of conflict- ridden countries together in order to create understanding and recognition. According to the website, the program is “empowering young leaders from regions of conflict with the leadership skills required to advance reconciliation and coexistence”. In addition, it focuses on bringing youth together “…before fear, mistrust and prejudice blind them from seeing the human face of their enemy”. The program takes place at a camp located in Otisfield, Maine.
The principle is that “treaties are made by governments” but that “peace is made by people”. In any region, if peace between entities is to last, it will ultimately depend on good will among the people, not words on paper signed by leaders.
The program originally began with bringing Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian youths together at the summer camp but has since expanded to include conflict areas such as the Balkans, South Asia, and Cyprus.
During these summer sessions, the youths are brought together to learn, socilialize and have dialogue. Bunks are organized by conflict region (for example, Israeli and Arab students would share a bunk, or Indian and Pakistani students would share another).
While the program does go a long way in helping those who already have an interest in peace to strengthen their resolve, the challenge of reaching those who are indoctrinated with hate remains. According to Paul Mailhot, the global programming director for Seeds of Peace, the participants in the program, though they have already expressed a desire for peace, are still laden with doubts. One goal of this program is to address and alleviate those doubts, and when that is done, to build environments of understanding among the people in conflict, presumably spreading the message.
However, disseminating these messages will require the participants to develop leadership skills to help them to be active in their communities. For this reason, Mr. Mailhot emphasizes the focus on building such skills as an integral part of the program.
This naturally raises the question of whether or not the participants in the program do in fact return home with a drive to initiate dialogue and make a difference on their own. While Mr. Mailhot does acknowledge that it is difficult to quantify the success numerically, there have been many instances of alumni becoming active politically, establishing organizations, and speaking at schools and community centers. Naturally, when it comes time for the graduates to organize their own intercommunal initiatives, they will have the added benefit of having forged friendships on the other side.
The program is now fourteen years old. As a result, it is at a crossroads as many of the original participants are now grown up and making their way in the professional world. Mr. Mailhot and the rest of the organization is anxious to see how these alumni will contribute to the peace process in their professional lives, be it in the diplomatic field or otherwise. However, while many may want to participate to the peace process, a great number are just beginning their careers and so it may take some time until their ability to contribute matures. It is in this way that that the hypothesis behind this experiment will be tested.
Another challenge is the issue of addressing peace among youth when the terms of peace are under dispute themselves. Peace itself becomes contentious when many on both sides cannot agree on such issues as the Right of Return, borders, and East Jerusalem. However, it is also this challenge that lays at the heart of the program. What good is discussing peace and understanding if it does not deal with the most contentious and complicated of issues?
Recently, as the most recent peace conference were being planned and underway, Seeds of Peace initiated a dialogue among youths as a mock negotiation between Israeli and Palestinian youths over the issues discussed above. While the lessons instilled in them regarding civility of dialogue and proper negotiation held strong, still no compromise was reached among the participants. However, Mr. Mailhot believes that this is an integral first step upon which more significant inroads will be made.
The recent conflicts in the region such as the Second Lebanon War and the Second Intifadah have been difficult for the program. Both conflicts greatly heightened the tensions between Israelis and Arabs, both within the program and without. The second Intifadah has made face to face meetings especially difficult given the security and border arrangements.
The program has been applauded by such figures as President Clinton, Queen Noor, Kofi Anan, and Mahmoud Abbas.
For more information, please visit www.seedsofpeace.org or call their New York offices at 212 573 8040. Seeds of Peace has also released its own publication, The Olive Branch. Online versions of this journal are available on their website.