As I write this, it is hours before Tisha b’Av, the day of Jewish mourning when we read the haunting words of Lamentations, of how Jerusalem “weepeth sore in the night.”
As I write this, the grieving continues for more recent tragedies, in Israel, and in Gaza too. For too many, the crying won’t ever truly cease. But when there’s a lull in the violence, I hope more of us can begin to think like Yaala Muller.
Muller, an Israeli who grew up in the town of Modi’in, has opted to take the “road less traveled.” She considered that phrase from Robert Frost’s poetry during another summer, a few years back, when she was a teenage camper at Seeds of Peace in Maine. The unlikely path she now traverses has brought her to a place where she feels the pain of both sides in this war, a place from which she has been reaching out to Palestinian friends.
“I want to be there for them, and show them that I care,” she says in a phone interview, adding that, “friendships can still exist despite the fact that our countries are at war.”
And no, Muller does not support Hamas. And no, Muller is not among those on her campus at Washington University in St. Louis, where she will be a sophomore this fall, who carry posters that exhort the world to “Free Palestine.” When she sees those signs, she feels as if they were protesting her very existence.
And yet, she’s horrified and angry that “Palestinians are losing children like they’re flies.” And when college friends speak critically of Palestinians, she rebukes them, saying, “You have no idea what the Palestinians are going through.”
“If I choose a side, I’m resigning myself to war, and war is awful,” says Muller, who is 20. Muller says she has no clear plan for how the conflict can be resolved, but believes that active listening is the first step.
The Seeds of Peace program, which radically shifted Muller’s perspective during her two sessions there in 2009 and 2011, has welcomed scores of teenagers from regions of conflict. For 21 summers, it has been offering traditional camp activities on its serene waterfront and grassy fields as well as daily doses of intense dialogue for nearly two hours at a stretch. Even last week, some 95 Palestinian and Israeli campers descended on this idyllic setting in Maine. This summer, Eric Kapenga, the communications director, reports that “the campers are getting into the heavier discussions a bit sooner than normal.”
At Seeds, Muller learned, “It’s not about convincing each other of who is right. It’s about acknowledging that everyone is allowed to have their experience.” Siwar Mansour, a Palestinian living in central Israel, and a Seeds alumna, says the camp reinforces the idea that “the enemy has a face.”
At Seeds that first year, Muller met a boy named Hamzeh who seemed to understand her better than even her high school classmates. Together they traded stories about family and shared future dreams; together, they laughed and laughed. Except for those occasions in dialogue, when, as Muller remembers, “we argued A LOT.” But she also recalls how Hamzeh, who identifies as a Palestinian, and who grew up in East Jerusalem, was paired with her for a physical challenge, and how they trusted one another as they walked across two ropes strung up high in the trees. And how at a certain point she knew that even if they argued they would still be friends.
Imagine if the Seeds program could sprout beyond this one site in Maine. Perhaps we would see more examples like the Aboulafia Bakery, an Arab bakery in Jaffa, where last week the employees wore New York taxi-yellow T-shirts, blaring out: “Jews And Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies.” Or perhaps there might be more collaborations, like the one between two religious women living in Israel, who together wrote a peace prayer (http://labshul.org/?p=3613).
Imagine if the crying in Jerusalem and beyond could be the kind that Siwar Mansour recalls from her final moments of camp. Color War formed the only battleground, and the entire camp was separated not by ethnicity, but by team: blue and green. As the winner was announced, everyone jumped into the lake, and in those quiet waters, Mansour experienced a shared moment of “the fear, the love, the hate, the worry, the tiredness,” and soon enough, the sadness over camp’s end, and “everybody was crying.”
Imagine, as John Lennon sang, all the people living life in peace.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.