He was a hard-nosed journalist who had more than a passing acquaintance with the furies of the Middle East. But he was also more than that: John Wallach, the former Hearst Newspapers foreign correspondent, craved personal involvement, even when it defied the conventional wisdom of hopelessness.
Wallach died last week at 59 in a Manhattan hospital, after a long battle with lung cancer. A few hundred miles to the north in the woods of Maine, dozens of kids from the Middle East were gathered at the Seeds of Peace camp he created in 1993.
That, more than his books and prize-winning reporting on stories such as the Iran-Contra scandal, will define the legacy of a journalist not content to be just an observer.
Wallach created Seeds of Peace
in February 1993, just after the first World Trade Center bombing and months before Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn signaling the start of the ill-fated Oslo process. At the time, he cited his family’s background and his years of reporting on the Middle East as major elements in his decision to start the camp.
His parents, German Jews, escaped to America in 1941. “I was born in 1943 — and I can remember lying in bed at night, wondering why I survived and six million didn’t,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s guilt or just a sense of responsibility — but I suspect that has something to do with the way I see this program.”
He said he valued his role as a journalist, but felt constricted. After the first attempt to bring down the Twin Towers, he said, “I felt a compulsion to say, ‘Damn it, the terrorists are trying to make everybody afraid of doing business with Israel, afraid of progress. There had to be an answer.’ And it seemed to me the only answer that made any sense was to get the next generation together, before being poisoned by the climate of their region.”
Not surprisingly, Arab governments reacted coolly to his invitations, even after the Oslo agreement appeared to put the region on the path to a negotiated peace. “There is a real difference between leaders signing declarations of their intent to make peace, and the people themselves really making peace,” he said.
But within two years, Israeli and Palestinian kids and teens from Jordan, Morocco and Egypt were trooping up to the Maine woods — and to the White House lawn, where President Bill Clinton regularly hosted the campers and Wallach, all clad in green T-shirts.
Even when events in the region raised tensions, Wallach said the rewards were immense.
“It’s been the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done,” he said in a 1995 interview. “When you see the tears flow, the embraces — and when you know the follow-up will be just as dramatic — you really get the sense that you can change things. That sense is very vital to my own psyche.”
The success of Seeds convinced Wallach that it could serve as a model for conflict resolution among teenagers from other troubled regions. A Fulbright Foundation grant provided money for a Seeds of Peace program for Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot youth. A second grant in 2000 helped fund a Seeds of Peace Balkans program in Greece.
But it was the Middle East program that attracted international attention, thanks to the intractability of the crisis and the deep hatreds on both sides. By 2002, the program had touched the lives of more than 1,600 teenagers from Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Yemen.
Each year, the camp reflected the tenor of the times: the wary hopefulness of the early Oslo years, the bitterness and suspicion that accompanied the new intifadah.
Participants began to communicate across the chasm of hatred and misunderstanding. Many continued that contact — by phone, letter and e-mail — after returning to the region.
The career Wallach gave up to pursue his dream was not a marginal one. He was foreign editor for the Hearst Newspapers for 26 years, and a frequent panelist on public affairs programs such as “Meet the Press” and “Washington Week in Review.” He also wrote books, including a landmark 1990 biography of Yasir Arafat that earned praise from critics but anger from some Jewish leaders who claimed he treated his subject a little too sympathetically.
But that, too, was part of Wallach’s self-appointed mission. He said his books, like the camp he created, were the result of his “personal compulsion to counter the dehumanization that makes reconciliation in the region so much harder.”
“He was a dreamer of dreams, some of which were unrequited, but he kept on trying and trying, right to the end,” said Mark Talisman, a longtime Jewish activist and former Capitol Hill staffer. “John was irrepressible; he was, in part, a child in adult clothing, in a way that allowed him to explore the world in such wonderful ways. And that translated into Seeds of Peace. The creation and growth of Seeds represented the willingness to take great leaps of faith that most people in Washington could never even consider.”
To John Wallach, such leaps came naturally. He will be missed in a world where faith in the future of the Middle East is in short supply.