Israeli Eyal Milles has been around Palestinians much of his life: fellow students at Tel Aviv University and co-workers at the two urban weekly newspapers he edits. But, says the 35-year-old self-described pro-peace left-winger, they’ve never been more than passing acquaintances.
Palestinian activist Sahar Natsheh, 29, a Muslim East Jerusalemite, has lots of Israeli acquaintances met during her studies at Hebrew University and through her work coordinating interfaith and interethnic dialogues. She admits, however, that ongoing tension from the Middle East conflict makes it difficult to have real relationships with Israeli Jews. Her closest Jewish friend is Australian by birth, and they generally avoid discussing the situation.
But after participating in a New York-based fellowship program, Milles and Natsheh have become friends.
"We like each other as human beings," says Milles, who also volunteers with Kav HaLevan (The White Line), Israel’s gay and lesbian hotline. "There is harmony between us. There are disagreements, but we are really getting along beautifully."
"It’s frustrating" that they only met through the fellowship sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, "because we should have done it before, without external help," he adds. And, both agree, there is "no doubt" the relationship will continue once they return home.
The fellowship program, funded by Ford but run by the 92nd Street Y, recently brought together 23 leaders of small nonprofit organizations from all over the world: from Algeria, Bosnia and Croatia to Zimbabwe. They were Jewish, Muslim, Methodist, evangelical Christian, Seventh Day Adventist and Catholic.
The one thing they shared before meeting is that all lead community development and humanitarian assistance organizations in traumatized countries. Fellowship organizers hope to strengthen their efforts by giving them improved skills: and a new network of colleagues.
While in New York and in Dearborn, Mich. (Ford’s home), for two weeks recently, the participants learned in mini-crash courses from experts in organizational management and transformation, fund raising, marketing and conflict resolution.
They also visited Ground Zero and city human service agencies. They toured neighborhoods including Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Jackson Heights, Queens, where different ethnic groups live cheek-by-jowl, and heard from community leaders. Between back-to-back sessions, they managed to squeeze in some fun, taking in a Yankees game and a Broadway show.
For many of the fellows, who operate small agencies on shoestring budgets in bruised and fragmented countries, it was their first exposure to formal instruction in many of the disciplines that undergird strong grassroots organizations.
"Many people are buried in their local and country’s problems," said Allison Gardy, director of international relations for the 92nd Street Y, and the program’s supervisor, in an interview after the fellowship ended.
"We want people not to feel so alone in their work, for them to know there are others like themselves."
They will continue to stay connected through a listserve on which they can continue their dialogue on-line, and periodic teleconferences. And fellows plan to use the information and skills acquired in their work at home.
The program "gave me new knowledge about how to act as a leader in a small community, how to fund-raise, how to deal with the media and how to make strategy," said Jakob Finci, president of La Benevolencija, the Jewish aid society providing nonsectarian humanitarian assistance in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"It’s useful to learn how Americans and the American Jewish community are dealing with terror, and how they are starting to recognize the necessity of cooperation between ethnic groups," said Finci, a Holocaust survivor, who said his city faces that very challenge.
"This was like a booster to my will," said Milles. "It was a mirror allowing me to see where I am going, showing me that I really have the power to make change, and to encourage other people to join us."
The programs run by East Jerusalemite Natsheh have mostly run out of funding and steam because the Palestinian intifada and Israeli military action have made it too difficult for participants to meet.
Until recently, the petite, dark-haired woman coordinated an Israeli-Palestinian think tank on the future of Jerusalem; an international dialogue between Israelis, Palestinians and Germans; labor mediation training for Palestinians; and education for Palestinian youth about democracy.
"Of course I feel angry that my work has become impossible," said Natsheh, who studied business administration and public policy at Hebrew University. "It’s a pity. You work a lot, you have hope, and then nothing works out."
Hopefully, she said of the training, "we’ll benefit from this in the long run."
To be sure, the fellowship program was not without its own conflicts.
During one of the final days, Linda Lantieri, an expert on social and emotional learning, led a session on conflict resolution and educating for peace. When she said, in passing, that some countries systematically educate for hate, a Colombian fellow said, "Yeah, like Israel."
Milles looked up, startled, and spoke to the Colombian and Natsheh privately during a coffee break. After a briefly heated discussion, they parted amicably.
And an unintended slight led to an enlightening experience even for the 92nd Street Y’s Gardy.
On materials distributed to the fellows and press, Gardy wrote that three fellows came from Israel: Milles; Ran Chodos, who directs Idan Hadash: The Institute for Civil Society, which educates Russian immigrants in Israel about democracy; and Natsheh.
For Natsheh, a Palestinian, it was just one more in a series of experiences in which her national identity is not recognized.
"It’s hard to look at an atlas and not see your country," she said, quietly, in an interview. "At the United Nations, all the fellows saw their flags" waving outside. "It was very painful. I wish I had a state so I could put down ‘Palestine,’ " she said.
Said Gardy, of describing Natsheh as being from Israel, "Palestine is not yet a state. But Sahar and I had a wonderful conversation" about it. "For the future, in materials we distribute about this group, we will put ‘Palestinian’ next to her name."
When writing the materials, said Gardy, "I thought about it. I was acting like an American and didn’t want to single her out ethnically."
After speaking with Natsheh, she now understands that in not being singled out ethnically, the Palestinian woman felt slighted. "I learned a lot from her," Gardy said.
Before leaving New York for home, Natsheh left Gardy a small box and a note. Inside the box was a pair of Arab-style silver and turquoise earrings. "This earring for you," said the note. "I will keep, as I promised, working on peace."
And overall, the fellowship reflected hope.
As it came to an end, fellows presented Gardy with a large painting they created. On the artwork they wrote parting thoughts in English, Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Russian, Romanian, Spanish, French, Croatian and Shona, a language of Zimbabwe.
Israeli Chodos wrote: "We are 23 people. Every one of us has different points of view. We pray to different Gods. We have different colors of skin. We speak eight different languages. During only two weeks we’ve learned to understand each other, to accept each other, to love each other.
"If we could do it, the whole world can."