The author recently spent six weeks in Israel interviewing some of the leaders of groundroots movements whose objective is to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians. Below is the second in a short series of articles. Click here for part one.
No questions need to be asked. When Yakir Englander expounds upon his life’s dual mission, Kids4Peace and From Dialogue to Action, he covers all the bases. Kids4Peace is designed for youth from 12 to 18 years old, and From Dialogue to Action, a more recent initiative, for young adults in their 20s.
Yakir comes from an unlikely background, growing up in a Chassidic family in B’nei Brak, Israel, where religious observance ruled supreme. He asserts that his strict upbringing provided him with the tools and discipline to promote peace between Palestinians and Israelis using what he calls, tough love.
His projects are based exclusively in and around Jerusalem with the objective of making the city safe for the three communities that call it the Holy City: Jewish, Muslim and Christian. The work of Kids4Peace can be encapsulated in the words familiarization with the other. This is achieved through a training program for young residents of the Jerusalem area, held in one location where participants meet regularly. The content of the training program is stated on the group’s website:
(to encourage the teenagers) to listen to each other, to proudly share their own identities, and to hear painful and unfamiliar stories in a respectful environment. Furthermore, the festivals and cultures of the three ethnic groups are explained and celebrated together.
Few of the Arabs in Kids4Peace hold Israeli nationality although most are Jerusalem residents. Some are Jordanian citizens. How they identify is far less important than where they live and the desire they all express for peace and understanding. As residents of Jerusalem they have all experienced the negative repercussions of risk-taking in their volatile lives, a factor that gives them the courage to take risks on a positive path to explore new ways to seek the tranquility they all yearn for. Kids4Peace offers them a way to practically channel that desire through interacting with the other, formerly seen as a group to be despised. In the few years of its existence, through human contact, Kids4Peace has created a new community where tolerance, acceptance and knowledge are supplanting the images of ignorance and prejudice that have been promoted by all the political and religious authorities involved.
As part of their work, the leaders of Kids4Peace approached school principals and teachers who largely cooperated in promoting the initiative. One of the side effects of the program they have had to combat is the bullying of those participating in the organization’s work. Change always meets resistance, and teenagers in the program are sometimes the victims of it. For the Arab young people, learning about the Holocaust is a challenge, and for the Jews, the same applies to understanding the Naqba (the ‘catastrophe’ of the establishment of Israel). The security fence and Palestinian refugees are similarly discussion topics that challenge the two sides.
In honing his own character for the work he performs, Yakir has ventured into the disputed territories to pray several times with imams and has also spent time in a monastery. He has even met with the families of terrorists to try and understand what makes a Muslim want to destroy human beings who are made in the image of God. In fact, one of the founders of From Dialogue to Action is the daughter of a terrorist who served 17 years in jail. At one point in her life, she was faced with a clear choice: either follow in her father’s footsteps or become a peace activist. Fortunately, she chose the latter.
Last Chanukah, From Dialogue to Action undertook a unique project to promote interfaith understanding. On a Friday, during the festival groups of three young people, a Palestinian, a Jew and a writer/interpreter approached men leaving the Al-Aqsa Mosque after prayers. They offered them small gifts including candies and verses printed from the Quran, the New and Old Testaments about the meaning of Light, and then asked them how they gave love and hope to their families. The local police on patrol feared that the groups would be attacked. To the contrary, the Muslim people cooperated fully and were gratified that the young adults showed an interest in their personal lives.
The reaction of official institutions to Yakir Englander’s projects varies. The Israeli army fully supports Kids4Peace, while the police and intelligence services cooperate with From Dialogue to Action. Although the Israeli rabbinate and Muslim authorities are not open to involvement on an official level, individual rabbis (including some Chassidic rabbis from the settlements), imams and priests do give their backing to the movements.
Yakir Englander is convinced that he is making his own personal contribution to promoting peace and he is proving that difference is no obstacle to living together in harmony.
Ahmad Maswadeh is a young Palestinian fired with a passion for peace and understanding. Through his life action, he has aspired to promote mutual respect and eliminate hate. Born in Jerusalem, in the district known as Mount of Olives, he is a law student at Birzeit University, Ramallah. In the past, Ahmad has participated in a United Nations program on sustainable development in Arab Countries. When he first became involved with Kids4Peace as a volunteer, Ahmad faced some hostility from the anti-normalization movement, but that was not enough to daunt this dynamic, outspoken young man who believes in finding common ground among different people.
Ahmad met Yakir when volunteering for Kids4Peace, where he became a faith adviser for Jewish, Christian and Muslim children. He has been working with seventh graders to encourage dialogue among children, including some from religious backgrounds. Faith advisers seek to raise awareness of others’ religious needs. For example, Shabbat and Jewish festivals are observed together, and during Ramadan, the month of fasting, the kids are invited into each others’ homes. Islam is family-oriented and on the holiday of Eid visits are made to extended family members, all in three days. Eid celebrates the Muslim belief in the Binding of Ishmael. Ramadan celebrates the sending of the Koran to Mohammed. Ramadan also contains the element of controlling human desires, such as that for food, hence fasting and the giving of charity during the month-long holiday.
Children are recruited through social media, Facebook in particular, and by word of mouth, and the organization receives grants through the American consulate in Jerusalem, funds that are used for scholarships. The young participants attend summer camps in Israel as well as in the USA, where there is an active branch of Kids4Peace.
Meetings are held once or twice a week for seventh to eleventh graders after school hours in a building in Sheikh Jarrah, a Jerusalem neighbourhood. Supervision and inspiration are provided by a total of 35 faith advisers who are divided, more or less equally, between the three faiths: Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Kosher/Halal food is provided for those requiring it.
From Dialogue to Action
This group, complementary to Kids4Peace, is designed for young people in their twenties. From Dialogue to Action has held two sessions. In the first, Ahmad was a participant; in the second he was an assistant.
The objective is to promote constructive dialogue leading to positive action to end the conflict. This is achieved by bringing together open-minded members of different organizations that are seemingly in conflict, e.g. West Bank settlers and Palestinians. They study different models of conflict resolution. Sometimes speakers are invited from controversial organizations such as B’tselem (against the occupation and offering legal aid) and Jewish Voice for Peace. Participants in From Dialogue to Action gain insight into other organizations, examining past, present and future conditions in the process.
From Dialogue to Action also supports individual initiatives to promote peace. Ahmad himself created Jerusalem Art that brings people of all faiths and origins together to transform empty spaces in Jerusalem into meeting places, after cleaning up those areas and adding murals and plants. One evening during Ramadan, he also organized a successful interfaith meal in the Old City, where there is usually tension. He also took the initiative of playing an active part in a short film entitled “Ahmad of Jerusalem”.
Other participants have become involved in trying to overcome domestic violence in Israeli society.
From Dialogue to Action proposes the concept of two states, one homeland and has invited Rav Hanan Schlesinger to speak. He is the founder of Roots/Shorashim/Judur, the Israeli-Palestinian Grassroots Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation, bringing Palestinians and settlers together in the Gush Etzion region of Israel. Another guest speaker was a Palestinian tour guide whose subject was Palestinians in the Old City.
From these people-based projects, the hopes of Yakir Englander, Ahmad Maswadeh and those associated with them are that peace will take hold from below, bypassing the rigid stances of political leaders.