Israeli and Palestinian Young Women Learning to Let Down Their Defenses at Camp
By Julie Zweig
Summer camp often brings together children with similar backgrounds, but one camp in New Mexico is bringing together teens, on opposite sides of a struggle, who grew up being taught to hate each other. The ideas that are uniting these young women just may be the key to lasting peace between Israel and Palestine, and can serve as a lesson for us all.
The picturesque landscape of Santa Fe, home to Creativity for Peace, is a pleasant break from the violence and hatred these young women face living at home.
“I’ve seen my neighbor getting shot from the Israeli soldiers on his balcony because he was lighting his cigarette and they thought that he was doing something dangerous,” said Liza Masri, who grew up in the West Bank during the Second Intifada and is now a Young Leader at the camp.
“The trauma is with you no matter where you go, even when it’s quiet. Each time there is thunder or a big noise, it really affects me,” said Naama Shlomy, a 19-year-old Israeli woman who lives in Sderot where at times there are as many as 50 rockets a day.
Every year, the camp hosts 16 young women — 8 Israeli and 8 Palestinian. Like Liza and Naama, these teens grew up on the frontline of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many with friends or family who suffered violent deaths. But, while their beliefs are different, the camp is helping them discover they have more in common than they might think.
Creativity for Peace executive director Dottie Indyke says the organization believes “an enemy is a person whose story you haven’t heard. Once you hear that person’s story, they aren’t your enemy anymore.”
The camp gives these young women a safe place to share their struggles, through dialogue sessions that teach authentic speaking and compassionate listening. For three hours a day, they speak from their own perspectives, without generalizing, listen without judgement, and ask questions to understand the others’ points of view.
“We teach our women that both sides are right and both sides are wrong.” Indyke says their job is to find understanding and common ground. They also learn to live together, sharing a home, work together, creating art which is on display all across the camp, and have fun together, on field trips.
But, even when the young women are able to make peace with each other, it’s a struggle to bring these lessons home. This year, when the young women returned, many of the Palestinians faced ridicule and hate for attending the camp. Creativity for Peace says there were thousands of social media attacks saying the organization was working to “normalize” the conflict.
“We are deeply saddened that those who have taken a passionate stand for justice for their people are being treated so badly when they should be respected as heroes and advocates for a better future,” said Creativity for Peace in a statement.
The women will spend the next two years as Young Leaders, facilitating groups, organizing projects and speaking on behalf of Creativity for Peace. The organization provides in-depth training in both Israel and Palestine to help these women become advocates. Young Leaders say they are inspired to continue what they started at camp.
Sana Zahalka, a 17-year-old Palestinian living in Israel said, “All of these incidents and all of these things that happened to me growing up create so much anger inside of me, anger that could easily be turned into hate. But I refuse to let it turn into hate. I want to let it turn into motivation and strength so I can be a peacemaker. That’s why I am here today — to share my story and listen to other people’s stories because it’s way better than sitting at home and doing nothing but grieve the way things are.” ■