NSL participants engaging in trustbuilding exercises.
No one ever talks about the peacebuilders.
We talk about peacekeeping, stabilization operations, military movements, conflict resolution, and even peacebuilding as a concept writ large. But rarely do we talk about the everyday people who are actually courageous enough to take a stand.
I work with an NGO called New Story Leadership for the Middle East (NSL), which brings Israeli and Palestinian students, ages 18-28, to D.C. for the summer. Here, our participants live together, work together, and take leadership and conflict resolution courses together. Togetherness is a big part of the NSL summer. Sharing the same space during an active conflict is very different than operating within the space of post-conflict reconciliation. Many of our students were meeting the “other” for the first time this summer.
One of the most important concepts I encountered came from Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota during our team’s visit with him. He discussed the challenges and difficulties of being a peacebuilder in wartime:
It’s easy to stand at either polarized end of a conflict and shout at the other side that they’re bad and doing everything wrong. It’s much more difficult to stand in the middle of both sides and say “How can we fix this?” with everyone around you angry that you’re not “on their side.” This place is often the hardest, but most necessary place to stand.
I’d also point to Ellison’s statement as part of the raison d’être for NSL, especially this summer. The work our participants undertake and the relationships they form are made all the more necessary and vital when they are willing to do so in wartime.
The fact that peacebuilding is the difficult road-less-traveled was exactly what our team needed to hear. This echoed the conflicted feelings that a lot of them had about the summer. There were many questions about “Why am I even here?” and a lot of answers along the lines of “Because it’s the most important thing I can be doing right now, even though it’s painful.” Yehonatan, one of our Israeli participants who was working with the American Task Force on Palestine, summed up this internal struggle beautifully:
One of the days after my work placement I went by the reflection pool. It’s a beautiful place. I walked there and I kept hearing the news from back home and was struggling with myself. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing right now? Thinking about my friends at home, and in the army…what am I supposed to do right now? I sat near the pool and understood that the pool doesn’t reflect anything from the outside. It’s there so you can reflect on the inside. Looking at the pool, the only thing that reflected was me. My opinion, my values, my future.
NSL provides a calm, reflective space to step back from the ravages of war and examine both the inner values that resist wartime violence, and the understanding and appreciation that can come from realizing those values are shared across dividing lines.
One of the reasons it is so difficult to form relationships between sides is because the risk of being a peacebuilder is not just existential doubt, but also physical threat. We had to take down a video of one of our Gazan students because she was getting death threats for appearing on film while calling for peace beside an Israeli man, Gal. In the video, she says that she kept a piece of shrapnel taken from her leg because it reminded her to hate. And now, she was ready to let go and throw it in the ocean. Gal told her to keep it as a reminder of her growth. He went on to say that she should give it back to Israel when peace had been achieved so it could become the literal embodiment of turning “swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4), of transforming the tools of violence and destruction into tools of peace-cultivation.
It is the power that these kinds of stories have to affect change that scares militants into threatening death to peacebuilders.
The prior baggage that many people are saddled with on top of the risks they are taking as peacebuilders is also often overlooked. One of our participants from Gaza had a particularly rough summer during the 2014 violence:
My name is Nisreen, and I’m afraid of the dark. When you live in Gaza, you cannot be afraid of the dark… When you live in Gaza, you can’t be afraid of not seeing loved ones…. When you live in Gaza, you are afraid to love. You are afraid to care, but not afraid to die….. My name is Nisreen, I believe in peace, but I’m still – like many other Gazans – afraid of the dark.
The emotional and physical walls that separate Israelis and Palestinians means that they must come several thousand miles to discover these very human backstories. Asi, who worked with Nisreen this summer, wove his story together with hers:
Nisreen is my partner in New Story Leadership, and these last two weeks were probably the hardest in her life. You see Nisreen is from Gaza, and my people are fighting her people. I’ve seen wars, I’ve stood in checkpoints, and I served in the West Bank, but I’ve never in my life experienced a war the way I did this summer, through the eyes of Nisreen and her family. Thanks to her, Gaza will never again be anonymous to me.
I don’t think most people realize how incredibly difficult it was for our students to just stay at the same table during the violence that was happening during Operation Protective Edge. As Hamze said, “There are accusations of betrayal which are common against those who dare to dream and work for a shared future for both sides.” It is often taken for granted that the peacebuilders are pacifists. For many, though, there is a constant struggle between loyalty to family and nation, versus a commitment to finding nonviolent solutions to the conflict.
As soon as our Israeli participants went home, many were called back into active duty, since they are at the primary age for the reserves. One of our alumni, Lior, has started an organization called Shades, which brings young diplomats and businessmen from both sides of the conflict together for negotiations training with Harvard professors. Clearly he is doing his best to forge a new story between both sides. But in Israel, where military participation is not optional, legally or culturally, this does not exempt him from war. He was still on the front lines in Gaza. Imagine the emotional somersaults you’d have to go through in order to go from a peace program in DC straight into combat against the very people you had been living with all summer. The pain of this logical and emotional rift is often ignored by those promoting peace programs from afar.
Despite the fact that these individuals, these young people, these peacebuilders, are the ones with boots on the ground, the ones experiencing the devastation first hand, their voices are often overlooked. And quite frankly, many of them have done a much better job of dreaming up a shared future than most of the politicians calling the shots who are very much their senior.
New Story Leadership’s motto is “Change the story, change the world!” Two Israelis comforting a Palestinian as she hears terrible news from home is changing the story. A Palestinian listening to the bombs in Gaza through a Skype call with his Israeli friend who is a veteran soldier, and asking about his friend’s personal safety is changing the story. US Congressmen hearing directly from young peacebuilders whose lives are affected by their foreign policy decisions is changing the story. And all of these new stories – created by courageous young people who simply dare to dream – all of these stories woven together are what changes the world.
These peacebuilders have all made a conscious decision to dream by telling their stories for a new future. They have put their relationships, jobs, and even personal safety on the line because they are so fed up, so utterly exhausted with their situation, that they are willing to take the personal risk to become that voice working toward a shared future. They are the peacebuilders and these are their stories. Perhaps we should all spend a little more time listening to them.
Photo by Gal Raij (posted with permission from NSL)