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A Summer at the Jerusalem Center

Tom May (MA '05)

I have worked for the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Otisfield, Maine, for the past four summers; the past two summers as the Athletic Director. Seeds of Peace is a summer camp that brings together youth from areas of conflict in an effort to build trust and relationships between members of groups who are in intense, violent conflict. The campers participate in typical summer camp activities and live together in bunks on the shores of Pleasant Lake. The goal of the camp is to build understanding and trust among the campers that they can bring home with them and spread within their respective communities.
 
Seeds of Peace also has a year round Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem that organizes seminars and workshops for Israeli and Palestinian youth to continue the dialogue once they are back home. After working at the camp in Maine, I decided that I would seek work at the Center for the summer. I wanted to work with the Seeds in their home environment, where the reality of the conflict challenges the Seeds mission.
 
My major responsibility on their summer staff was to organize a first time seminar called Olympeace, a three day event that would involve sport and competitions. In addition to the Olympeace seminar, the Center director asked me to run a sports camp with a group called Playing for Peace. Playing for Peace organizes basketball camps to bring together kids from areas of conflict. They began their work in South Africa, and for the first time were planning a camp in Israel for Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Palestinians. I was excited to work with Playing for Peace because my Master's Thesis focused on the use of sport in conflict resolution and after months of researching and writing about groups such as Playing for Peace, I would now be a part of the effort to use sport as a common experience to cut across cultures and build trust among its participants.
 
The very first Seeds of Peace seminar of the summer brought home for me the reality of working in a conflict area. Hosted by a theology school in northern Israel, the planned facilitation sessions focused on education, and how educators might try to impress their own bias and opinions on those they are teaching. Breaks included sports events. During one such kickball game break, a young Palestinian boy bolted past me as I was pitching the ball, with a soldier following him in pursuit. This frightened many of the Seeds. The head of the school gathered us and explained that because soldiers are not allowed to bring guns onto the property, people wanting to avoid a nearby checkpoint sometimes try to take advantage of this and pass through the school's property.
 
The Olympeace seminar that I was to organize was planned as two and a half days of sport and competition, a FUN time to end the summer season at the Center. Unfortunately, the first two events had to be cancelled because Seeds of Peace policy is to only run events that all of its members can attend, and the Israeli army would not give permissions on the seminar dates. In order for a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza Strip to travel to other areas of Israel, they have to have a written permission slip from the Israeli army, which they have to present at the checkpoint. The army can deny permission any time they desire.
 
Our third attempt to hold the seminar was successful, but we had to settle for a single Sport's Day, not the two and a half day event we had planned. With all of the serious seminars that many of these teens had experienced, this sports themed seminar brought them together in an enjoyable setting. When a youth looks at you, smiles, and says,"This was the best seminar I have gone to. I had fun. Thanks.", it makes all of the work and frustration of planning and getting permissions worth the trouble.
 
My final task of the summer was working with Playing for Peace, recruiting and leading a group of Seeds to volunteer as counselors at a basketball camp that Playing for Peace had organized at the Wingate sports school, the premier training center for Israeli athletes who aspire to compete internationally. The Playing for Peace Basketball Camp experienced the same difficulties gaining permissions that we did at the Center. None of the kids they had recruited who lived in the West Bank were allowed by the Israeli army and government to attend the camp. I had recruited a group of eleven Palestinian Seeds assigned to work as counselors at the camp, but only four were allowed to come — because they lived in Jerusalem and so did not need permissions. We had eight Israeli Seeds working as counselors. Playing for Peace recruited a few Arab Israelis to join the Seeds as counselors. We had a meeting with the Seed counselors a few weeks before the camp, but the entire group of counselors did not meet each other until the night before the camp started. Despite the last minute organization of the counselors at the camp, the Playing for Peace Camp was a great success. Playing for Peace hopes to continue their work in the Middle East, and many of the Seeds hope to remain involved in the program.
 
Work in the Middle East can be frustrating and difficult, and plans often have to be altered many times. If organizations such as Seeds of Peace and Playing for Peace continue to pool resources, then programs to build peace in the area might have a greater chance for success. I returned home with a greater understanding of how difficult it is to bring together Jewish Israelis and Palestinians for trust building activities and dialogue in the areas of conflict. In the Camp environment in Maine you do not need permissions. Although we had to reschedule and alter our plans for Olympeace, we eventually had over seventy Palestinians, Jewish Israelis, and Arab Israelis attend the seminar. This brings hope that the Seeds who attend the Maine camp and form cross- cultural, cross-delegation relationships, can return home and act as examples in their communities by maintaining their relationships and by planting the seeds of peace.
 
- Tom May. Tom graduated from CRI with his Master's Degree in 2005 and is currently living in Maine. He can be reached at tomjmay@yahoo.com.