Sixteen girls straggle in, a few at a time, from a long morning of poignant and difficult conversation. They are greeted by house mothers who seem to know exactly who needs a hug at this precise moment. The girls themselves exchange tears and laughter. And even amid obvious wrestling with what they have just shared and witnessed in dialogue, a tender affection fills the air. Music comes on. A few girls set about doing chores. In the living room, three take turns with a hula hoop. In the bedroom next door, several sing along as one plays guitar. Each girl makes a point of thanking me and my colleague—the volunteers who brought them lunch this day.
Surrounding us is the quiet red rock expanse of northern New Mexico. The program: Creativity for Peace, a youth dialogue camp involving therapeutic art and experiential leadership training. The girls are Palestinian and Israeli teens from Israel and the West Bank seeking a new and peaceful path toward the future.
As a psychotherapist specializing in the neuroscience of trauma, I understand that the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine may never cease if the emphasis for resolution continues to be built upon mistrust and the defense of borders. If we truly want peace, we must highlight and strengthen solutions to the conflict that instead seek to build thoughtful relationships between Palestinians and Israelis. Programs that bring together Jewish Israeli and Palestinian youth offer such a solution. They range from efforts based in Israel/Palestine, such as Neve Shalom/Wahat Al-Salam and Parents Circle Family Forum, to North American programs such as Seeds of Peace, Hands of Peace, and Creativity for Peace.
Learning to Listen Differently
There are many projects directed toward a peaceful relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. They range from joint economic ventures to artistic and cultural exchanges to youth leadership and dialogue programs. Whether their peace efforts are aimed at policy, politics, or products, their common goal is to enhance relationships between Israelis and Palestinians by providing a positive, equal context for knowing each other outside the conflict’s violence. By understanding the neuroscience behind why relationship-based peace programs are so successful, we can promote these programs as viable alternatives for bringing about peace in the Middle East.
Research in child attachment and development, trauma, and mental illness now recognizes that our abilities to interact with and respond to life’s joys and challenges are initially set up within the nervous system as a result of relationships with our earliest caregivers. If caregiving provides safety and attunement to needs, the nervous system develops pathways of self-regulation, and we are able to function in a calm and thoughtful manner. If there is danger or frequently unmet needs, there is dysregulation. Because of this new research, it is now understood that the repair of trauma best occurs through the experience of positive social connection—precisely the sort of connection that youth dialogue programs can provide. Within mindful, compassionate relationships, regulation can be restored to the nervous system, and a person can access his or her capacity for empathy, critical thinking, and creative problem solving.
Youth dialogue and leadership programs are particularly inspiring as a solution to prejudice and violence because they reach the hearts and minds of Palestinians and Israelis before too many years of trauma have left a damaging imprint. Many youth dialogue programs cite as a foundational principle a quotation of Quaker peace activist Gene Knudsen Hoffman: “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” Dottie Indyke, the executive director of Creativity for Peace, explains that for the girls of their program, “having the ‘enemy’ witness and help hold the pain is, in part, what leads to transformation.”
In recent phone interviews, I spoke with two young women who participated in the Creativity for Peace program. Amira, a Palestinian living near Jenin in the West Bank, participated in Creativity for Peace and now serves as its Palestinian program coordinator, when she isn’t teaching science. She says:
At camp I really felt my voice was heard by the other side. I was sharing about an attack from the army during the Second Intifada—how the army imposed a curfew and told us we were not allowed to leave our homes…. I remember asking my parents why I couldn’t go to school. But then the army came in the middle of the night and made us leave our home and go out into the streets where there were tanks. The army said our house might get damaged because they were destroying all the checkpoints, and we lived very near to one. When I was telling this story, this girl from the other side, she started to cry and said to me, “My brother is in the army; you are talking about my brother.” I learned later that when this girl returned to Israel, she refused to serve in the army, because of my story…. All we hear is how much we hate Israelis and how much they hate us. You don’t have a chance to know neighbors. Creativity for Peace showed me that, if we can talk, one day it will change the situation here.
Sivan is a Jewish Israeli who is studying political science in Tel Aviv. She participated in Creativity for Peace prior to her required military duty in Israel, after which she again returned to the camp as a senior leader. The dialogue camp, she says, “affects my actions, my choices, how I live, my time at the university, what I choose to believe in—not to hate, especially in this society.” But mostly Sivan speaks of learning to “listen differently” at camp. One Palestinian camper, in particular, “really challenged me and made me think,” she says. “I learned a lot about her history, her life … that it is just as important as mine. I didn’t realize how much I wanted peace for her. I am afraid for mine [the Jewish people], but who will take care of her?”
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