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In Maine, a small step toward peace
BY DAN KENNEDY

At the beginning of their three weeks of full immersion with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, Noam and Aya are of two minds. Noam, 16, an Israeli, says he’s afraid that the Palestinians in the cabin where he’ll be staying may try to attack him. Aya, also 16, a Palestinian, is more defiant but no less contemptuous of the Other. "I’m not scared. They can’t do anything to me," she says.

In the end, they learn that they have much in common with those they had spent most of their young lives learning to demonize. It’s far from perfect — Aya, in particular, still insists that suicide bombers are "freedom fighters." But they begin to glimpse the possibility that both Israelis and Palestinians can — and should — live in peace.

Noam’s and Aya’s parallel stories are told in "My Enemy, My Friend: The Seeds of Peace Story," a half-hour documentary produced by New England Cable News that is making its debut this week. The program revolves around the Seeds of Peace camp in Otisville, Maine, where Israeli and Palestinian teens have come together every summer for the past 10 years. Begun by the late journalist John Wallach, the program was born of the hopefulness surrounding the Oslo accords of a decade ago. Though that optimism has given way to despair, Seeds of Peace lives on.

The documentary was written and produced by NECN executive editor Iris Adler, who followed Noam and Aya through the program last summer. It was a tumultuous time for Seeds of Peace. Wallach was dying of cancer; in fact, he passed away before filming could commence. Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat nearly pulled the Palestinian teens out of the program. And then, once the three-week session began, Israeli forces staged a raid in Gaza that killed a Hamas leader, which in turn led to a horrific suicide bombing at Hebrew University.

Still, through activities as benign as volleyball games and as intense as mediated "co-existence groups," the teens gradually came to see and understand their counterparts’ point of view, even if they were not ready to abandon their own. Even Aya, who had originally intended not to take part in a group tour of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, to protest what she saw as an overemphasis on the suffering of Jews, relents. "I’m against the Seeds of Peace policy at this point — not the Israeli kids," she says of her decision to take part.

The question, of course, is how much good this does. More than 2000 teenagers have passed through Seeds of Peace during the past decade. Not all are Israelis and Palestinians; there have been Indians, Pakistanis, and Afghans as well.

Adler, for one, thinks that at least some of the kids return home with permanently changed attitudes. The teenagers who participate are from the elite classes, and many will be leaders in a few years. "I think it’s very powerful to be able to say that you have a friend on the other side," she says. "That has to have a subtle impact."

Some of the alumni are able to get together at the Seeds of Peace Center in East Jerusalem, where they can play basketball, perform in theatrical productions, and join co-existence groups. For those who can’t, there is the Internet. Adler says that Seeds of Peace’s online forum has been invaluable during times of crisis, when kids who’ve taken part in the program may feel isolated and alienated from their peers.

"I think the kids are pretty amazing. They purposely hit this age group because they’re not set yet in this jaded view of the world," Adler says. "They’re so open and so willing to question themselves and their families. They have such a maturity, I guess, because they live in this war zone."

The NECN documentary "My Enemy, My Friend: The Seeds of Peace Story" will be cablecast on Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday at 11:30 a.m., Saturday at 8:30 p.m., Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and 7 p.m., and next Thursday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m. For more information, go to www.necn.com/seeds.asp.

Issue Date: May 16 - 22, 2003
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