Give Peace a chance Voices From Israel and Palestine
Every summer, 16 girls travel from Israel and Palestine to Santa Fe in an effort to sow seeds of peace between their countries. They spend three weeks telling one another their stories and getting to know their theoretical enemies as flesh-and-bone human beings. “Israel and Palestine are about the size of New Jersey, but the children don’t grow up together,” said Dottie Indyke, executive director for Creativity for Peace, the nonprofit organization that runs the summer camp. “They don’t go to school together. Their native languages are not the same. All they know is what they read or what they hear from their parents, and most of it is demonizing: ‘Those people want to kill you.’ ”
The fear is real. People on both sides of the conflict are terrorized every day, and many of them die as a result. Children who are just trying to grow up are caught in the middle of a decades-old conflict they have no hope of solving if they cannot even talk to the people they perceive as enemies. The stance taken by Creativity for Peace is that an enemy is a person whose story you haven’t heard, so the organization emphasizes personal narratives as a way for the campers to get to know one another. They find out how much they have in common simply as teenagers living in the same region, and they find out that their side isn’t the only side that suffers.
“A lot of time, they don’t know the other side of the story,” Indyke said. “A Palestinian girl says the Israeli army came into her house and took her family’s stuff, or they shot her father, and an Israeli girl says, ‘But the army doesn’t do that.’ They don’t know. This is the beginning of understanding what’s going on and having compassion for the other side. You feel pain for them, and then you can never stereotype a whole group of people in the same way again.”
The organization takes no political position on the conflict, and it does not ask the girls to change theirs. They are only expected to listen to one another and treat one another with respect. But finding common ground in neutral territory is one thing. The real test of the girls’ peace-making skills comes when they return home changed, yet war rages on. Over the years, former campers have sent journals back to Creativity for Peace that chronicle single days in their lives, which are often informed by the chaos of their elders and political leaders. The journals were developed into a series of monologues that have been performed by adult actors for small, private audiences, and now they’ve become the basis for Voices From
Israel and Palestine, a collaborative theater production directed by Jonah Winn-Lenetsky. It opens at Warehouse 21 on Friday, Nov. 20.
Writer Sara Gmitter worked with the young cast from New Mexico School for the Arts and Santa Fe University of Art and Design to generate responses to the journals via prompts about the themes, including how border conflicts and violence have affected their lives as well. Those responses were then developed into scenes and woven among the vignettes from Palestine and Israel. The production will be filmed, and Creativity for Peace aims to package it for use in school curriculum about the Middle East.
One of the strongest connections between young people in the United States and young people in
Israel and Palestine comes during a scene called “Radio Painting,” in which a boy struggles to make art while listening to conflicting and contradictory news reports. Hate piles on confusion until it’s clear how difficult it must be for any young people to understand conflicts that started before they were born. Why do people need to hate each other so much? How can you know who is right or which side deserves your loyalty? What role does history play, and what is the truth? Undoubtedly there are a number of truths, the voices in this play assert. Parallels are drawn between the issues in the Middle East and the “othering” that’s occurring in American presidential politics, in which undocumented immigrants and the working poor are made by some into scapegoats for the country’s massive income inequality. Many American teenagers have the luxury of tuning out the voices when it gets to be too much. There hasn’t been a draft in the United States in nearly two generations, so fighting for the American way of life is voluntary. In Israel, all teenagers, male and female, are conscripted after high school and must spend two years in the military. Many soldiers do not want to hurt Palestinians and have grave misgivings about their service.
The staging of Voices is basic black box and includes elements of movement-based theater and improvisation. “It’s more of a project than a play,” Winn-Lenetsky said. “The emphasis is on collaboration and process and creating a dialogue with the audience.”
Talks with the creators of Voices, as well as Creativity for Peace staff, are held immediately after both productions. Winn-Lenetsky hopes audiences will make personal connections to the material and end their evenings with a better understanding of what it’s like to live within the Middle East conflict. Perhaps the context of theatrically presented personal narrative helps audiences reach this place. Often, Indyke explained, adult audiences have a harder time talking peacefully about the issue than teenagers. She has witnessed this phenomenon countless times during presentations by the organization with former campers, called Young Leaders, who give talks in the U.S. and work at home to foster connection between the populations. Though the presentations are always the same, there are always accusations of bias. “It’s so polarizing. The lens through which people see this is so intense,” she said. “I’ve had people trash me, trash our girls. If they assume going in that you’re pro the other side, it almost doesn’t matter what you say. Their hair stands on end, they’re so upset.”
There is year-round programming for campers once they leave Santa Fe, and social media allows the girls to keep in touch even though there are restrictions on their ability to travel freely, especially for the Palestinian girls. Many areas or events are dangerous, but they are not forbidden to have contact with the other side. They can chat online and make plans to meet. Social media also allows them to see how many people find it easy and even pleasurable to dehumanize the other side. In
Voices, a Palestinian camper named Shaden is looking at the comments below a Facebook post of an Israeli news story about the bombing of a bus in which many children died. “Chill out guys,” says one commenter. “They’re just Palestinian children.” In the vernacular of social media, the comment receives 22 likes.
“I wondered how teens my age could talk in such a prejudiced way,” Shaden says. “All that time I had so many reasons to hate, to blame, and to take revenge. However, I remembered my father saying that rage should be released in a positive way, because otherwise it will lead to nowhere but worse places. He taught me to treat others according to who I am and not who they are. Consequently I converted my rage to an urge to make a difference.”