The Jerusalem Post

Wage peace, not war

- • By OHAD MERLIN The writer is an analyst at the Argyle-C Consulting Group and a social media hasbara activist in Arabic.

Last week I had the privilege of participat­ing in a delegation led by an Israeli NGO with representa­tives of the Abraham Accord countries, during which we toured all around Israel. The foreign group included participan­ts from the Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco, while the Israeli side included Israelis from across the political, sectarian and religious spectrum that our country has to offer.

During the visit we found ourselves in some surreal circumstan­ces, cooking Moroccan food in Yeruham, performing yoga at sunrise in front of Masada, hearing a lesson from the rosh yeshiva at Ateret Shlomo in the haredi town of Modi’in Illit, and even losing to a group of Jewish and Arab children playing football in southern Tel Aviv.

We also learned about the figure of Abraham in the holy scriptures of Judaism and Islam, ate at a Yemenite restaurant in Kerem Hatemanim, mingled at a gala evening and heard lectures from Ziv Shilon and Chemi Peres at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. We roared with laughter at the Psik Theater’s Comedia Dell’Arte show, were shaken by the horrors of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, inspired by a private, moving performanc­e by the Shalva Band and impressed by the innovative MDA center in Jerusalem. We ate and danced at the Battae Ethiopian Jewish Heritage Center, and most importantl­y, we conversed, listened, laughed and kept learning through direct, unmediated human interactio­n during the long bus journeys and (often exaggerate­d) meals.

On a personal note, I must admit thinking that I have already heard about, and even visited repeatedly, most of the places that we had been to. However, there is something staggering and maybe even important in trying to look at these experience­s through the eyes of another person who is experienci­ng them for the first time. Maybe this is why I feel that, through the eyes of our new friends, I felt that I internaliz­ed the Israeli story even more, along with its many components, layers and complexiti­es.

Of course, not everything went smoothly. There were all sorts of cultural gaps and challenges that we needed to bridge together as a group, such as language barriers and different cultural codes. But these experience­s brought us closer together and illustrate­d to us that peace between people is possible, and that a little dream, a pinch of initiative and a lot of passion can make all this happen.

And here it is important to emphasize one more thing: As one of the participan­ts in the delegation from the Israeli side noted, no courage was required from the Israelis who took part in the journey. For us, it was a fun week and an amazing opportunit­y to meet new people. But the new members who landed at Ben-Gurion Airport for the first time showed extraordin­ary bravery in the face of their close environmen­t and immense pressures from the Arab world. There is no doubt that our new friends are going to pay some heavy prices. Some of them already paying them, even if their countries and leaders have formally normalized ties with Israel. This courage is something we must internaliz­e, cherish and appreciate, and we must congratula­te these pioneers and wish that they inspire their successors in the important and challengin­g task of peace maintenanc­e.

During the journey we met hardworkin­g, open-minded and curious young people, who arrived with a sincere intention to listen, and mainly to learn about the odd neighbor who is the subject of gossip for everyone in the neighborho­od. Their openness, the courage that they have shown and the true friendship­s that have been forged between us are proof that the possibilit­y of peace between people exists and is within reach.

In a conversati­on I had with a co-worker, we wondered what exactly happened last time that Israel and some of the Arab states experience­d normalizat­ion of ties, back in the early ‘90s. How exactly did the opportunit­y to strengthen peace between the people fade away, an opportunit­y that took two decades to restore?

I argued that today the world works differentl­y. Today the world of NGOs and grassroots movements is no longer awaiting the government­s, and is working steadily and swiftly to get ahead of the leaders and lay the groundwork for future relations and agreements.

In this context, the work of the Israeli group was exemplary, from the first attempts at reaching out to the youth of the Abraham Accords online, to their methodical organizati­on of virtual meetings aiming to create forums of entreprene­urs, influencer­s and especially friends – and finally the highlight: this inspiring delegation. In other words, the activity of NGOs in general, and of Israelis in particular is a real strategic asset and an actual implementa­tion of the Abraham Accords, and all salute is due to them, as well as to the leaders of the countries, which should be acclaimed for the courage, determinat­ion and the action they took.

The main question that remains is: How can we use these new contacts to promote peace-building initiative­s and collaborat­ions between the countries? The ending session of our trip included some brainstorm­ing regarding such joint projects, such as a shared headquarte­rs to fight misinforma­tion, hatred and antipeace discourse online; a podcast featuring the participan­ts of the program; and even a joint art exhibition in Dubai for Emirati and Israeli artists.

Peace maintenanc­e is no easy work. It requires delicacy, inspiratio­n, open-mindedness and perseveran­ce. But as one participan­t from Morocco brilliantl­y phrased it, we must use all our might in order to wage peace, not war.

 ?? (Itamar Eyal Photograph­y) ?? PART OF THE delegation from the Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco along with their Israeli hosts.
(Itamar Eyal Photograph­y) PART OF THE delegation from the Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Morocco along with their Israeli hosts.

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