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The headlines coming out of the Holy Land couldn’t be worse. Homicide bombings, retaliatory strikes, white-hot hatred and on all sides, its inevitable byproduct: dead children. At this point, the media no longer has to write the story – they just fill in the blanks: “Homicide Bomber Kill XX Civilians,” or “Revenge Missile Attack Kills XX Civilians.”
But these searing hatreds have not singed everybody. There is at least one organization that is trying to address the issue of Arabs and Jews on the most basic level – in the hearts of young people. It is named, appropriately enough, Seeds of Peace.
How it works is this: Every summer, Seeds of Peace brings together teenagers from all sides of the world’s most (seemingly) intractable conflicts. Arab kids meet Israeli kids. Bosnian Muslims meet Serbian Christians. Greek Cypriots meet Turkish Cypriots. And, unlike the headlines, the gathering place isn’t a war zone, but a camp in Maine. Unlike their elders, these kids don’t sit around a table in some airless room and pose for phony photo-ops. No, they play together, eat together and, in the way of all teenagers, share something of their hearts with each other.
The idea is simple, and could well have been based on the famous story about Confucius. One day he asked his gardener to plant a certain and very rare tree. “But, Master,” the gardener objected, “that tree is of a type that will not bear fruit for 150 years!” Confucius looked at him and replied, “Yes. We must begin at once.”
Well, Seeds of Peace also begins “at once.” In the past decade, they’ve brought together 1,400 Middle East teenagers (whose parents probably wouldn’t give each other the time of day) and over 100 Cypriots. The theory behind the organization is an observation as old as human nature – that it’s much easier to hate a cartoon than somebody you eat with, play with and share with. And this isn’t just the throb of a bleeding-heart liberal. What other way is there to prove to yourself that your “enemy” isn’t simply a bloodthirsty animal? Certainly not by watching the evening news.
In this sense, Seeds of Peace is a peculiarly American idea. It is founded on the same melting-pot theory that once people get to know each other face-to-face – whether in public schools, in the military, in business or merely in daily life – the hatreds that drove their parents will fade away. That’s why your average office, neighborhood or army patrol in this country is made up of the descendants of the people who used to kill each other with abandon – Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, whites, blacks, French, German, English, Irish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and so forth.
The Seeds of Peace initiative is broader than simply introducing kids from opposite sides of the barricades. While together, they directly confront the issues that divide their parents. For example, in Switzerland, Seeds brought together a group of Arab, Israeli and Palestinian kids to hammer out a statement of principles on which a settlement of the issues dividing Arab and Jew might be resolved. Known as the Charter of Villars, its Declaration of Principles – approved by almost 100 percent of the Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian, Egyptian and American teens – is a lot more enlightened than anything coming out of Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington.
For example, where the parents argue about the details of borders, their children understand that the searing hatreds behind homicide bombings and anti-Arab prejudice derive from ignorance fostered by purposefully bad education and warped senses of each side’s national past. The Charter calls upon both sides to address these and other issues.
Just this summer, Seeds sponsored a Youth Peace Initiative in Greece, which brought together kids from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosavo, Albania, Macedonia, Romania and Greece. Together, they wrote a remarkable document called, The Balkan Puzzle, a statement of the principles on which peace can happen in the region.
You see, in spite of what you’ve heard, these teenagers don’t want to don a uniform, carry a gun, blow themselves up or return to homes devastated by their adversaries. They don’t want to rape the enemy or have the enemy rape them. They want to make news – the same way your kids want to make news – through achievement, success and a better life.
Even some of the most rock-ribbed conservatives believe that if healthy idealism were to organize, its name would probably be Seeds of Peace.
Maybe, just maybe, the old bumper sticker’s question might pan out: “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”
It’s never too late to start planting seeds.