Very little about Reena Lazar's childhood would mark her as the founder of Peace It Together, a two-week program that will bring 10 Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli teenagers to Vancouver this August. Lazar, whose architect father designed buildings on land seized by Israel in the 1948 war that followed the country's inception, grew up with what she describes as a "very strong Jewish identity and an equally strong attachment to Israel."
Her early trips to the region focused entirely on the Jewish-Israeli experience. "There was no sense of the other population that was there," the 39-year-old sustainable-development consultant says in her Main Street live-work studio. "They [the Palestinians] weren't part of the itinerary." A 1981 visit with the Zionist youth group Young Judea taught Lazar that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War "made Israel whole. There was a lot of pride about that."
At university in the mid-'80s, however, her feelings began to change. "For the first time I had discussions with people who challenged the idea of Israel as a Jewish state and presented the idea of the rights of the Palestinians."
In the late 1990s, Lazar was inspired by Rabbi David Mivasair, who invited local Palestinians to speak to his congregation at East Vancouver's Or Shalom synagogue. Soon after, she embarked on a tour led by the Washington state based Compassionate Listening Project, a program that guides participants through Israel and the occupied territories. "We listened to people speaking about the conflict, from religious Jewish settlers to Palestinians who'd had their homes demolished to a wide range of activists and politicians from all sides."
Lazar's belief in encouraging ordinary people to share their personal stories of the conflict is what drives the Peace It Together project, which is modelled on a number of similar programs in the U.S., and is cosponsored by the Laurier Institution, a local foundation that advocates for Canadian multiculturalism. Led by volunteers, professional facilitator Charlie Murphy, and UBC law professor and conflict-resolution specialist Michelle LeBaron, the 15- and 16-year-old delegates from the Middle East will be joined by another half-dozen local Arab and Jewish youth. From August 5 to 22, they will participate in activities based on creativity, compassionate listening, and conflict resolution, as well as in team-building wilderness adventures.
Under the auspices of the Creative Peace Network (www.creative
peacenetwork.ca/), the project is run by Lazar, who coordinates an all-volunteer steering committee. Four of its 11 members are local Palestinians and/or Arabs. "From the beginning, we knew we had to have close to an equal mix of Jewish and Arab organizers. It's one of the things I'm most proud of," Lazar says. "The approach to putting it [the committee] together is the same as the program itself. We are trying to build bridges the whole way. And of course, some people are supportive--and some are skeptical."
Mordecai Briemberg, a long-time advocate of Palestinian rights and member of the Canada-Palestine Support Network, was approached by Lazar. "They wanted me to help set up cultural events here [for both the participants and the wider community] that avoided political content," he says.
Briemberg refused on the grounds that this approach would ignore what he sees as the fundamental issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the 27-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. "They wanted me to help, but they didn't want me to talk about the occupation. I'm all for the working with kids, but why can't they do that on the basis of saying, 'This is an appalling reality'? Humanism only takes on meaning in reality."
Although Lazar argues that, in her experience, both sides feel powerless and victimized, Briemberg says it is essential to begin with a position on the occupation. "In South Africa, what was the problem?" he asks. "That whites and blacks didn't understand each other? No. The problem was apartheid. In Israel, the problem is the occupation. There are many examples of Jews and Palestinians working together that I support," Briemberg adds. "And they are all premised on the idea that the occupation must be removed."
This view is echoed by Hanna Kawas, chair of the Canada Palestine Association. "When people say, 'Let's have dialogue,'" Kawas explains over the phone from his home in Mission, "I say let's deal with the basics. In Israel there is an apartheid system. If you want to dialogue just to reduce violence and reduce my anger about what happened, then you want to be my psychiatrist--and I don't want to be your patient. Laws must be changed."
When asked where Peace It Together stands on the occupation, Lazar takes the question to the steering committee and e-mails their reply:
"Peace it Together does not have a position on the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The reason is that dialogue means creating a safe space so that people can disagree. After having read the book on the Seeds of Peace camp (a Maine program on which Peace it Together is modelled), I am now aware that many of the campers went there to defend their countries' positions, which in some cases meant denying Israel's right to exist or denying Palestine's right to exist. The beautiful thing is that they left the camp quite transformed. If we were to have a position before we start dialogue, it would limit the diversity of people entering into the dialogue, limit the purpose of dialogue, and therefore, limit the potential impact of dialogue."
Briemberg, however, suspects there are other motivations at play. "It's good sentiment, but it's sentimentality," he says. "There has to be more than just making themselves feel good, that they are good, moral human beings."
Aaron Lyons-Howard, an affable, curly-haired steering-committee member, is a Salt Spring Island based wilderness-kayaking guide. He has spent time in Israel both as a student and on a recent visit to establish links with Peace It Together's two partner organizations in the Middle East, the Christian-run Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem and the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace in Jerusalem.
Lyons-Howard acknowledges that the ongoing occupation presents serious challenges when trying to work with groups of Palestinians and Israelis. Over coffee on Commercial Drive, he tells the story of a friend of his, a female Jewish-Israeli peace activist who had developed a close friendship with a Palestinian woman from Gaza. "They were like sisters," Lyons-Howard says. "Staying up late at night, talking on the phone."
When the second intifada broke out in 2000, the Israeli Defense Forces began bombing Gaza City, where the Palestinian woman lived. The Jewish activist called her to see if she had been hurt. "Her Palestinian friend told her, 'You can't even imagine what is happening here,'" Lyons-Howard relates. "'Huge bombs are dropping. Soldiers are pointing guns at our children. It is like being surrounded by Nazis. All of you Israelis watch on TV and I can't help think you're like Nazis as well because you're just sitting there.' Their friendship was over after that."
Lyons-Howard is silent for a moment. "So where does that leave us with this program?" he asks, quietly. "It points to the necessity of having very strong follow-up, of the work our partner organizations will do during workshops with each other and integrating the kids back into their communities."
While quick to acknowledge that joint Israeli/Palestinian initiatives often break down because of the wide chasm separating occupied and occupiers--and the many differences in income, power, and daily life that such a chasm entails--Lyons-Howard is hopeful that this one will not. "What's missing is people seeing that their security is bound up with the other side's security," he says. "I think doing a program like this one will help facilitate that. The feeling I have is: of course that will be constructive."
Palestinian steering-committee member Adri Hamayel feels some frustration with the opposition the program has provoked. "We're not going to bring the kids and tell them everything's going to be okay," he says in his tidy Granville Street apartment. "The disgusting reality of occupation and brutality and apartheid--it's there. It disturbs me a great deal, when I visit family, to see certain roads that are for Jews only..."
Hamayel pauses. "I don't want to speak about it too much," he says about the network of Jewish-only roads that connect the West Bank's almost 200,000 Jewish settlers. "It takes me [too far] into the amount of suffering. We are going to bring those kids into an environment of security, where they can be the best people they can be, where they can develop informed, balanced perspectives on the issue."
Hamayel, an NGO humanitarian worker with experience in East Africa, was born to seventh-generation farmers in the village of Abu Falah, on the edge of Ramallah in occupied Palestine. In 1967, his immediate family was forced to flee to Jordan after Israel moved into the West Bank.
He points to his two brothers, still in Ramallah, as his motivation for working on the project. "I don't want them to give in to the frustration of the occupation," he says. At the same time, he admits that his family in Palestine are skeptical about Peace It Together. "They say, 'We've heard this before, done this before.' You reach a stage of cynicism where you don't believe anything. That's what occupation creates. I want the Peace It Together participants to see that there is life beyond Palestine and Israel, a whole world. A lot of children there don't know that it can be a different way."
"One of the toughest things about this," Reena Lazar says, "is that we're not dealing with a postwar situation. We're dealing with a war situation. And I do see that there is a rank [power] issue. I have a feeling that my response is to use that rank as best as I can. I've always been attached to the dream of that beautiful place. And I can't stand the fact that this dream is attached to so much suffering. I won't accept it."