Campers turn political probings into guerrilla theater

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"How much blood will be shed before there is peace?"

"Who in their right mind would assassinate someone of their own faith?"

"Why can children learn to share but adults can't?"

These are among the questions that have plagued teens this summer at Saratoga's Camp Swig as they've studied the ins and outs of the Mideast peace process.

Last Thursday in San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza, campers boldly shouted provocative questions during a performance of guerrilla theater. This show was the culmination of a special three-week Swig session called Hevrah (Hebrew for "community"), in which campers devote themselves to a particular issue, then spend a "social action day" in the city practicing what they have learned.

Past issues have ranged from AIDS to disabilities to poverty. This year, campers explored the "path to peace," tracing the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict up to the present day. Their study included a look at such recent developments as the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and last spring's Israeli elections.

Some of the campers knew little about the Mideast's complexities before they came to Swig. By last week, however, nearly all had opinions on the subject.

"Being aware has made me feel a lot stronger about it," said 14-year-old Rachel Flynn of San Francisco. "I think peace is a lot better than war and talking is a lot better than fighting."

When the campers reached the city Thursday for social action day, they divided into several groups. While some of the ninth- and 10th-grade campers talked with Israeli Consulate representatives, their thespian counterparts expressed their newfound knowledge onstage, in face paint, to the steady beat of a drum.

"Why does a place so holy use violence to solve its problems?" one member of the performance troupe asked as noontime passersby and a busload of Japanese tourists stopped to check out the action.

Some onlookers left with informational pamphlets on the peace process written by Swig campers. The brochures include facts on the 1993 Oslo Accords, resources for learning more about the Mideast peace process and a list of reasons why people should concern themselves with the topic.

The brochures drafted a number of reasons: "If a war starts, the United States could become involved"; "Peace between Arabs and Israelis could increase American-Arab-Israeli trade"; and "The Arabs and Israelis deserve to live without fear for their lives."

The way some of the campers talked about the subject, you'd think they'd been following Mideast issues for years.

"Peace is much more important than anything else in the world," said Daniel Kahn, 13, of Greenbrae. "Although the land is very important, I think we need to give up as much land as [necessary] for peace."

Though Kahn's friend Joseph Guiliano agreed that peace is desirable, he offered a different perspective on how it should be achieved.

"I'm very right-wing," said the Stockton 14-year-old. "I believe the land is Israel. We won the land in wars that we didn't even go out [and start]. I think we're the ones who should be making the terms, not the Palestinians."

Though they have argued about the prickly Mideast before, Kahn and Guiliano said their friendship can withstand differing viewpoints.

"We see that we both want peace. That's a similarity," Kahn said.

Sara Zacharia, the camp's education director, said the camp does not adhere to a particular political bias, and that she was impressed by campers' abilities to sift through complex information and form their own ideas.

"Their opinions really run the gamut from left to right and back to left again," she said.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.