Jews, Palestinians converge at Tawonga Peacemakers weekend

Over the weekend at Camp Tawonga, a 16-year-old navigated a pedal boat on the lake and then scaled a tree in the ropes course.

What was out of the ordinary was that the boy, Ameen Mukhaimer, had never before been in a boat.

His waterborne experienced was fine, he said, but being so high up in the trees? “Don’t try it,” he advised, “it’s scary!”

Even more remarkable — Mukhaimer is Palestinian, and he arrived from the West Bank village of Sabastia, near Nablus, only a month ago. He is an exchange student at a San Jose high school.

Mukhaimer was one of about 60 participants at Camp Tawonga’s second “Oseh Shalom-Sanea al-Salam,” or Peacemakers, weekend, timed to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11.

It was a time for participants in the dozen or so Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups from around the Bay Area to come together with their families — not only to talk as they do at their monthly meetings — but to relax and have fun together in the mountains near Yosemite. And for those who are regulars at Tawonga’s family weekends, it was a time to learn about the dialogue groups and what they do.

But in comparison to last year’s session, which drew about 20 Palestinian participants, this year’s contingent dwindled to seven. This not only disappointed the organizers but Tawonga’s Israeli staff, most of whom had never before met a Palestinian.

Israeli counselor Eldad Argov said that before working at last year’s Peacemakers weekend, his only contact with Palestinians had been as a soldier, even though he is from Haifa, the most integrated city in Israel.

Argov had a transformative experience last year, hearing a Palestinian describe what it was like to stand for hours at the very same checkpoints Argov had to man during his army service. He stayed especially to work at this year’s weekend, and while he was disappointed with the Palestinian turnout, he said that when he returns to Israel, he would have no such opportunities at all.

Speaking of Israel’s security barrier, he said, “The fence is not only physical, it separates people mentally and makes it impossible for dialogue. The fact that we’re here despite the fence gives me hope.”

During a closing discussion, the Palestinian participants were asked to reflect on how it felt to be such a minority. Raeda Ashkar, who has been living in Cupertino for the last few years, said that as an Arab citizen of Israel, she was used to being a minority.

Ashkar, who is from Nazareth, was not totally pessimistic, however. She told the group how a Jewish student had reached out to her, years ago when Ashkar was a university student in Israel; this had a tremendous impact on her, she said.

“You young Israelis have that chance. Most Arabs feel that the Jews are [given] superior [treatment], and if you reach out to them, you will change that one person,” she said. “The young will start the peace.”

While several camps in the United States bring Israelis and Palestinians together, Tawonga is the first Jewish summer camp to host Palestinians.

Ken Kramarz, Tawonga’s executive director, joined a dialogue group almost four years ago, and soon after, dreamed about holding such a weekend. Now he proudly showed off a T-shirt, with the Tawonga logo rendered both in Hebrew and Arabic, and wondered aloud what camp founders would think.

Although Tawonga’s board was mostly supportive, there were some concerns about security last year, so much so that its leadership did not want j. to report on the weekend.

But this year, the board was ready to publicize an event they considered groundbreaking.

“The best thing we can do for our children is to provide models for their actions,” said Michael Katten, a Tawonga board member. “Talking about peace is a camp tradition, and by having a camp that promotes peace, we’re making sure they’ll become active in making peace.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."