Finding common ground: Jewish, Palestinian students return from Balkans with better understanding of

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Eleven Jews and 11 Palestinians travel to Serbia during their summer break from various U.S. colleges. When the students land in Belgrade, they begin getting to know one another, walking through the cosmopolitan but historic city, admiring the Balkan Mountains in the background and the way the Sava and Danube rivers slice through town. After dinner, they indulge in Belgrade’s nightlife. A passerby might think only that they are new friends talking and laughing over the buzz of a late-night crowd.

Then things get serious.

Over dinner on the third night of the students’ four-week Balkan experience, they begin talking about the morality, or lack thereof, of suicide bombings and Israeli Defense Forces’ responses.

A Jewish student — who had never spoken to a Palestinian before the trip — says IDF actions are moral because they are in response to efforts that kill innocent civilians. The Palestinian students (and also a few Jews) at the dinner table become agitated, arguing that suicide bombings, while not justifiable, occur because of the oppression of the IDF — whose actions kill far more civilians than suicide bombings ever have, they say.

Welcome to the Vision Program, where the conversation might not be easy, but it is always honest.

Jeremy Avins, a junior at Yale University and a Kentfield native, said the heated discussions, though unsettling to both his fellow Jews and to Palestinians, are critical in shattering stereotypes and cultivating friendships.

“Through disparate people working together,” Avins said, “the human relationships that are the core of any durable peace can be built.”

The Vision Program is a project of Abraham’s Vision, a San Francisco-based nonprofit founded in 2003 by Aaron Hahn Tapper, a professor at the University of San Francisco. It’s currently co-directed by a Jewish man (Tapper) and a Palestinian woman (Huda Abu Arqoub).

The Vision Program was launched three years after Tapper created Abraham’s Vision, which brings together Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim high school and college students for classroom-based and experiential learning.

The Vision Program kicks off each summer with a monthlong trip through the former Yugoslavia. The travelers (undergraduates and grad students from U.S. colleges) learn about the region’s religious violence and ethnic cleansing in the ’80s and ’90s, and how the region has been repairing itself since the bloodshed.

The conflicts in the former Yugoslavia are “much more complex than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Tapper said. “We take them there because it complicates their understanding of war, and ideally of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The backdrop provides a neutral space far from the roots of the Mideast conflict, affording students “an equal place to talk and tell their stories,” said Diana Ibrahim, a Palestinian participant from the first group in 2006.

This year’s Vision Program took place in June and July. The participants, from ages 18 to 29, “came from all over the United States, Israel, Palestine and Jordan,” staff said, and all are currently enrolled in an American university. Their religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

After the monthlong educational tour through Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo, the students must follow through on a stipulation of the program: to speak about their experience to their campus and their religious communities.

Vision Program participants also meet for two follow-up retreats — weekends that provide them time to absorb all they learned over the summer, and space to collectively figure out what to do with their new understanding and knowledge of the Middle East conflict.

This year, half the participants either grew up in the Bay Area or attended college here.

“Our group was a microcosm of the greater conflict,” said Oren Kroll-Zeldin, a graduate student at San Francisco’s California Institute of Integral Studies and also the community service coordinator at Berkeley Hillel.

Which is to say that participants went to the Balkans knowing a huge amount about Israeli-Palestinian history, or next to nothing; some were staunch Zionists, others anti-Zionists; some were proponents of a one-state solution, others wanted to see a two-state plan.

The mix included both the religious and secular; people born in the Middle East, and some who were third-generation Americans; Hebrew and Arabic speakers, as well as those who spoke only English.

The primary goal of the program is conflict transformation. Tapper said the more commonly used term, “conflict resolution,” is ill-fitting since dialogue among 22 college students is not going to resolve a decades-long conflict in the Middle East.

But it can begin to transform the conversation, he said.

The Vision Program aims not only to foster friendships between two polarized groups, but also to encourage the kind of weighty dialogue that sparks more questions than answers. The goal is to inspire Jews and Palestinians to better understand one another — and to be more critical of their own people.

Throughout the students’ month in the Balkans, their itinerary is packed with tours, guest speakers (scholars, activists, politicians and religious leaders) and hands-on workshops.

But the most powerful element of the Vision Program, students say, is what they call “group process” — the often long and usually passionate group discussions that have minimal structure.

Students described the dialogue as “intense,” full of “friction and tension,” “emotional and painful.” Some would even cry out of frustration because the sessions focused on such sensitive issues.

Group facilitators — two trained educators, one Jewish, one Palestinian — might prompt the group to talk on a certain topic, but often they simply observe and listen. Trying to get participants to think beyond archetypes, they prod them: What do you think? How do you feel?

“All our assumptions were challenged,” Avins said.

Avins described himself as “very much a mainstream American Jew” with a left-of-center, Zionist family that instilled in him a strong Jewish identity and a passion for peace.

What he didn’t realize until the Vision Program was that his knowledge of the Palestinian narrative was abstract, not personal.

“You cannot even begin to comprehend what it’s like to be a Palestinian living under occupation unless you talk to your friend from Ramallah who saw soldiers shooting at his mother when she was going to buy bread,” Avins said.

Similarly, Palestinians in the Vision Program are exposed to a variety of American Jewish ideas, learning to understand why Israel matters so much to American Jews who have never even lived there.

“What I really learned on the trip was that Jews have really legitimate feelings based on information that’s not always legitimate,” said Jennifer Mogannam, a recent graduate of U.C. Berkeley whose grandfather emigrated from pre-state Israel to the United States in 1948.

“You can’t delegitimize anyone’s feelings.”

It might seem odd that a trip intended to delve into the Israel-Palestinian conflict occurs 1,200 miles away from Jerusalem, but it’s an intentional choice — one that gives participants a new lens through which to view the conflict.

Said Tapper: “We’re trying to help our students de-exceptionalize” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There’s an absolutely false notion that this cosmic battle between two peoples has been going on forever, that it’s totally unique.”

And because the Balkans have had many struggles since the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, Vision Program students are often asked to consider how those challenges and conflicts relate to Middle East issues.

For example, students learned that many schools in Bosnia-Herzegovenia practice what’s known as two-schools-under-one-roof. Muslim Bosnian children and Croatian children, and their teachers, have no contact even though they attend school in the same building. They enter through different entrances, learn on different floors or wings, take separate breaks and have separate teacher offices.

Allison Deger, a Jewish senior at U.C. Berkeley, said the segregation leads to isolation, which breeds ignorance — none of which helps repair the damage from the cultural battles of the last decade.

“Like in Gaza,” Deger said. “They’re so isolated there that it promotes nationalism, and that leads to more violence.”

The students who went to the Balkans this summer cite the experience as transformative and eye-opening — but they’re not finished learning yet.

They’re expected to attend follow-up retreats — the first one is next month in West Virginia — and also communicate what they learned to a larger audience.

“I felt like something had ruptured in me, and to make that constructive, I had to … speak about it,” said Avital Aboody, a senior at U.C. Berkeley who participated in the program in 2006.

Aboody grew up in Los Angeles with an American mother and Iraqi Israeli father. After living in Israel for a year on a Zionist youth program, she came to Berkeley as a freshman and was exposed, for the first time, to tension between American Jews and Palestinians.

A year later, she returned from the Balkans feeling more critical of Israel. She switched her college major to peace and conflict studies and tapered her involvement with the Israel Action Committee.

“My dad seemed threatened by my views, and accused me of being brainwashed,” Aboody recalled. When she’d visit new Palestinian friends in Los Angeles, “he’d tell me, ‘You’re getting too close to the enemy.’ And he kept saying, ‘Don’t forget your history.'”

Aboody nonetheless held firm to her new perspective and spoke at her family’s synagogue in Los Angeles. Some people accused her of being young and idealistic, but most people told her she gave them hope that peace would be possible someday.

Like Aboody, Avins underwent a transformation on the trip. He arrived in Serbia thinking that the Vision Program would help him achieve his long-term goal: facilitating dialogues between Jews and both Palestinians and Muslims.

But he left the Balkans with a different focus: giving American Jews more comprehensive insight into what’s really going on in Israel and the territories.

“If we actually want peace, and if we actually want to be moral people — which I think Jews take pride in doing — we have to let down our guard,” Avins said.

“We have to put ourselves in situations where people tell us things that make us really uncomfortable instead of just flipping on some defensive switch. We need to stop figuring out ways to debunk what Palestinians are saying, and instead figure out why they’re saying this and where it comes from — because it comes from somewhere real.”

For more information about Abraham’s Vision programs, visit www.abrahamsvision.org or contact Aaron Hahn Tapper at [email protected].

cover design | cathleen maclearie

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.