This isn’t an easy time to be a peace leader. That’s the term Yakir Englander uses for Israelis and Palestinians who work to create a space to understand the other people’s psyches. Empathy is an unlikely prospect in the best of times. But in days like these, with stabbings and revenge attacks, can you blame people for thinking you’re a traitor, or just crazy?
Before Englander, vice president of Kids4Peace International, left Israel for a visit to Washington, he went to meet his Palestinian counterparts who live in East Jerusalem. With the city on edge, “I was the only Jew on a Palestinian bus in East Jerusalem,” says Englander. “This is what it is to be a peace leader.”
Kids4Peace International is an interfaith youth movement in Jerusalem that brings Israelis and Palestinians together at age 12 and tries to keep them together through their high school years. About 250 families participate. The group, founded in 2002, opened an office in Washington during the summer.
“Kids4Peace wants to offer another way of growing up,” the Rev. Josh Thomas, the group’s executive director, tells 25 people at an Oct. 13 event at Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Bindeman Center in Potomac. Event organizers, including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, had considered canceling.
“Peace is not popular right now,” Thomas acknowledges. But the alternative “will lead us nowhere.”
Englander, 39, believes that when there’s a general breakdown between Israelis and Palestinians, that’s exactly the time not to stop talking. He tells a story of the first Gaza war in 2008, when he asked directors of other peace organizations how he could keep meeting with Palestinians when both sides were seething with rage. He says they told him, “Don’t. It’s too traumatic.”
Englander went ahead with a meeting anyway, but no one knew what to say. Finally a Muslim colleague suggested that instead of talking, they pray. “In times of crisis, before you can open your mouth to speak… we prayed and we cried and then the words came,” he says.
It isn’t clear to friends of Palestinian Montaser Amro, why he’s still with the organization.
“My best friend just called me names,” he tells the Potomac gathering after a tense call. “He said he can’t believe I still work with Israelis.”
Amro, 22, grew up knowing Israelis as the enemy. “The Israelis I met all the time were soldiers,” he says.
But he was also interested in challenging stereotypes. He decided he wanted to meet Israelis in a situation other than at a West Bank checkpoint.
He found a meeting where Palestinians and Israelis gathered on equal footing. That led him to Kids4Peace, where he became a volunteer in 2012. “Meeting others is extremely important because it changes the mindset,” says Amro, now the organization’s community engagement coordinator.
Englander followed his own path to the world outside his community. Born into a family of Vizhnitz chasidim in B’nei B’rak, “I never met with secular Jews, I never met with the other gender, and I never met with non-Jews,” he says.
In his 20s, he left his community because “I wanted to find new tools for holiness.”
He talks about his work as if he is creating vessels to contain a peaceful future until hope can flourish on its own.
“Educating peace leaders disrupts the status quo,” he has written. If the two people ever abandon the status quo, the people trained as peace leaders will know how to carry on.
“Peace is not just diplomacy,” he tells his audience. “You also need someone to hold society. Kids from Kids4Peace are going to be those angels to hold Israel and the Palestinians.”
American Jews need to become those vessels, too, he urges, not play the role they’ve assigned for themselves.
“What I see in my American friends who love Israel so much: They’re pouring gasoline on the fire. You don’t need to say Israel is right. I’m Israeli. I know Israel is right,” explains Englander. “We don’t need you to put another pro-Israel post on Facebook. Be the ones to heal us. For Israelis and Palestinians to do this now is hard. I think you can hold it for us.”
Like Kids4Peace, Combatants for Peace brings Israelis and Palestinians together in a search for reconciliation. Members of the group visited the Washington area this week, speaking at George Mason University and at private homes.
Members have borne the brunt of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have sworn off violence. Sulaiman Khatib, 43, the group’s Palestinian co-director, spent a decade in an Israeli military prison after he was arrested at age 14 for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and wounding two Israelis.
Maya Katz, 39, the group’s project coordinator, remembers the optimism following the signing of the Oslo Accords 20 years ago.
She and her friends traveled from their kibbutz in the Jordan Valley to a mass peace demonstration in Tel Aviv, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke about the peace process. At the end of the night he was gunned down by an Israeli Jew.
Now, with violence swirling through the land “rage is going up. Mistrust is going up,” Katz says in a telephone interview. “We have a lot of meetings and activities [between Israelis and Palestinians] to show that there are people brave enough.
“It is not easy. People feel like you’re betraying your country.”
There are threats and curses on Facebook against Katz, Khatib and the others. But spewing on social media is easy. “We didn’t choose the easy option,” Khatib says. “I already tried violence.”