WEST BRATTLEBORO—This summer, a secluded section of woods in West Brattleboro has been home to the campus of Jerusalem Peacebuilders, a group focused on bringing together teens from Israel and Palestine.
Since 2011, the nonprofit has worked to recruit teenage leaders from Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. to help them develop the understandings and skills necessary to bring peace to the Middle East.
On July 18, this year’s participants could be found in small groups in the woods and fields around their cabins, discussing the intersection of identity and conflict by sharing their experiences and ideas. Most are international students, with only two of 17 hailing from the U.S.
Despite the serious subject, they seemed in high spirits as they laughed and talked. They regrouped afterward in their usual outdoor classroom to share their conclusions.
Almost all talked about the way their personal identities interacted with the larger power systems in play in the Middle East. Later, they would use these groups to form concrete plans for what to do when they got home.
This hybrid of internal development and external action is found throughout the Jerusalem Peacebuilders programs. Originally just one session for kids in their late teens, the organization has expanded since its founding to include four linked sessions, beginning with students as young as 13, in addition to smaller, shorter programs throughout the year.
The institutes are intended to be attended sequentially, guiding promising students toward nuanced worldviews and supplying them with the tools necessary to become leaders in their communities.
After sharing, the students broke to get food and to prepare for their next outing. Four delayed their meal to describe their experience. Two, Omri Weinstock and Yamama Hersh, attended last summer as well, and noted the added value of continuing the curriculum. They also expressed the belief that the age of participants helped.
“We are dynamic, open to learning,” Weinstock said, “We’re mature enough to learn but still young enough to have fun together.”
Another attendee, Dahoud Khouria, expressed similar sentiment: “The older a person gets, the less open they are to new ideas.”
Many also expressed gratitude that the two-week session is longer than many other programs and camps.
Qamar AbedRabbo, a 17-year-old from East Jerusalem, said that despite feeling reserved at first, sharing a space for so long helped her open up to other attendees from radically different walks of life. “Everyone is so friendly and kind,” she said.
Seeking a solution
When asked about the broader conflict in the region, all were hesitant to claim full understanding of all the issues, but they expressed hope that their generation would be the one to find a solution to the ongoing regional feuds.
Many also believed that the U.S. could play a critical role in finding that solution. Noting past efforts, Weinstock and Hersh said that even with the current unpredictable foreign policy of the U.S., the nation could still have a part to play in building peace.
When asked about the idea of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as the Trump administration did in December, they couldn’t fully endorse it. But Weinstock said, “At least it is doing something. It might finally let something happen.”
AbedRabbo said the move made many Palestinians feel the U.S. was no longer the unbiased moderator it once was.
As the group settled in to eat and talk, Adj Marshall, the program director, stopped to chat about the future of the program. Just this year, they introduced a new session, with the youngest participants the program had seen.
Now, Marshall said, they plan to focus their efforts overseas, and they hope to obtain nonprofit status in Israel to expand and streamline their efforts to find new attendees.
Khouria, 17, is from a town near Nazareth, in Israel’s Northern District. He had difficulty entering the program after the more conservative school he attended canceled plans for the organization to visit. Official nonprofit recognition could help Jerusalem Peacebuilders reach more students like him as well as improve their overall efforts.
In addition, the first generation of attendees is about to graduate from college. Jerusalem Peacebuilders staff say the next step will be to ensure that when they do, they will find the support network they need to implement the leadership skills they acquired at the institute.
For now, however, the young adults here will continue to acquire the tools and relationships to develop and sustain hope for a lasting peace.