Finding peace for Israelis and Palestinians among people – not policies

John Kerry or the Arab League may prod a peace deal into place, but nothing can last unless ordinary people living under the policy see that every Israeli is not a settler and every Palestinian does not begrudge Israel a right to exist. I've seen the groundwork of that dialogue at work.

Mandel Ngan/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry meets with members of the Arab League Peace Initiative in Amman, Jordan, July 17. Mr. Kerry is on his sixth visit to the region, seeking to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to resume direct negotiations, frozen for almost three years. Op-ed contributor Kelly Payne writes: 'Politics make issues impersonal. To create or loosen personal convictions...people have to share their real-life narratives.'

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a perennial feature of the Middle Eastern political scene. Students of international relations like me find it intriguing, but also tiring – and static. Issues that can change, developments that are fluid, trends that are dynamic – that’s where I see students’ interests pulled instead. I myself almost began to forget how much this conflict mattered until a very personal association forced me to confront its intractable reality. I began to date a student at Yale from the Palestinian territories. Even to me, that sounds like a really silly way to find your political conscience.

This summer I came to Israel to work at the Parent’s Circle Families Forum, a grassroots organization of bereaved Palestinians and Israelis seeking to cultivate peace through reconciliation. I came here confused. Dating a Palestinian for more than a year, his stories reluctantly, unassumingly unfolded to me. He talked of curfews, exclusion from Jerusalem and the airport, thrown rocks returned with fired bullets.

During the school year, as I would fly back to school from a break, I would think of his journey back to campus – leaving his home a day early to get to Amman, Jordan, making sure he passed the checkpoints before they closed, locking him into Palestine for the night‬. I had never before heard what it was like to live as a Palestinian. It shocked me. How could these people live like caged animals? As I got to know him bit by bit, I came to gradually understand the importance of the human story behind the conflict. The way it affects the everyday lives of ordinary people. And once I knew, I couldn’t stop caring.

[Editor's note: The original version of this piece incorrectly described the writer's friend from the Palestinian Territories back to campus in the US.]

And so I came here, to Israel and to this organization, skeptical and acutely aware of my own bias. But the one belief I was sure of was that human stories needed to be shared. Politics make issues impersonal. To create or loosen personal convictions, to create openness, people have to share their real-life narratives.

I’ve been watching that process at work through Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups. In my first week, I watched a women’s group cooking together. The scenario is easy to romanticize – bonds of trust built between two former enemies as they spend time sharing experiences. But I can attest to what I’ve seen: The process of coming together on a personal level is hard and it’s messy, but the effort is worthwhile.

It’s not just a political conflict that divides these women – it is language, culture, dress, and so much more. Communication is about nuance – widening eyes, raised eyebrows, curving lips. Muted and dulled through a translator, they lose a lot of the power to connect.

Yet in this kind of setting, one is acutely reminded of the small things that are immutable, that don’t need to be translated, and the common unbreakable bonds of humanity they signify. There’s the pleasure of seeing yourself in a photograph, the interest in a celebrity chef’s guest visit, the satisfaction in a dish that came out well. Seeing those connections is what initially gave me hope. It’s profound to witness how the small commonalities that connect people can overcome the many differences that keep them apart. These women couldn’t talk together, but they could laugh together. They couldn’t share words, but they could share experiences. And it seemed like enough.

The day after this cooking class, I watched a group of Israeli and Palestinian women discuss a visit to a former Palestinian village destroyed during the war of 1948. What surprised me was how each could check their gut reactions and give up on being the victim. These people were craving the interaction with each other, starved for this singular opportunity to meet those from the other side of the wall. They listened intently and considered carefully, disagreeing with members of their own side as often as they found common ground with the other.

The interaction allowed participants to see that good people, earnest and benevolent in their intentions, can find themselves on both sides of the same conflict. For one side to see for the first time how hard the other is trying for peace, how they can feel sympathy for the pain their side has caused the other – it’s remarkable to witness.

If my own experience here has taught me anything, it is the ability of personal stories shared between ordinary people to produce a powerful shift in attitudes. The more these personal stories and shared respect can be translated into politics, the more likely peace is to come to this conflict.

The grassroots approach is challenging and circuitous, and peace is slow to come. Dialogue groups are fighting fire with water, but every Palestinian home that gets demolished, every missile that comes over from Gaza, is like a shot of gasoline. As an American, I believe in the power of the popular will, and that every person who can come to see the other side for all their humanity helps build a coalition for peace.

Secretary of State John Kerry or the Arab League may plead and prod a peace deal into place, but nothing can last, nothing can improve the lives of the people who actually live these policies, unless ordinary people can prove to one another that every Israeli is not a settler and every Palestinian does not begrudge Israel its right to exist.

Organizations like the Parent’s Circle are making small headway, but the scale is just not big enough. How many Israelis and Palestinians will grow up without ever interacting with a member of the other side before we acknowledge how ideologically poisoning it is to have never met one’s foe? The physical wall that exists between these two peoples is certainly limiting, but the psychological wall it creates may be even more difficult to surmount. And yet, it is the wall that ordinary citizens have the best chance of breaking down.

The road forward will never be easy, but the dialogue groups such as those I’ve witnessed this summer, and the process of reconciliation they cultivate, point a way forward.

Kelly Payne is studying global affairs and political science as a rising senior at Yale University. She is spending two months in Tel Aviv, Israel, interning at the Parent’s Circle Families Forum.

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