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April 2019
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Middle East Peace Programs

Enduring Friendships Among Young Israelis and Palestinians

Is there a sustained positive impact from a ten-day intensive experience in Italy and San Marino by young Israelis and Palestinians during the summer of 2008?

To find out, the Youth Federation for World Peace (YFWP) reconnected with some of the young Israelis and Palestinians who participated in a Young Ambassadors for Peace trip to Italy in September for purpose of finding common ground. This follow-up step is very important to YFWP's program development.

Reconnecting with these individuals helps us strengthen and develop the Middle East Peace Initiative, which promotes genuine understanding and meaningful dialogue between individuals separated by customs and religion. Interfaith dialogue cannot be a one-time event, but should include an intentional process of reestablishing common ground.

One December 17, during the Middle East Peace Initiative trip to Jerusalem, we hosted a dinner conversation with Majida Kimri, Mrinia Smolyanov, and Lara Habash, women in their 20s who were part of the group that went to Italy.

Majida Kimri is 20 years old and she studies computer science at Bethlehem University. Her mother is Russian and her father Arab. I asked Majida if her expectations had been met. “I was very pleased,” she said; “the first day we slept in tents.” This comment struck me as very humorous, because we had heard that the majority of those on the trip complained about the unexpected outdoor accommodations. Majida told us that she actually enjoys camping.  This is an example of how personal interests can a perfect tool to build common ground. Finding common ground can be as simple as a shared experience.

Although Majida enjoyed her camping experience and others did not, both those who enjoyed it and those who did not enjoy it had a shared experience that would be remembered.

Mirina Smolyanov, at the age of 16, had been given the opportunity to represent her Jewish heritage at a conference in Greece. “That was the first time that I was able to represent the Jewish people,“ she said. “I’ve been working all my life with peace initiatives.” Both Mirina’s parents are from the Ukraine, which perhaps gives her a less perspective toward the politically sensitive topic of ownership over Jerusalem. One of her personal interests is dancing, specifically Flamingo dancing, with two years of training. Working towards a university degree in government and public policy will further her activism in peace initiatives. Mirina enjoys traveling; she had recently returned from Jordan and is making plans to move to Spain to continue her flamenco dancing there.

Lara Harbash was born in Jerusalem, but clarified that she is a Palestinian Christian and that her culture is Arabic. She graduated with a business administration degree from Birzeit University near Ramallah in Palestine. She currently works as an Arabic translator for JIJI Japanese News Company.  Asked if her expectations were met during the trip in Italy, she responded, “I was not expecting to make peace in Italy; I was not expecting much, to be honest. When we were in Italy there was little integrating between the Palestinians and the Israelis, especially when mentioning politics [regarding Palestine and Israel]. “

As Lara described what was expressed during the conversations among the participants, it becomes clear how easily the discussions become heated and emotional on topics such as the conditions of Palestine, issues of injustice, and the topic of politics in general. “Ninety percent of the Palestinians are not living in good conditions," she added; "the West Bank has very limited space, and they are not free. Yes, they are free to leave, but the Palestinians are required to go through extensive searches before crossing the border; this can take up to three hours during busy times." Lara mentioned that she believes in common ground and co-existence and she has great interests in peace initiatives: “We can all live together and respect each others' religions and cultures and still keep our own beliefs.”

All three of these young women said that at the beginning of the program in Italy, there was tension, but by the end their focus was put on the shared experiences of food, music, and dance — those universal joys of life. Never having met each other before, these young women had traveled together, participated in activities, and became friends.

Seated together at the dinner table, the three girls were smiling and laughing, enjoying each other and sharing updates of their lives. This outcome is picture perfect. The goal of promoting genuine understanding and meaningful dialogue has been realized.

Admittedly the process of integrating diverse cultures is not easy, but this example of process and outcome is validation that Middle East Peace Initiative can bring stories of success. Experiences such as the ten-day visit by Israeli and Palestinian youth to Italy can be a model for interfaith dialogue and interfaith young leaders initiatives around the world.

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