Making Peace in Corona
During 2020, when Corona struck and classes were split into pods and cast outdoors, where were you and what were you studying?
One group of students on a kibbutz in Northern Israel was learning how to make peace. Facilitated by the Jerusalem Peace Builders, fifteen teenagers with varying degrees of piercings, torn jeans and loud colors in their hair, sat in an enormous circle in the old staff parking-lot-turned-makeshift-classroom adapted for the pandemic.
Jerusalem Peace Builders (JPB) is an interfaith organization that brings together youth from different backgrounds, from Jerusalem, Israel, Palestine, and the United States, to create meaningful encounters. The first session is held separately at each school so students can start to build important dialogue skills such as active listening and empathy before meeting each other.
This workshop began by exploring personal identity. They asked questions like, ‘Who are you?’ ‘What makes you unique?’ Important questions for teens who are about to get to know kids seemingly so different from themselves.
Just before the lunch break, the group played a game. Sarah, one of the facilitators, a quiet, young woman with silky, dark hair and skin, and deep brown eyes, sat inside the circle. The other facilitator, Yardena, taller and chattier, asked the questions and recorded the answers on a portable white board.
Where was Sarah from? What languages did she speak? How much education did she have? What did she study? Was she married? Did she have kids?
What kind of assumptions do we make about people upon meeting them?
At first glance, it was hard to peg Sarah. She was most definitely from the Middle East, but nothing about her appearance, her accent, or even her name, indicated whether she was more likely to be Arab or Jewish.
As Yardena posed the questions, students’ answers spanned the spectrum. She was from Egypt, from France, from Jerusalem, or maybe Ashkelon. She spoke English, Hebrew, and maybe Arabic. Perhaps Italian. She was a teacher, a lawyer, or a social worker.
Michael had been a student the year before in the ninth grade English-speakers club. Wild haired with thick glasses and fiercely competitive, English came easily to Michael and he was used to winning. When he attended his first Model UN last year, he walked away with second prize. “It’s easy,” he said after with a wink and a dismissive wave of his hands. “You just need to speak a lot and pretend you know what you’re talking about.”
Michael was sure he had this game. He pulled his teacher aside. “She’s Arab, right?” It made sense since it was a coexistence workshop and Yardena, Sarah’s partner, was clearly Jewish.
Still, Michael fell into all the traps: If she was Arab, she must be poorly educated. But she was so articulate, so she must be wealthy and worldly, with some foreign Arab Passport. Jordan? Egypt? Certainly not Palestinian.
When Sarah shared that she was in fact Palestinian, Michael’s face twisted. He didn’t always take kindly to being corrected, but there was no denying who she was. As it turned out, she was from East Jerusalem, and had no passport at all.
“Well, that’s a choice,” Michael shot back. “East Jerusalem Palestinians don’t WANT Israeli passports because they don’t accept the State of Israel.”
“There are Palestinians like that,” Sarah conceded, “But many people like me want them so we can live a normal life. Unfortunately, the passports are not easy to get. After we apply for a passport, it can take years to receive an answer from the government, and then fewer than half of the requests are even approved. Without a passport, I’m not a citizen of any country. I’m not free to travel anywhere in the world.”
Michael’s second assumption was also shattered. “Palestinians are the most educated Arab population in the world. Especially the women,” Sarah said.
“Really?” Michael raised his thick eyebrows till they reached his fluffy mop of hair.
Sarah’s smile was more conciliatory than cynical. “Well sure. We can’t travel and there aren’t so many jobs. What else do we have to do with our lives? So, we study.”
Michael didn’t speak again as Sarah answered the rest of their questions. She wasn’t married, no kids. She’d been studying physics, but when she got involved with JPB, she decided to dedicate her life to helping promote co-existence. She loved traveling to schools and meeting students with such different backgrounds than hers and sharing her story.
During the break, several students stayed to chat with Sarah, foregoing their lunch and only free time. She patiently answered their questions and asked some of her own. The rest of the day the students continued to explore identity. They were asked to map out all the things that made them who they were and highlight those that defined them best. As they discovered, how they define themselves—dancer, student, good friend—changed depending on the day or the situation, or their stage of life.
At the end of the session, students were asked to share something they were taking away from the day. When it came to Michael’s turn, the other kids stepped in close, eyebrows raised in anticipation of his witty, cynical remarks.
Michael glanced down and then looked at Sarah. He smiled and joined his hands together in a rare gesture of gratitude. “Today I learned that I don’t know everything, and that’s okay.”
The next day, three ninth graders were diagnosed with Corona and the whole school went home for what would be the next eight months. To the great dismay of both teachers and students, their first JPB workshop was their last.
But Covid has taught us at least two important things. First, we’re all in this together. Second, we must constantly adapt to an ever-changing world.
Sarah gave up her whole career path to pursue peace. And Michael was able in one day to rethink everything he believed about people. What have you learned in Covid? And how do you plan to use it to change the world?
—Emily Singer, Israel. She adds: “I am a writer and English teacher in Northern Israel, where I have a special passion for bringing students together from different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds to help them appreciate diversity and develop important negotiation and peace-making skills… In 2018, I published my first children’s novel, “Gilgul I: Re-Dedication.”