In 2002, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim went to work founding Hands of Peace, an interfaith youth program based just outside of Chicago, Illinois dedicated to mutual understanding between Israelis and Palestinians (and Americans) regarding the conflict that has plagued their region for decades, if not centuries. Initially, Hands of Peace was a two week summer program with a handful of teens operated only by volunteers. Today, however, Hands of Peace has several employees, 501(c)3 nonprofit status and includes programming both near San Diego and Chicago with each having around forty teens participate every summer. In addition to the intensive, dialogue-based, eighteen day summer program, Hands of Peace alumni in both the United States and Middle East meet regularly to discuss current events and try to make a difference in their communities.
Last spring, I applied to Hands of Peace not really knowing what I was getting into. After all, being an American teen, even a culturally Jewish one, it’s fair to say that I’m an outsider when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had limited knowledge of the conflict, but I was able to learn a considerable amount in one of the best ways possible — from first person accounts. Being able to compare the testimonies of Israelis and Palestinians while considering Americans’ input opened my eyes to the realities of the conflict.
Hands of Peace does not promote any agenda besides that of caring, compassion and empathy. In daily dialogue sessions, participants discuss the conflict, their lives and the stereotypes and assumptions that lie beneath the surface. The organization’s goal is not to solve the conflict, but to instill understanding and empathy in a future generation of leaders. Quite frankly, it’s amazing to me how the participants, as people from three different regional groups, two of which are entangled in a seemingly never-ending conflict, can find so much in common. We would argue vehemently in our dialogue sessions about the conflict, the wars and the alleged terrorism, yet we would come back together and we would have fun － we would play games together, talk together, dance together and laugh together. What unites us truly transcends what divides us.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that the program does not teach us to simply ignore our differences, but that we can learn from them and accept their presence. During the program, we were able to discuss and debate our beliefs when the time was right, but we also recognized the importance of celebrating our commonalities, as well as our differences. It’s telling that through all that divides us － gender, age, religion, ethnicity, ideology and nationality － Israelis, Palestinians and Americans can come togehter not just as people, but as friends.
To conclude, I’ll share a brief anecdote that I’m always reminded of when talking (or writing) about Hands of Peace. On the first day of the program, a second-year participant said to me, “They tell you that Hands of Peace changes you, but it really doesn’t. It makes you grow.” That statement rings very true for me now, having evolved as a person, growing greatly (which I suppose is a type of change), and having gained knowledge, not just regarding the conflict and world religions, but also on what it means to be human. Some of the difficulties in my life seem so minor compared to what a good number of Israelis and Palestinians confront on a daily basis. The resilience, commitment and empathy necessary for a successful dialogue have also helped me to grow as a person since participating. Hands of Peace creates connections that span the Pacific Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. These same bonds transcend the walls between Israel and the West Bank, dramatically impacting the lives and perspectives of hundreds of alumni.