I first met John Wallach in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in the mid 1970s. He was there to interview His Royal Highness Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Princeton-educated minister of foreign affairs, and I was there to photograph Wallach interviewing the prince.
It was sunny and hot. Dry heat, very hot. It was midday, and we were standing on the steps of the old airport, waiting for Syrian President Hafez al Assad to arrive on a state visit. Prince Saud, cool and unflappable in his robes, spent time with us — hospitable, friendly, smart. We were two Americans privileged to be standing amidst a gathering of Saudi royalty, government ministers and diplomats, waiting for the Boeing 707 from Damascus.
Wallach had come to Arabia to write about regional politics and oil policy. As time passed, our conversation with Prince Saud drifted to the plight of the Palestinians and the deleterious effect that the lack of a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had on the entire region. Not one of us could see a way out.
It was so long ago. So little has changed.
Wallach left Riyadh after the interview and I stayed on, working on book and magazine projects. In ensuing years, our paths only occasionally crossed.
In July 2001, I drove my daughter to Otisfield, Maine — she to join the Seeds of Peace camp as a member of the American delegation, I to check out John Wallach’s dream. We arrived early, and there were few people there to greet us. We found her “bunk,” the cabin where she would spend the following three weeks, and we wandered around the dialogue huts and playing fields and along Pleasant Lake, and checked out the bobbing canoes and kayaks.
A summer camp unlike any other.
After a long and celebrated career with Hearst Newspapers, Wallach had a vision for a peace camp. In 1993, he asked Bobbie Gottschalk to join him as co-founder of Seeds of Peace, an organization dedicated to providing young people from regions of conflict with necessary skills to become future leaders. Wallach and Gottschalk believed that Seeds of Peace could advance reconciliation and coexistence between teenagers more easily than with adults.
Seeds of Peace began with 46 Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian teenagers. It now has more than 4,300 young alumni. While Seeds of Peace has welcomed teens from 22 countries, I still think of it in Palestinian-Israeli terms.
The hardest work. The greatest need.
Early on Sept. 11, 2001, I picked up a Seeds of Peace Palestinian student from Hebron at Logan International Airport in Boston and drove him to Exeter. An Israeli girl was expected later in the day — she arrived days later, by car from Detroit, where her flight had been diverted.
That fall we were all in new, uncharted territory. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Americans, Arabs, Israelis all trying to make sense of the terror and violence that changed our world.
Within days, I witnessed a realization of Wallach’s dream. A young Georgetown University Palestinian student from Gaza couldn’t reach his parents. He was worried that his parents would think he was caught up in the hysteria affecting young Arab Muslim men in America. Hearing of his problem, Israeli teens stepped up and set up a communications link, via Israel, that allowed Ahmed to talk to his parents.
Those Palestinians and Israelis knew each other. They trusted in each others’ humanity.
They don’t agree with each other on many issues. They argue over occupation and sovereignty and human rights and social justice — but they, unlike their parents, have begun to learn — these 4,300 — how to talk to each other.
That’s a beginning. That’s a beginning of an alternative to war and occupation, an alternative to endless conflict.
Next month, air-conditioned buses driving up from Logan airport and cars carrying staff members, counselors and other American campers will drive north on Interstate 95 and turn left at Portland. Giving new meaning to the expression “sleeping with the enemy,” Palestinian and Israeli youth, among others, will again share bunks and be mentored and protected by counselors and American student delegates.
Once at Otisfield, they will share worship, prayer, bread and tears with teens they have been raised to see as their enemy. They will rely on each other on the ropes course and become teammates on playing fields. In afternoon dialogue sessions, they will vent anger and grievances. They will raise voices and shed tears. Late at night, after dialogue, dinner and evening activities, they will have to return to their bunks and figure out whether they will shun, or comfort, each other.
Wallach used to tell the story: “I remember in our first or second year, we had an Israeli who was walking outside the bunk at 2 o’clock in the morning. We said, ‘Why aren’t you sleeping?’ He said, ‘I can’t fall asleep because I am afraid the Palestinian kid in my bunk is gonna knife me.'”
We all have fears like that; someone is out to knife us. Someone is always the Other. For Americans, it was once the Irish, the German and the Japanese. It was always the African-American. Today, it’s Trayvon Martin, the immigrant, the Arab, the Muslim.
Not all fears are foreign. Sometimes they come from someone close.
Exactly a year ago, I badly hurt someone I loved — someone close.
Stupid, unthinking, arrogant, inadvertent. My knife was a virtual one, its effect devastating and the wound deep.
I didn’t know how to fix it.
We, too, could have become enemies and lived with constant conflict and suspicion.
Scars remain; they don’t go away. The scar can become either a daily rebuke of transgression or a reminder of the promise of redemption.
Choose wisely. Finding peace is hard work. The promise of peace allows us to sustain our humanity. Recognize the promise of the other.
More of us should learn to sleep with the enemy.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.