Listening - and Acting - for Peace

NSL team members discuss how Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others shaped the narratives of their times.  From left to right: Aviv Ayash (Israeli), Abeer Shehahed (Palestinian), Muhanad Alkharaz (P), Shay Ater (I), and Sivan Atzmon (I). Photo Credit: New Story Leadership

On Wednesday, July 8, Capitol Hill will have a special opportunity to hear participants in New Story Leadership (NSL), a unique program that brings young adults from conflict zones to Washington to live, work and learn together. The event -- New Voices from Israel and Palestine -- will take place from 7-9 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 301 A Street, SE.  

Each summer since 2010, NSL has provided a “safe space” in which five Israelis and five Palestinians (ages 18-32) can learn how to share their stories, listen respectfully, and perhaps even empathize with one another.  

“We look for courage in selecting candidates,” says NSL founder, Paul Costello, “the courage to spend a summer with 'the enemy' and together challenge the stereotypes that keep both Washington and the Middle East locked in place.” The program builds upon techniques Costello helped develop in two other conflict-prone areas of the world: South Africa and Ireland.

Capitol Hill residents Karen and Tom Getman say that NSL's approach responds to a critical need that they witnessed while living in Jerusalem from 1997 through 2001. "Given the increasing separation of the two populations," says Karen, "it has become rare for Israelis and Palestinians to know each other personally.” “Yet recognizing each other’s humanity through sharing personal stories is essential,” adds Tom, “if true justice, security, and peace are ever to be achieved."  

Together with Hill resident Maureen Shea, the Getmans co-founded the Mid-East Working Group at St. Mark's in 2009.  "Like NSL," Shea says, “we provide opportunities for our church members and others to hear the voices of Palestinians and Israelis so that they can understand the conflict in the context of those personal experiences."  In 2013, Shea and Karen Getman led a “dual narrative” pilgrimage to the Holy Land for St. Mark's members, accompanied by both an Israeli and a Palestinian guide.  This fall, the Getmans will lead a similar pilgrimage. 

New Story Leadership’s 2015 Team

Participants in NSL’s sixth summer program arrived on June 13. Many are encountering individuals “from the other side” for the first time -- or for the first time outside of a situation fraught with tension and the potential for violence. NSL gives them an opportunity to step across physical, societal, and psychological barriers to meet each other. In pairs, one Palestinian and one Israeli, participants live with host families in the area. For part of each week they work in a variety of Washington offices: for Members of Congress, for non-profit organizations engaged in the Middle East, or for other institutions relevant to their interests.

This summer, Ehab Iwidat, 20, a student at Birzeit University in the West Bank, and Aviv Ayash, 27, who is doing postgraduate work at Tel Aviv’s Open University, will be working for Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL). Assisting Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) will be Chen Bareket, 28, and Muhanad Alkharaz, 26. Bareket, an Israeli, is finishing a political science degree at Hebrew University. Alkharaz, a Palestinian, is on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee, studying the Policy and Economics of Freshwater Resources. 

“I’ve worked and studied alongside Israelis before, but this is the first time I’ve ever shared a home with one,” says Alkharaz. “Having someone to bounce ideas off of is important,” he says. “Even walking to and from the Metro, we’re reflecting on the day’s activities and building trust little by little.  Learning how to listen comes with experience.”

At the new Mosaic Theater Company on H Street, NE, Sivan Atzmon, 32, will be working with artistic director Ari Roth. An honors graduate in Theatre and Psychology with a Master’s in Management from Tel Aviv University, Atzmon is passionate about creating social change through theater. Having recently completed a program on “Social Theater” in London, she is excited by the theme for Mosaic’s inaugural season, The Case for Hope in a Polarized World.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve met Palestinians and have been able to discuss, study and hang out with them,” says Atzmon.  “Naturally it is challenging, but NSL provides a framework and a process in which we can feel genuinely heard as we tell our own stories and, conversely, in which we can hear and explore the different ways our team-mates view the situation back home. These personal narratives help us understand each other and the wider context.” 

Elsewhere in the District, NSL participants will be working with Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. branch of Israel’s oldest peace group, and the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press.

Agents for Change

Through their volunteer activities, studies, or work experience, the individuals who are drawn to New Story Leadership have already demonstrated their commitment to making the world a better place. Yet they realize that there are still important boundaries to be crossed and skills to be learned.

Alkharaz, for example, helped develop a water filter while working with Comet-ME, a Palestinian-Israeli non-profit that designs and installs water systems for poor families in Hebron. Atzmon co-founded “Victory 15,” a campaign to promote change through this year’s election process in Israel. Bareket has worked for a campaign to combat anti-Semitism.

As part of the NSL application process, aspiring participants have to propose a “Project for Change” to initiate back home. Costello sees this as an important way to help them “step out of the role of victim into the role of change agent.” While in Washington, team members critique each other’s plans. NSL also puts them in touch with mentors who can advise them on project design and implementation.  

The proposed projects vary widely. Alkharaz wants to help Palestinians address the degradation of their natural environment. Ayash wants to use sports as a path to reduce conflict. Bareket envisions using “Social Media for Social Change.” Iwidat, who works in a Ramallah hotel, wants to strengthen the West Bank economy by creating low-cost tourism options for international visitors.

Atzmon’s goal is to create social theater with young leaders in the region: “I’d like to bring together youth from Israel with those from Palestine and two other countries to create a theatrical experience that probes these issues and leaves no one untouched, but that ultimately becomes the breathing ground for new perceiving both on stage and in reality.”

“We’re meeting great people here in Washington and getting helpful advice,” says Alkharaz, “but in the end, only we will be going back to the Middle East.  Our projects aren’t going to solve all the problems, but each has the potential to build bridges.  I feel good knowing that I’ll now have the NSL community – my team-mates and all the alumni – encouraging me to implement my project.”

Like New Story Leadership, St. Mark’s places great importance on reflective, respectful dialogue and creating a safe space within which individuals can share their personal stories, including their doubts and beliefs.  It also seeks to empower people to become advocates for change.   

For more information about NSL, see www.newstoryleadership.org.  For St. Mark’s Mid-East Working Group, see www.stmarks.net/get-involved.

Peter Hawley is a member of St. Mark’s.


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.