Interview by Thilo Schöne
Alex Kusner and Maisa Zoabi coordinate and facilitate the Face-to-Face/Faith-to-Faith group of ICCI since January 2010. Alex is a 27-year old Jewish Israeli who holds a B.A. in social work from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the graduate of several facilitator training workshops as well as a pre-military training program for social leadership. Maisa is a 25-year old Muslim Palestinian Israeli who holds a B.A. in Education and Chemistry as well as a Teacher’s Certificate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has been guiding and tutoring youth for several years.
Each year for the past 7 years, ICCI recruits a group of 12-14 Jewish, Christian and Muslim youth to participate in a year-long dialogue and leadership program called Face to Face / Faith to Faith. The program includes attending a two-week summer intensive experience in the U.S., as part of a full, comprehensive year of dialogue and action projects in Jerusalem. This program is done in partnership with the Auburn Theological Seminary of New York and local groups in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the U.S.A.
After the return of the teenagers from the summer intensive in July, I talked to Alex and Maisa about their experiences in the program.
After asking about her impressions, it was important for Alex to highlight the huge difference in the behavior of the Israeli and Palestinian participants in this program after the summer intensive experience. Most of them had for the first time in their life the chance to talk to the “other” all day long for two full weeks. They felt understood and were more able to identify the core of the issues.
According to Alex, the teenagers were much more forthright in engaging difficult topics and discussing them openly and honestly. The exchange with the youth from other conflict regions in the world—especially South Africa and Northern Ireland—gave them hope that there could be a peace agreement in their region as well.
She observed that the teenagers saw how coexistence is working, especially in Northern Ireland. In comparison to all the other regions, they got the feeling that their story is one story in many conflictual stories of the world. Most of them became better listeners than before. They noticed in one activity in which they were supposed to draw a time line of the conflict that their narratives do not match at all. It seems that this was a turning point, since it was the first time that their internal disagreements actually came to the surface.
Alex emphasized: “I, as a Jewish-Israeli, noticed how limited the audience of the Palestinians is, and because the chance that their voice is going to be heard is small, all of their thoughts, words and actions change in such a situation. As soon as our Palestinian teenagers felt that their opinions are respected and have the same quality for us as the Jewish opinions, they changed their attitude and opened themselves for real dialogue.”
Maisa has been facilitating such a group for the first time this year, but she participated already in dialogue seminars for several years. She expected from the program that people will learn more about the other side and especially how to listen, even though it may sometimes be painful.
She saw these goals as achieved: “There is this one Palestinian boy who felt that he had constantly to be the voice of the Palestinian people. He attacked the Jewish participants when they said something. In the camp he started to listen and to accept different narratives. I would never have believed that this change could actually occur in such a short time but it did happen and it made me happy.”
Maisa added that a key to understanding the behavior of some of the Palestinian Israelis is their position as a minority in Israel. This influences their way of thinking, since they tend to generally see themselves in the position of an underdog. It is really hard for Palestinian youth to open themselves up, to talk and to acknowledge the suffering of the other, because they fear if they leave their identity as a minority no one will care about their suffering anymore. That is why it is so important to create an atmosphere of trust and respect. Maisa observed: “I, as a Palestinian Israeli, also learned many things in the program. Not only did I learn to be patient, but I also heard many things about the suffering of the Palestinians in Jerusalem. I am from the north of Israel and we live together there. The Jews were my neighbors, not my enemy. It was a shock for me to encounter the real problems 14-year olds have to deal with in Jerusalem.”
In summary, both Alex and Maisa are happy that they have the opportunity to be facilitators in the summer intensive and in the Face to Face program throughout the year, and both want to go on with this program. They see a change in the teenagers’ behavior, which gives them hope that more changes will be possible during the second half of this program in the coming 4-5 months.