April 28, 2009

AMMAN, JORDAN—Here at Peace Camp, it’s hard not to think about war.

48 teenagers (high school and college students) from 27 countries have gathered in Jordan for Peace Camp, sponsored by People to People International. One of these students is from Israel, while another is from the Palestinian territories. (In addition, there are students from both sides of other nations in conflict, like Russia-Georgia and Serbia-Kosovo).

Our Israeli girl, a very bright, energetic young lady, is one of the most open teenagers at Peace Camp. We recently discussed peace in the Middle East, and what she said was very consistent with what I have been hearing throughout my stay in Jordan—that there are dark clouds hanging low over the peace process here. Why the pessimism? The chief cause seems to be the new Israeli government, led by conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Our Israeli student says a new peace agreement will not be possible under the Netanyahu government, and statements by his foreign minister seem to bear this out. One recent news article states, “Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman began his new job Wednesday by declaring the death of U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. ‘Whoever thinks that concessions ... will achieve something is wrong,’ Lieberman said shortly after being sworn in before a crowded room of diplomats at the Foreign Ministry. ‘He will bring pressures and more wars.’" (bellinghamherald.com)

Our Israeli student is not alone in this pessimistic assessment, which I have heard echoed by Jordanian after Jordanian during my visit here. While the Israeli student seemed exasperated and disappointed by Lieberman’s comments, the Jordanians seem angry. One Jordanian-Palestinian, Fawaz (brother in law of Parkville restaurateur Jehad Selah), said, “How can we have peace when we have no partner for peace?”

This, of course, lead to a larger discussion between Fawaz and myself about the nature of the conflict here. Fawaz’s observations are, of course, colored by his experiences, which include being exiled from Palestine by the 1967 war. Still, I was impressed by his ability to see both sides of the issue, and his willingness to admit wrongdoing not only by Israel but by Hamas and Hezbollah and the Palestinian leadership. We agreed that the recent war in Gaza was awful; but moreover, foolish for all parties.

Despite the gathering clouds, our trip here to the holy land was not without its inspiring, optimism-inducing moments, such as a seminar on religious tolerance and inter-religious cooperation that the campers and I attended. A Christian priest (5% of Jordanians are Christians) and two Islamic Mullahs discussed the role of religion in bringing people together. The religious leaders did genuinely seem to respect, and like, one another. They spoke at length about the fact that both Christianity and Islam command them to peacefully co-exist. The priest was adamant in stating that Islam is not a religion of violence, a fact that he said he has made clear on many occasions. Indeed, the students received a copy of the Amman Declaration, which has been endorsed by dozens of Muslim leaders in the Middle East. In no uncertain terms, it spells out the responsibility of Muslims to forsake violence and to embrace a life of peace and harmony.

As comforting as the religious session was, I couldn’t help but wonder if this interfaith goodwill has any depth beyond these educated, respected leaders. Do the average congregants in a Christian church or worshippers in an Islamic mosque in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East also respect other religions, and believe in peaceful co-existence?

One other hopeful sign was provided by our Israeli student and our Palestinian student. Without any prompting from the adults, the two joined forced to plant a tree together in a peace park on the outskirts of Amman. If these young people’s actions are any indication, perhaps peace can take root in this troubled part of the world.
Steven Youngblood - USA
Steven Youngblood is an associate professor of Communication Arts at Park University in Parkville, MO USA. This column appears courtesy of the Parkville Luminary, where he is a weekly columnist. Youngblood is teaching Peace Journalism to the Peace Camp students in Jordan. He has taught Peace Journalism in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and the U.S., and will also be teaching for USAID this summer in Uganda.

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