This post was written by Sean Miller, a participant on the Onward Israel Diversity and Coexistence summer program located in Haifa, Lod & Jaffa. In the form of an internship, participants join local initiatives that are working on coexistence and diversity related projects on a daily basis. Sean is based in Jaffa, interning for YaLa Young Leaders, a peace movement of 950,000+ young leaders from the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region who are fostering dialogue & change.
Service Learning. Over the past month I’ve come to appreciate just how valuable these two words are. Part of the reason I wanted to join the Onward Israel Diversity and Coexistence Program in the first place was that I recognized how valuable it can be to learn through experience rather than just in a classroom. In college I began to take notice of just how important experiential learning is. The classes that I performed best in were consistently ones in which I was passionate (or at least highly) interested in the material and how I can apply it to my behavior, values, or worldview. I also did quite well in classes which included a lot of field trips. The classes which included both were incredible. My appreciation for experiential learning was further cemented, at a more cerebral level, when I encountered the education reform literature and talks of Sir. Ken Robinson. Beyond his work, my studies in Psychology and Neuroscience continually turned up research illustrating that people’s brains are wired to remember things that they do (especially if those events include emotions).
The average academic course might devote 1/25th of its curriculum (including time devoted to homework assignments) to nearby, convenient field trips. The other ~ 24/25ths of the time (I’m estimating based on my college classes) is spent trying to focus on a professor lecturing, a book, or both. That’s all well and good for the countless number of students who have unlimited amounts of focus, attention spans, and love learning through reading or listening quietly. But I believe it’s not in our nature to be still, quiet, and absorb knowledge though just reading and the stories of one man at a time! We tend to learn much more robustly by doing!
Now, as a member of the program, I can see for myself how much better this whole “learning through service and experience” thing works! One of the first things I noticed about the program is that it’s setup to make us not just listen, but think. Without habits being activated constantly by the myriads of triggers of our normal daily lives and surroundings, we are forced to use the conscious parts of our brains to figure out everything from “How do I get home from here without using the internet?” to “What is my opinion on this aspect of the conflict?” With each lesson we take on we find ourselves in a new place, surrounded by new sights, new smells, and new people.
In my reflections and discussions, I can already see that if I want to channel my opinions and knowledge about the Bedouin people, I can simply think back to when we met them! I can remember what I learned about Bedouins in a Bedouin village. I can remember what I learned about the Druze people from Druze people, in a Druze village. And what’s more, they’re no longer just a people – an “other”. To me the Druze are Adam Dabour and his father, Dr. Nazeeh Dabour, (seen here) who graciously hosted us for a night in their lovely mountain-top home. They’re Maya, a young Druze girl who is in charge of the youth program, which Dr. Dabour founded. (The program gives support to the kids of the community who need some academic help, guidance, or just a reliable friend to talk to). The people here aren’t just people or others, they’re friends of mine. We shared stories, we ate together, we debated the best strategies in Call of Duty, and we shared Facebook information so we can keep in touch! Each experience was both informative and exciting enough to ensure that I learn a great deal, while being able to remember just how exciting and fun that experience was! And if I have questions which weren’t answered, I now have a group I can discuss them with (in formal or informal discussions) and people from those groups who I can contact to ask!
The discussion groups and weekend trips to go explore and learn are invaluable. Through these, I have really learned to think critically about the issues and identities here. Through reflection on my experiences here in these discussions I have come to new conclusions about my own identity, and feelings towards many different issues here. I know it would not have been possible to learn to this extent without being here, especially because of how nuanced and complicated the issues, identities, and organizations in Israel are. Major media likes to paint it as a very simple issue, so that we can all understand it and agree that “this person is good” and “these people are bad! In my opinion, the greatest gift of this program is its attention to detail. There are so many viewpoints, stories, parts of history, religious views, people, borders, values, questions of ethics, and political factors at play here… Anyone who thinks that they can explain Israel simply is kidding both their self and their audience. In fact, the only way to explain the issues here concisely is to talk about Israel like a strange unresolved relationship status… “It’s complicated.” Even the people who live here don’t fully understand it! From what I’ve learned most Israelis don’t know Bedouins, Druze, or Palestinians, and their first encounter with Palestinians often doesn’t happen until their IDF service… So it’s common that the first time Israelis meet these people (Palestinians especially) are in situations where they’re searching them and profiling them for security while shuffling them through a checkpoint into the country. If not here, they’re meeting them on high alert, in the West Bank – where the IDF is constantly surveilling and restricting the flow of people, clad with assault rifles and plenty of tension. What a lovely setting for forming a first impression of an entire group of people! Anyway, the point is that many Israelis grow up with a biased view of these issues; and Zionism and conservative religion often make it worse.
Having immersed ourselves in study and experience of these issues for the past 5 weeks, our group only has a strong foundational understanding of the issues here! That’s not to say that we didn’t learn much, because we learned a ton during our time here, much more than I expected or could have predicted. There’s so much nuance, so much going on, and so much that changes every week. There are enormous complexities here, which can only be understood at a visceral level by listening to the faces of the people whose stories contribute to this complexity. It’s a massive collage of narratives. Here we can feel a friend’s pain, listen to an old man or young woman’s hopes and visions, and begin to see everyone’s collective longing for rights, education, a decent living, and above all, peace. Peace allows parents to raise their families well, to live each of their lives without looking over their shoulders or worrying about where the closest bomb shelter is. PTSD is a common issue here, which sadly results from the constant conflict, attacks, and loss.
It’s also important to note that I’ve learned a great deal about regional efforts to connect the Middle East through programs in education and communication. Breaking down barriers is often as simple as introducing people, so they can both get to know a little about “the other”. My internship organization, YaLa Young Leaders, is fantastic at this. Their online forums allows young minds from all across the Middle East and Northern Africa to learn from “peace professionals”, meet each other, share their experiences, their sadness, their hope, and, most importantly, share their support for one another. They find commonalities much more than they see differences through their writing and discussions, and they help each other to learn about various events, places, and people from all over the MENA region. They also offer free online courses in citizen journalism, lectures and facilitated discussion on peace promotion and conflict resolution, and programs for community enrichment, health and wellness, and education through their YaLa Africa division. Working with YaLa, I have come to understand the power that an online organization has to bring young leaders, activists, and curious minds together. They are planting seeds of peace in communities all across Africa and the Middle East; and the extent to which they foster hope for more friendship and peace to grow is both heartwarming and incredibly inspiring. As Uri Savir (Founder of YaLa Young Leaders, Co-Founder of the Shimon Peres Center for Peace, former Knesset member, and Chief Negotiator of the Oslo Accords) put it in one of our meetings, (I’m paraphrasing slightly for the sense of brevity) “Religion is a very powerful tool, but it can’t provide economically. In the next 10 years the current conservative regime will lose because of this… Also when they (the members of our programs) interact on YaLa they feel a sense of relief, because they’re isolated in their societies… All of this together puts us at a plateau, leading a force, an undercurrent, which is rising up together against ISIS and all forms of oppressive extremism. The answer needs to come from Israel, not from the US… it needs to come from the Arab world and from the youth”.
In summation, this experience has been amazing. I have learned more in 5 weeks than I probably could have in a year of classes on this region. My life, and my identity are changed by this incredible, personal, and moving experience, and I am more than grateful for it. I’m particularly grateful to those who made this program possible (Onward Israel), those who made the program what it is (Yahel and Bina), and to all those friends, family, and financial supporters of this program who helped me to get here. This program has been the closest that I can come to rewriting my life story, so that I know deeply, personally know how much the issues here change peoples’ lives. Unfortunately most of that change is still for the worst on a societal level (as can only be expected from any society in which the government endorses only its own political agenda in public schools, obviously marginalizes the rights of minorities and their neighborhoods, abides by certain theocratic principles, and mandates active military service for all young adults, before their brains’ sense of maturity and critical thinking is fully formed). That being said, it’s become evident to me that NGOs and small municipal organizations here are now leading the way in uniting people and providing equal educational and economic tools and opportunities. I can’t wait to give back, and to use the knowledge and wisdom that I’ve gained in my time here to inform my future peace efforts and prudently enlighten my community at home. I can’t wait to talk to friends and family and tell them what Israel is really like, not just what the government is doing or what the media says. I can’t wait to give back, and to lend a hand in peace and education efforts wherever I am useful and/or needed. I am more guided, and much more inspired. I know what I know, but more importantly, I know where my work for self-improvement (practicing listening, learning, empathizing, and resolving conflict) lies. I’m ready to be an informal ambassador of this region to those who have never been here, and I’m immensely grateful that I am now much better at being the change I wish to see in the world.
At the end of the day, it’s all about mirror neurons and empathy. We all just want to live our lives with hope not fear, with joy, laughter, and a profound sense of unity.