Summer Peace Camp at Givat Haviva inspires novel


By Julie Fellmayer


For the past week the lawns of Givat Haviva have been littered with white makeshift tents, brightly painted with drawings and slogans for peace and coexistence.  Loud rock music blared from the PA system and the screams and laughter of over-excited children could be heard from every corner of the campus.  Candy wrappers overflowed in the garbage cans and art projects were thrust in one's face with demands from tiny voices that you admire their work.  Not that the staff at Givat Haviva were complaining about the excess energy and noise!  The kids, aged 9-12, were here for Kaytanat HaShalom/Mukhayam Asalam – the Peace Summer Camp.  This camp, which takes place at Givat Haviva every year for two weeks at the end of June, brings Arab and Jewish children together from villages, kibbutzim and towns in the Menashe and Triangle region.  The aim of the camp is coexistence through giving Arab and Jewish children a chance to spend time with each other in a relaxed and fun environment.  "Peace is the reason for the camp but it's not the main focus," says 17-year-old Amitai, a counselor at the camp, "We just want the kids to realize that everyone here can be their friend."  Building bridges between the two communities is an important part of the work done at the camp, as the children do not often have a chance to interact with people from the other side. 

Considering the barriers of language, culture and conflict it is easy to see how neighbouring communities can be so separate.  The camp is here to provide a stepping-stone towards interaction with the "other."  Saeed Arda, a camp leader, makes it clear that the goals of the camp are not excessively idealistic.  "We don't expect them to become friends," says Saeed, "We expect them to respect each other."


This expectation is more than a goal of the camp; it is a pledge for peace in the entire region.  The importance of the fun and playful atmosphere is underlined by the events that initiated the camp.  In

2002 Kibbutz Mezer, where many of the children participating in the camp are from, experienced a horrific attack.  A gunman from the West Bank entered the kibbutz and shot a woman and her two young children in their home.  During his escape he shot two more people who had rushed to the scene.  The members of the kibbutz, who had always fostered good relations with the neighbouring Arab villages, were shocked by the attack.  However, they were determined not to let it destroy the relationships they had with their Arab neighbours, especially Meiser, an Arab-Israeli village just a kilometer from the kibbutz.  The people of the surrounding Arab villages came to Mezer to offer their condolences, and from there the two communities made a decided effort to send a message of peace and cooperation.  From the horrible tragedy of the Mezer attack, the summer Peace Camp was born. 


The task of enhanced coexistence and cooperation set by the parents of the campers is not an easy one, especially considering that the Jewish children don't speak Arabic and only a few of the Arab children have begun to learn Hebrew.  "It is hard to make friends because I don't understand them and they don't understand me," says 11-year-old Amy.  All the same, there is communication between the kids.  In his role as the counselor and also as a former camper, Amitai can see how the kids work around the barrier of language.  "You can see them trying to communicate in the games that we play together; they use sign language and a few simple words.  On the bus they all sing together, they all know the same songs from the radio and television!" 


The children themselves seem not to notice the bi-national aspect of the camp; most joined for the fun of it all.  Sammy, 10 years old from Arara, and Eyad, 11 years old from Meiser, said they came to the camp "to swim, play and make beautiful things."


In the midst of the hilarity of the camp two women can be seen milling about around the children, one of them taking copious notes and the other snapping away at the kids-at-play.  Trish Marx, a writer from New York, and Cindy Karp a photographer from Miami, are visiting the camp with the aim of capturing its story for a new book entitled "Sharing Our Homeland."  This book, the 5th collaboration of the two women, will tell the story of the camp with both words and pictures.  "The photo essay and the story of the book complement each other," says Karp, explaining the concept of the book.  The book will briefly touch upon the roots of the Arab/Israeli conflict since 1948, in order to give their young readers some context and understanding of the story.  However, the authors see the camp as the center of their plot with the focus of the book on experiencing the camp through the eyes of two particular children.  The women explain that this is the way they always tell a story in their books, and in the case of the Peace Camp they have chosen a 12 year old Arab girl and a 9 year old Jewish boy.  Cindy in particular raves about the girl they chose for the book. "She stood out immediately; she was so dignified and graceful.  She had very strong eye contact.  She was the only girl at the camp wearing the hijab (traditional Muslim dress for women), which she told us was a decision she had made when she was very young.  The Jewish boy that will also star in the book was first noticed by the storytellers because he was so big for his age, but when Trish and Cindy interviewed him they were happy to find that he was also very mature.  "He comes from a strong family, well educated and very supportive." Trish told me, explaining the selection of the boy.  "They're not very religious, but they are observant, and this makes him a nice counterpart to the girl in the story." 


The book will tell the larger story of the Arab/Israeli conflict through the microcosm of the two children seeking to understand each other.  Trish and Cindy explain that their aim is to let people know what's really happening in Israel, that beyond the politics and the bad news in the media there are stories like this camp and meetings between the two sides that don't involve political leaders.  "The families have been so supportive and inviting," says Cindy, "They seem to intuitively understand what we are trying to do.  They see that through the book we are trying to contribute to their efforts for peace."


Trish and Cindy decided not to include the story of the terrorist attack in their book – in fact they had not known about the attack until a few days into the camp.  "When we create the book we stick to what we see," says Cindy.  They tell the story of the conflict through the eyes of the two campers: two children who know all too well the barriers that stand between them.  The barriers are still there to be climbed, but in the playfulness of the camp the tragedy

of the conflict is invisible.    


Courtesy of:  Givat Haviva, The Jewish-Arab Center for Peace

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