Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why do we need “peace” stories?

Arab-Israeli Rawan Kamal chats with tablemates during lunch at the Seeds of Peace camp in Otisfield, Maine July 10, 2002.

Arab-Israeli Rawan Kamal chats with tablemates during lunch at the Seeds of Peace camp in Otisfield, Maine July 10, 2002.

This summer, my heart and mind have been consumed by the surge of violence in and around Gaza. Posts on my Facebook news feed and Twitter account, as well as personal communications from friends and colleagues in the region, have provided a chilling, sad, and yet still incomplete glimpse of what daily life has been like for so many in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.

24 hours into what will hopefully be a lasting cease-fire, these snapshots nevertheless stay with me. The photos and stories of grievous injuries and deaths and the vitriolic rhetoric and debate over the issues at stake have, at times, felt overwhelming. An externality of the war this summer has been increased media coverage of grassroots efforts to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians by a multitude of NGOs who have been working in the region for years, sometimes even decades. Recently, Seeds of Peace—a non-political organization teaching peacemaking and leadership skills to teenagers from conflict zones, on whose Global Advisory Board I serve—has been spotlighted with a great deal of coverage, including by the NBC Nightly News, USA Today, and other outlets.

This media coverage, while universally complimentary of the organization and its efforts, leaves me feeling conflicted.

On the one hand, I am heartened by the uplifting stories of dialogue and connection between the teenagers on opposite “sides” of the conflict. Indeed, the positive message spread by the media is borne out in my own experience interacting with both the young leaders themselves and the courageous individuals who run Seeds of Peace’s summer camp in Otisfield, Maine. Israelis and Palestinian youths come together and often—through tremendously difficult work that seems nearly impossible to most of us—find ways to empathize with and appreciate the narrative of those whom they would otherwise see as enemies. Kids4Peace, another organization operating a similar camp here in Boston, takes on the same challenging task of creating space for dialogue and connection between groups in conflict. Learning about these organizations encourages me because they truly envision a better future and work tirelessly to chip away at a problem that usually seems intractable and, some might say, hopeless. They believe in, and act on, the humbling truth that change begins with individuals.

On the other hand, these news stories—and my own heartened reaction to them—are troubling. Seeds of Peace has been running a summer camp for over 20 years. Why do we only see such an increase in media coverage of organizations like this when the war in Gaza reaches new heights? What human need do these “peace” stories fill for us, as concerned but otherwise distant spectators of the renewed violence? I worry that occasional “token” news reporting like this gives us just enough “cover” to sleep at night—to rest assured that everything will work out well in the end because good can survive even in the midst of violence and destruction. Indeed, TV spots about NBA stars playing basketball with campers certainly offer a respite, a chance to exhale when the vast majority of the news we have heard from the region only makes us gasp with horror and sadness. But I worry it might inadvertently make us feel just “okay enough” to feel better about a world that perhaps we shouldn’t feel better about—for along with the inspirational messages from the media comes the risk of complacency and a false sense of security. It coats the difficult and heart-wrenching work of managing real conflict with a shiny veneer, and sometimes even serves as a distraction from the work that the campers need to be doing themselves. Worse, I wonder also whether it allows us to absolve ourselves of responsibility and connection with the conflict generally. After all, if inspiring and mature young teenagers are taking on the work of peacebuilding, isn’t the future in good hands? A tempting but perilous response to the media coverage could be, “Our work is done.”

My quandary about the media coverage leaves me confused and stuck. While I feel proud of the “seeds” and gladdened that the public consciousness is being raised about their efforts, I am left with the sour sense that the news stories are trying to put a neat bow on something that can’t – and shouldn’t — be wrapped. My only conclusion is that my own feelings about the way the media has responded to the surge in war over the past several months mirror in a small sense the complexity  of the conflict itself. My hope is that peacebuilding efforts—in the Middle East and elsewhere—will one day be newsworthy in and of themselves and that important stories of conflict management can be told on a more constant basis—not only when we, the public, seem to need them most.

Robert C. Bordone ’97 is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor and the Founding Director of the HNMCP.