Peace project aims to bridge Arab-Israeli divide

Phull Ghrouf and Yoav Peck provide a Palestinian and Israeli perspective, respectively, during the Sulha Peace Project at Central Reform Congregation last week. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

During last summer’s military action in Gaza, Yoav Peck found himself at a gathering of Palestinians and Israelis who were breaking bread and talking peace. But the sky above was still a reminder that trouble wasn’t far away.

“A missile was intercepted overhead while we had dinner,” said Peck, a native New Yorker who has lived in Israel for 40 years. “You could just look up at the right moment and see it happen.”

Still, Peck’s gathering, the Sulha Peace Project, was a success. It hosted Arabs, including those whose families were at risk in Gaza, and Jews, including those with relatives fighting on the front lines in the war zone.

“In spite of that, people felt strengthened. We were able to listen to each other’s pain,” he said. “Despite the fact that their interests conflicted, we were one group, one community. That’s really our message. Even when we’re at odds, we can be together and strive for something bigger.”

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The Sulha Peace Project brought that message to St. Louis and Central Reform Congregation on June 3 — its first event in the Midwest. Joined by Palestinian friend and fellow Sulha member Phull Ghrouf, Peck spoke in the sanctuary of his experiences and the organization’s purpose. Congregants also donated cash to the effort during and after a sponsors dinner. The evening concluded with a few attendees gathering around a bonfire outside for music and conversation, a tradition of Sulha since its inception 12 years ago during the Second Intifada. 

“There is this wonderful process going on in Israel/Palestine where thousands of people, Israelis and Palestinians, get together around tribal fires,” Rabbi Susan Talve said. “They sing and they dance and they drum — and they dialogue. It is an effort to bring reconciliation after lots of hurt on both sides. How do you heal from the hurt? That’s what Sulha is about.”

In fact, “sulha” means “reconciliation” in Arabic.

Talve said conversation creates trust.

“When people don’t know each other, they are more prone to make ‘other’ of each other and to have ideas that are not right,” she said. “When you have real dialogue — not disputation, but real dialogue — you have an opportunity to make relationships.”

Morton Hyman, who attended the sponsors dinner, agreed.

“You can’t respect each other if you don’t know each other,” he said. “That’s what this whole program is about.”

Ghrouf, 30, is a native of Amman, Jordan, who later moved to Jericho in the West Bank. He told the audience that when he started meeting Jews for the first time, it was an amazing experience.

“When I got back to the West Bank, I discovered that there was another way to deal with Zionists, not to fight them,” he said. “I spoke with them, and I discovered in myself that there is a way to dialogue with these Israelis.”

Still, he said, life there is difficult.

“At the same time, I’m trying to do peace dialogue with the country that is occupying our land,”  Ghrouf said.

He said it can be frustrating to get stuck at a border or security checkpoint on the way to a Sulha gathering. Yet once he gets there, he always feels better.

“All those feelings disappear,” Ghrouf said. “My heart opens again.”

Peck, 68, a psychologist and grandfather of three, said that peace-minded Israelis are distressed by the recent re-election of the current government.

“The joke among the reservists as they return equipment is, ‘I’ll see you in the next round,’ ” he said.

Calling Israel “a country without agreed-upon borders,” Peck said that young soldiers are sent to the conflict in the territories to learn “the language of violence.”

“I don’t want to be unclear about this,” he said. “If somebody asks me if I support my soldiers going in to find people who are preparing bombs, the answer is yes. We have to protect ourselves.

“At the same time, if we are only protecting ourselves and not advancing the march toward peace, then we get despair. Then there is really no point.”

Peck talked about witnessing a meeting at a Sulha event between an Israeli soldier who would soon be manning checkpoints and a Palestinian youth who would soon be throwing stones at him. Yet they were now friends.

“We have to create the infrastructure, the human infrastructure, of people who have experienced the other side and have hope and are willing to roll up their sleeves and do something together,” he said.

Peck and Ghrouf spoke of being rejected by some in their communities simply for engaging with the other side via Sulha.

“A lot of times, we get anger,” Ghrouf said. “Not all the people respect what we are doing, but this is our choice. It is hard sometimes, but we deal with it.”

Peck said, “People are sometimes scornful of this. It is beyond politics what we are doing so the more hard-nosed political folks are sometimes scornful of these people-to-people encounters.”

At the end of the presentation, congregants were asked to participate in role-playing exercises,  to take on the persona of an Israeli or a Palestinian.

Part of the impetus for the midweek event came from Linda Cohen, a local woman who was a childhood friend of Peck’s when they both lived in New York. Recently, she saw Peck, who   lives in Jerusalem, at a high school reunion. He had already held Sulha gatherings in the United States.

“I said, ‘Well, you know, there is more than just the East and West coasts for raising people’s consciousness and raising some funds,’ ” she said.

Rabbi Alison Abrams is glad the pair visited. In from Chicago on other business, the Midwest regional director of JStreet, a liberal pro-Israel group, said she believed the evening was productive.

“I thought it was amazing,” she said. “Any work we do to bring about peace and a different kind of reality is important. I’m always glad to see other organizations and hear what they are doing.”

Eva Borgwardt, 19, of Olivette, said the night held lessons for her, as a college student. 

“Something important that I took from this event was that it is really incredible that Israelis and Palestinians in Israel and Palestine can talk to each other when students on American college campuses are having such a challenge with that right now,” she said.

Borgwardt said American conversations turn too quickly to politics without concentrating on relationships. She hopes that young American Jews can follow the example of their Mideast counterparts in Sulha.

“They are doing their part,” she said. “Now we have to do ours.”

Renee Marver, 68, of St. Louis, agreed.

“I got that message. Sometimes you have to forget the politics and just look at each other and say we care about each other and have empathy for each other,” she said. “I like that message. It helped me feel hopeful.”