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Peacecamp 2004:
"Identities unsolved?"

by Evelyn Böhmer-Laufer

From June 26th to July 5th 2004, 26 youths - 6th graders from Israel and from Austria - came together in Rechberg (Carinthia, Austria) to discuss facets of their personal, cultural and religious identity, and to practice non-violent conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills.

The students and their accompanying adult trainers came from three different high schools:

-          the Jewish-Israeli Ramot Hefer High School, located in Sharon-area in the centre of Israel

-          the Arab-Israeli Ibn Sina High School of the town Kalanswa, located in the centre of Israel within the so called "Green Line"

-          the Alpen Adria High School of Voelkermarkt in Carinthia, close to the Austrian-Slovenian border

Each school was represented by 8-9 students, half boys, half girls, all of them15-17 years old. A multi-professional educational team of artists, teachers and outdoor-trainers who had accompanied the students through the preparatory phase within their school classes conducted the workshops on the camp. This team comprised progressive as well as conservative Jews, Moslems and Christians of various national, social and cultural origins.

Lots of the discussions on the camp focused on aspects of people's roots and identities, as well as on the different socio-cultural realities to which the three groups belonged.

When they discussed "what peace means to me ", this is what the group came up with:

- "peace means freedom and safety, a society where everybody is equal"
- "peace means no racism and equality"
- "when I hear the word 'peace', I think that life is forever and it's a world where people can exist together in the same land"
- "I do believe that peace is possible"
- "for me peace is harmony"
- "peace means a truly JUST solution for everyone"

These thoughts, which could not easily be attributed to any of the groups, were recited at the multi-media show performed on the last evening of the camp; the students were wearing white masks - symbolising the fundamental equality of people and the shared wish for peace, harmony and fairness in the world. To make the masks, students had to form a circle of pairs and let their faces be covered with clay by their respective partners. They then discussed what if had felt like to "to put your face in somebody else's hands", just as they discussed any other activity that took place during those 10 days. Another exercise consisted in turning a carpet upside-down, with 26 pairs of feet standing on it - a nice metaphor for the political struggle over that shared piece of land claimed as homeland by both, Jews and Arabs. "What was helpful, what was disruptive in your attempt to solve this problem?" was one of the most frequently asked questions on this camp, but also: "Were you active or passive, did you take the initiative or were you more a follower?", "How did you like your role and attitude - were you pleased with yourself, did you find your coping mode successful?"

Some of the discussions got really intense: The kids debated and translated, clarified and explained - and got stuck. The tower of Babel collapsed - and this was not due to a language problem, but to the issues which were being discussed. The following sketch, called "Look back in Anger or Go Forward in Peace" ended in a deadlock.

Itamar (in English, to the Arab group): Where are you from?
Fuad (English): From Kalanswa
Maia (English): That's near Tulkarem, isn't it?
Saida (English): But on the Israeli side
Anat (English): It's near Bet Lid. Ya know, my girlfriend's brother was killed there in a terrorist bombing in 1996 (Arab teacher translates into English for Alain, who is Austrian)...
- silence -
Fuad (Arabic): My cousin was killed by an Israeli soldier in Nablus, like one of the soldiers who was standing at the Bet Lid bus stop (Arab teacher translates this into English)
- silence -
Albert (German): But aren't they all Israeli citizens?
- silence -
Monika (German): He's asking: Aren't you all Israelis?
Maia (English): We are, but Palestinians are blowing up buses with school children...
Ali (Arabic): And Israeli soldiers destroy Arab houses and take Arab lands...
- silence -
Martin (German): Wouldn't it be so much better if people could let go of the past and all the anger and just get on with the business of living? (Monika translates this from German into English for Albert, even though Albert understands English well.)
Dan (English): Well, I guess it would be something you might suggest - what was YOUR people doing 60 years ago?????
- silence -
Monika: Well, at least for tonight, can we see if there is ANYthing we have in common???? Who likes Metallic?
Everyone: Awesome!

The Arab participants

Creating masks

Just before the show the adults found that this sketch did not fully account for the complexity of the issue and decided that it had to be removed from the program. But instead of just skipping it, a "narrator" was called on stage to explain in quite a roundabout manner, why a certain - central - piece could not be performed: "The historic and current conflicts between the ethnic groups that converged on Voelkermarkt was something that was easier to resist (underlined in the script for the show) discussing - which is natural (underlined by the author).

A few weeks before the peacecamp, all three groups had worked within their whole school classes on "My roots, my identity, my family"; they had interviewed family members and collected all sorts of objects which reflected their families' cultural, religious and personal heritage and traditions. On the camp these issues were discussed and shared with one another; heated discussions centred on issues like "Am I more Israeli or more Jewish?", "What are you: Israeli or Moslem?", "Are all Israelis Palestinians?", "Can one be an Israeli but not a Jew?", "Are all Austrians Christians?" etc.

A variety of in- and outdoor activities offered exciting opportunities to discuss all these issues in all their complexity and to absorb and assimilate the variety of new elements discovered in the course of these discussions. Another element of the camp were group-activities aimed at finding new and non-aggressive modes of conflict-resolution and problem-solving. The youths were confronted with situations which could be resolved only in co-operation within a (mixed) team: a rowing-competition across the lake, a treasure-hunt in the woods, putting up a show, designing a peaceflag together, composing a song, performing a dance, etc. These were activities which challenge the creativity and require the ability to co-operate with one another. And following each activity, a working through session - "What did it feel like...?", "Were you pleased with your performance?", or "What was in your way so that you could not do the task?"

A final psychoanalytic group-session offered all participants - adults and kids - to scrutinise and process the thoughts and feelings which had come up during the camp. It was the youth who manifested more readiness to dig into the depths of their souls, while some of the adults decided to "let the kids discuss amongst themselves" - and left after the first break. In this context, the Arab's feelings of inferiority, of not-belonging and the lack of equality within the Israeli society became tangible. The Arab's sense of humiliation and shame about discriminating security procedures at the airport was focused upon, but also their dilemma between traditional role behaviour, still strongly adhered to within their families, and the socio-cultural codex of modern, western society shared by most of the Israelis (as well as by the young Austrians) of their generation.

With all the differences related to the very essence of the national, religious, cultural and social histories and identities of the participants, a real encounter took place on this camp and led, deep down, to a sense of mutual understanding and closeness. Apart from the memory of an authentic encounter, a few more lasting things remain after the peacecamp: the peaceflag, designed by the whole group of participants, printed on 36 T-shirts, the olive-tree planted in the Austrian school's courtyard, and the stone-tablet with the words "I trust you" and the word "Peace" in Hebrew, Arabic and German in its assembly-hall. And last, but not least, the tearful goodbye at the airport with the promise of another reunion, "Next year, in Israel".

"peacecamp 2004" was accompanied by a film team (director: Walter Wehmeyer) and will be shown as a documentary film at the Jewish Film Festival in Vienna (November 2004) as well as on a number of TV stations.

"peacecamp 2004" was conceptualised by Evelyn Boehmer-Laufer (Austria) and Nili Gross (Israel) and was realised as a Hadassah Austria project by Mrs. Susanne Shaked, president of Hadassah Austria, Vienna.


Nili Gross: Englisch ????? 19-07-2004

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