MAXWELL: Learning by walking in ancient places

11/22/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Individual American Jews and Jewish organizations provide many of the lifelines that sustain the nation of Israel.

Project Interchange is one such organization and one of the best-kept secrets in the American Jewish community. Even more, Project Interchange, a non-profit affiliate of the American Jewish Committee, serves as a vehicle for answering some of the tough questions dividing Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land and the United States.

On Sunday, I participated in a panel discussion “Walking in Ancient Places: The Project Interchange Experience in Israel.” The other participants, alumni of the Israel seminars, were Florida state Rep. Shirley Brown, the Rev. Michael Cooper, director of the Center for Catholic/Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University, and Barbara Ford-Coates, Sarasota County tax collector.

Given the carnage now in Israel and the occupied territories, Sunday’s talk was timely.

Project Interchange is the only national organization dedicated to providing travel seminars in Israel for America’s non-Jewish political, ethnic, media and religious leaders. The seminars are intended to “educate for impact.”

As a member of the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, I had the honor of traveling to the region with the project in 1996. My group _ African-Americans, American Indians, Asians and Hispanics _ was called Ethnic Media Seminar, and we assumed that the eight-day program was propaganda to make us “friends of Israel.”

If that were the intention, the effort succeeded only in part. We visited the offices and homes of Jewish settlers, and we listened to their side. We spent time with members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the West Bank. Their stories were equally compelling.

Our meetings with Israeli and Palestinian journalists underscored the huge gap _ the misunderstandings, the old hatreds, the profound mistrust _ between their two worlds. We empathized with Palestinian journalists humiliated at Israeli checkpoints. But we understood Israeli fears and their insistence on security.

We saw Palestinian children trapped on rocky hills surrounded by barbed wire, in villages with no running water. Would they ever have a homeland to call their own?

And there were the Israeli children and their parents _ uncertain that they would live to see another day, wondering where the next terrorist bomb would explode. How many schoolchildren, parents asked, would lose limbs? How many would die before peace is a reality?

We also visited a school in the West Bank where Israeli and Palestinian children studied together. The scene offered hope. It manifested honest communication, a common goal, compromise, letting go of sacred notions and using common sense. It demonstrated sanity and the establishment of tolerance and respect between so-called enemies.

I often think of those children. Did they maintain the tolerance they were being taught? Or have they, like many of the adults in their lives, joined the ancient hatreds? I am in touch with one of the students, a secular Jew in Tel Aviv who remains the friend of two of his former Arab classmates. They lament the violence and believe that both sides share blame. They know that a bloody history has overrun reason and compassion.

My trip taught me that only youngsters and the rare political leader who learn to put people before land, buildings and monuments are the region’s only hope for peace.

In the United States, alumni use their Middle East experience to build bridges between Arabs and Jews. In a video shown during the panel discussion, alumni, including governors, members of Congress, state officials, judges, business executives, newspaper editors, college students, discuss how they use information acquired in the seminars in their daily work.

The governor of Virginia, for example, returned with a keener sense of the goals and desires of the Jewish and Arab citizens of his state. A newspaper editor explains that because of his experience, he now insists that his staff presents more objective views of events in the Middle East. As for me, I arrived in Israel in 1996 with a pro-Israeli mindset. After the trip, however, I had a clearer picture of the Palestinians’ plight.

I now write as sympathetically about the Palestinians as I do about Israelis. Thanks to Project Interchange, I know more about the region and better understand the many dynamics tearing the inhabitants apart. Nothing substitutes for the on-the-ground experience of walking in ancient places.