Could this Ontario summer camp hold the key to peace in the Middle East?
The Heart to Heart program brings together 20 Israeli teens who would never dream of becoming friends
In June 2017, I found myself working as a camp counselor for a youth program called Heart to Heart. The idea behind it was this: bring together 20 teenagers from Israel for two and a half weeks to roast hot dogs, make friendship bracelets, and talk about identity, history, and power.
Half the participants were Jewish citizens from Israel, half were Palestinian citizens from Israel, and they all lived within a 20-minute drive from each other back home.
My task as a counselor would be, essentially, to help the participants become, as the young people say, "woke."
Except they're 15, don't speak a ton of English, and come from communities that virtually hate each other.
The program is a joint project between Givat Haviva, a nonprofit educational institute in Israel, and Hashomer Hatzair, a Socialist Zionist youth movement, in Canada. It's hosted at Camp Shomria, a cozy sleepaway camp about an hour outside of Ottawa.
While the participants are all graduates of Givat Haviva's two-year Children Teaching Children school-based program, this would be their first time actually living together.
Still, I was confident that whatever assumptions or prejudices the campers came in with, we could work through them.
When the kids arrived, I realized I was wrong. But not in the way you may think.
'More similar than different'
Almost right away, the Heart to Heart campers wove friendships over, under and around ethnic lines. One after another they repeated different versions of, "Now that I've met them, I can see that deep down, we're more similar than different."
Sitting in the cabin one night, Asaf Nehama, a Jewish participant from Ramat HaShofet, a kibbutz, or collectivist community, in northern Israel, told me that he had already "lost that 'thing' of Arab and Jews."
You need to fly 11 hours just to speak with someone who lives 10 minutes away... it's amazing.- Camper Asaf Nehama
On the neighbouring bunk bed, Mohamed Agbariya from Musmus, a Arab town close to where Nehama lives, chimed in. He said that when you're surrounded by a certain community your whole life, you never feel the need to branch out. At camp, everything was different.
"You need to fly 11 hours just to speak with someone who lives 10 minutes away from your house by driving. It's amazing. Just think of it. Wow, it's amazing," Nehama said, looking up at Agbariya.
"I think the participants come into the experience wanting so badly for it to 'work' that they end up performing that in their interactions," Jenny Isaacs, director of Heart to Heart, later told me. "I think it comes from a really well-intentioned place, but it's our job as educators to complicate that narrative, because we want what they build while in Canada to be able to hold up in the complexity of their lives back home."
Clearer eyes, heavier hearts
"Normies" mark time with clocks, punch cards, weekends. Camp time is something different. It measures itself in pillow talk, grass stains, and the ebb and flow of crushes. As that camp time unspooled, the participants' relationships deepened and changed.
In one activity, the staff divided everyone into their respective identity groups. Each had to write out the historical timeline of the other identity group: the Jews write out the Palestinian timeline, and the Palestinians write out the Jewish timeline. The Palestinian participants notched their timeline every few centimetres. The Jewish participants had more trouble.
When the timelines lay beside each other, the Palestinians explained that they knew so much because Jewish-Israeli history is what they learn in school. It's what's in the standard textbooks. Everything the Palestinians know about their own history was handed down to them from parents and grandparents.
The situation they live in, when you confront it in a deep way, it can make your heart heavier.- Jenny Isaacs, camp director
For many of the Jewish participants, it was their first time realizing that their official school classes, their anthems, their national symbols all reflected a particular point of view — and it wasn't that of their new friends.
The closer the Heart to Heart participants grew as friends, the less and less similar they seemed. It felt like they were trading clearer eyes for heavier hearts.
"The situation that they live in, when you confront it in a deep way, it can make your heart heavier," said Isaacs. "I don't see experiencing that awakening as negative, though. I see it as positive, because it means that now they have another necessary tool for changing their reality: awareness of what it is that needs changing."
A complicated homecoming
As the summer came to a close, I thought back to that conversation with Agbariya and Nehama in the cabin. They had to fly 11 hours just to understand why they never spoke to the people who live only 10 minutes away. That, when you think about it, is amazing.
Eight months after the program ended, I found myself working in Israel as a radio reporter. I wanted to check back in with my old campers. I wanted to see how their lives had changed.
I realized a lot of my thoughts were unrealistic and I was dreaming in Canada.- Camper Asaf Nehama
Nehama told me that he gained a new perspective on the past summer. "I wanted us to speak about love and peace and not about hate and war, and when I got back in Israel, I'm sorry, so sorry, to say, but I actually realized a lot of my thoughts were unrealistic and I was dreaming in Canada," he said. "In reality… kids, Jews and Arabs, will not speak and will not meet as friends in Israel."
It's a reflection that can be difficult to hear. But it can also be powerful.
"He says that he feels his aspirations at camp were unrealistic," said Isaacs. "He doesn't say 'wrong' or 'unworthy.' Rather, he says 'unrealistic.' I hear this and I feel even more motivated to continue expanding the supports we are able to offer Asaf and his peers when they go home. Striking the balance of hope and realistic expectations is key to social change."
Going forward, I can't be certain how much Mohamed Agbariya, Asaf Nehama, or their friends will talk. But after the journey they went through at Heart to Heart, I think they'll always be open to listening.
This episode originally aired in January 2019. To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of the page.
About the Producer
Judah Kauffman used to lug a Fisher-Price cassette player to dinners so he could listen to stories as the grown-ups blathered on. Sometimes, he wishes he still could.
Born and raised in Toronto, Judah attended McGill University for a degree in economics and philosophy. He currently lives in Jerusalem, and works as a producer for the radio show and podcast Israel Story. He hopes his radio helps people listen more, and listen better.
This documentary was co-produced and mixed by Veronica Simmonds and edited with Acey Rowe.