Israeli and Palestinian teenagers have come together at a summer camp in the western Maine woods to make new friendships, understand each other's dreams and fears, and possibly lay a groundwork for peace in the Middle East.
After January's bloody fighting in Gaza, the emergence in March of a hard-line government in Israel and continuing disunity among Palestinian factions, hopes for peace in the region may seem difficult to sustain.
But as Seeds of Peace welcomed Israelis, Palestinians and teenagers from six other countries to its 17th annual free summer camp last week, the spirit of optimism that has taken root at the 67-acre site along Pleasant Lake seems as strong as ever.
"The idea is to get to common ground," said Monica, an Egyptian teenager. "Even if you don't agree, what you have to accept about the other opinion is that it exists." She, like many other campers, prefer to be identified only by first name.
Amit, an Israeli, said the camp allows youngsters from countries in conflict to overcome their differences and accept each other for what they are.
"This is something that happens only in Seeds of Peace, where you have an Israeli, a Palestinian, a Pakistani, an Indian and an Afghan all sleeping in the same bunk, laughing at the same joke. This is so unique," he said.
Seeds of Peace was founded in 1993 by journalist John Wallach, a longtime foreign correspondent for the Hearst newspapers and co-author of two books about the Middle East. Wallach, who died in 2002, sought to provide youngsters from countries in conflict with leadership skills and training that can promote reconciliation and co-existence.
Bunkmates, not enemies
Nearly 4,000 youngsters ranging in age from 14 to 16 have gone through the program. They spend three weeks swimming and canoeing, playing basketball and soccer, and talking about weighty issues like war and peace with bunkmates from countries they have been taught to regard as the enemy.
The nonprofit program, funded largely by donors with some government grant money, is based in New York and has offices in Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories. Since 2001, it also has been bringing children from South Asia. The 147 campers at the first of this summer's two sessions are from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the West Bank and the United States.
The session opened Wednesday with the traditional flag-raising ceremony outside the gate to the lakeside camp. One by one, representatives of the eight delegations addressed campers and visitors, then led in the singing of their respective national anthems as their flags were hoisted up the poles.
Camp director Leslie Lewin believes the campers are developing relationships that can break down barriers of mistrust and hatred.
"I have the privilege of working with people who are motivated, smart and inspirational. If you're with them, you have no choice but to be hopeful," she said.