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Q&A with the Facilitators of the Peace-Building Leadership Seminar

The Peace-Building Leadership Seminar (PLS) is a unique and integral part of the Arava Institute: it is a series of weekly meetings, in which all students and interns—Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and international—engage in dialogue exploring issues of culture, religion, identity, and cooperation.  

Dr. Michael Alexander is Coordinator of PLS; he began his role at the Institute in January 2017. Baraa Aslih is his co-facilitator.

What were your expectations for the seminar?

MICHAEL: I came with quite an open mind. My facilitation experience before coming to Arava was with high school students, and at the Arava Institute it’s 20- to 30-year-olds, so it is different in that sense. Also there is a large contingent of non-Israeli and non-Arab participants…and of course they are all living together and studying together. They didn’t come to study or debate about the conflict; they came to do environmental studies. So with all those things, I really didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be interesting and challenging, and my expectations have been fulfilled. It’s very interesting, and it’s very, very challenging.

BARAA: I expected the group at the Arava Institute to bring up a lot of diversity of opinions due to the variety of student backgrounds. I also expected that the students would bring their knowledge of environmental studies and research and incorporate it into the conflict dialogue, especially since the two subjects are highly interconnected in this setting.

The first expectation was met in reality, but the second one was not. It seemed that the students sometimes felt overwhelmed by the detail and complexity of the conflict. As facilitators, we got the feeling that the students might at times see PLS as separate from their environmental study program. So as facilitators we gradually attempt to make that connection and help the students think about why the conflict in many ways is related to the environmental crisis and to cross-border cooperation.

What were the highlights?

MICHAEL: The group very quickly plunged into the core issues. Basically from day one, they were eager to open up this Pandora’s Box of relations between Israelis and Arabs… Sometimes there were heated debates, but nobody ever raised their voice, nobody stood up and stormed out of the room, nobody broke down crying. That happens in such dialogues; I’ve seen it quite a lot with other groups I’ve worked with.

The highlights of the dialogue were when people mentioned personal, often painful, experiences. These are students who an hour before this dialogue, and two hours after this dialogue, are out there having lunch together and studying together and having a great time together… And hearing this narrative of the other side, from people that they’ve grown to know and like and trust is very difficult, and that’s where things open and become interesting.

But when I think of the process of these sessions, there’s often just a kind of mutual searching and exploring among all the participants on how we reached this situation and what we can do to change it and that process is mutual, it completely crosses the national boundary lines.

BARAA: I think that the PLS trip [to Jerusalem] each year is probably the highlight for the students and for me as a facilitator. The trip helps take the dialogue outside of the typical PLS sessions and to create more complex and complicated perspectives on the conflict. It makes the topics discussed in the dialogue a lot more concrete, emotional and rich in detail.

Why is the PLS trip important?

MICHAEL: Visiting Jerusalem was very powerful for the group, because some of them have never been to those places; others have, but always with people of their own group. So visiting a place like Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, with a mixed group of Arabs and Jews—Muslims, Christians, and Jews—is very powerful. We had a very intense discussion, right after Yad Vashem—one of the most intense discussions. And it was definitely a point where the group, in some senses, understood each other better, became closer in understanding and feeling how the other side sees the world.

When we visited a village that had no Palestinian inhabitants after 1948, it turned out that one of our Palestinian participant’s family was from this village, and her grandfather was visiting there when we arrived. He gave this very beautiful talk and said how moved he was to see a group of Israelis and Arabs visiting his village and wanting to learn what happened—that was definitely one of the high points of the trip.

BARAA: I did feel that the trip to Jerusalem was very intense and fascinating for the students. We also tried to provide them with new information beyond the typical things they would hear about the Holy City; for example, we take them on geopolitical lectures and tours. I will say though that we take the trip to Jerusalem because it seems like the ideal place to learn and experience the conflict. However, I do feel that we need to try and find different locations for the trip in upcoming years because there are many elements of the conflict that we cannot experience and learn about in Jerusalem, or many important elements that get overshadowed by the general topic of religion in the Holy City and its historical context.

Have you made any changes to PLS?

BARAA: One of the challenges in engaging everyone in dialogue is that it is a relatively large group, and that can create a variety of issues for the students and for us as facilitators.

MICHAEL: It’s often very hard for participants to be honest and open in such a large group. So to overcome this difficulty, we often divided them into smaller groups: sometimes mixed nationalities, and sometimes what are called uni-national groups. The idea is that participants also have a forum to speak among themselves, in their own language, and maybe say things they’re not willing to say in front of the whole group; people are usually more open and more direct in smaller groups.

At the same time, we don’t give up on sitting in the full circle with the whole group of 45 people, because PLS is not just a weekly dialogue that’s happening in a vacuum. The PLS sessions are part of the life of the students and interns at the Arava Institute; they’re studying together and living together, and they’re also having the dialogue on the conflict as a group — and that is the entire community, all of them together.

Any last thoughts?

MICHAEL: The fact that the Arava Institute insists on doing this is very brave. It says we want to build a community that is deep and is aware of the differences among its members, and deals with them. It still challenges me, and I keep being surprised by what I hear. Never a dull moment.

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