by James F. Palka ©2013
On Saturday, April 27th, right here at St. Francis, Tucson will have an opportunity to become acquainted with a bold yet fundamental Middle East peace program that has been unfolding on the grassroots level. If you have been around for a while, you’ve probably thought that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians might never end. The gut-wrenching images of violent, hateful acts perpetrated back and forth have been indelibly imprinted on our minds by the mainstream media.
After all, this particular “resettlement” conflict has been going on since the founding of Israel in 1948. But if the six-and-half decade parade of elected officials, military leaders, political strategists, and media pundits in that land – and in the US and other involved countries – had an answer or really wanted peace, wouldn’t we have seen significant results by now? The whole mess remains pretty hopeless, right?
Well, not really. Not hopeless anymore in light of our current age of free-flowing information and instant communication that brings new and greater opportunities for shared experiences, empathy, and global brotherhood. Or just call it the Age of the Global Village, where individuals, if united in their humanity, now have a newfound power and a global forum in which to make extraordinary changes. But it all starts on the local level and has proven to work in one of the Middle East’s hotbeds of conflict, Israel and the Occupied Territories of Palestine.
Global Village Square, a biannual gathering of Israelis and Palestinians who want to end the conflict in the Middle East, is the brainchild of Whit Jones. A psychologist and businessman from Boise, Idaho, Whit was approaching retirement over a decade ago, and instead of imagining how he might improve his golf game or how many trips to tropical ports he could string together to grab some of the good life, he looked for ways of giving back to the world. “I was very successful in my business,” he said, “with a lot of blessings in my work, and I felt a growing sense of wanting to help people not so fortunate. In fact, I felt inspired to work in areas with the really tough problems.”
It didn’t take long to find his direction. In 2003, Whit attended a meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia where a Palestinian and an Israeli were working together – yes, together – on various conflicts around the world. “Both these men had been seriously injured because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Whit said. “Physically, emotionally, and even mentally injured. But both came out of it not wanting to exact revenge on the other guy, but instead, they wanted to work toward peace.”
Whit approached the two men and asked if a retired psychologist from the United States could actually do anything that would be of assistance in Israel and the occupied zones. They replied that if he was coming to “fix” the age-old crisis, than he shouldn’t bother. But if he wanted to help a few families, a few communities, a few villages at a time, the opportunities were endless.
Wheels began turning and ideas formed. “My wife Paula and I realized that we could take advantage of being Middle East outsiders,” Whit said, “outsiders that lacked a political or religious agenda. The last thing the Middle East needs is more politics and religion!” They sprung into action and founded the Center for Emerging Futures (CEF), which is dedicated to the creation of dialogue, trust, and partnerships between Palestinians and Israelis living in that area. And since 2004, CEF has designed a framework, developed a methodology, and has actually changed the lives of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians for the better.
Global Village Square takes place literally on the borderline between the West Bank and Israel at a hilltop hotel overlooking the historic town of Bethlehem. Typically, they draw approximately 80 people, with 70 being evenly split between Israelis and Palestinians. The other ten are so-called internationals, there to observe and assist. Of course, the first goal is for the Israelis and Palestinians to meet and discover that they have a shared humanity. To do this, they are paired off in twos, fours, or even eights, and they hear equal amounts of anguish from both sides and recognize that everyone has suffered.
“The second part of what we do, which I think makes us unique,” Whit said, “is that through some very effective techniques, the groups find out for themselves what they might want to do. You don’t say, ‘Here’s some money. Now go do what we tell you.’ This approach basically never works.”
The event runs two days and participants stay overnight at the hotel. “There’s a lot of eating, singing, talking, and things like that at night, which is also crucial to the connection people make with each other.” Picture Israelis and Palestinians singing together and you’ll get a sense of what amazing things are happening here!
The CEF also facilitates periodic Family Village Square gatherings at the same hotel as well as other locations, with children from both sides, formerly trained to hate one another, who end up cooking together, playing together, and building things together, most of which is done wordlessly. And recently, Israeli and Palestinian soccer coaches met for the first time and immediately gifted one another and exchanged hugs. And then they sat down two-by-two and began to talk. “What you find …” Whit began, his voice cracking with tearful emotion, “is the hunger at all ages to make a connection. They want to get out of this terrible conflict.”
There’s much more to tell, and you’ll have an opportunity to learn it first hand on April 27th. “We will have one Palestinian and either one or two Israelis with us,” said Whit. “They are the people who now run Global Village Square meetings for us in the Middle East.” At this St. Francis gathering, the first ever in the United States, they will be given a forum in which to share their experiences. “Not a political speech, nor as government representatives,” Whit assured, “but just citizens in the Middle East community who want to share what they know and what their life is like.”
And if we Tucsonans could witness this, could sit at lunch with these courageous men and connect with them and learn something true and important – apart from what TV tells us – then this alone could make the day a tremendous success.
“If we connect as human beings, humans whoall work, love, live, fear, hope and seek friendship, then we can reconcile our differences on a human level and resolve conflicts we don’t really want or need.”
Global Village Square at St. Francis, championed and organized by David Wilkinson, will take place in the church sanctuary on Saturday, April 27th from 8:00am to 4:00pm and will also be intended as a dialogue between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Admission is free.