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The seeds of peace are sown through ordinary dialogue

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THE OTHER day two young men came to see me. They were seeking support for a project they have devised to create better understanding across ethnic and religious divides.

They began in Bradford, where racial tensions reached boiling point two years ago. One was a youth worker, the other a documentary film producer, and they asked themselves how they could use those skills to promote social cohesion and respect for difference. The idea that they came up with, CommunitySpeak, is brilliant in its simplicity.

Many young people would like to learn how to make films. So they use film-making to get young Muslims and Jews to talk about their identity and make a documentary about it. At first the two groups are separate, but eventually they show one another their work. Each then sees that the problems they face are shared by others also. A small project, but momentous in its possibilities.

The previous evening I had been visited by someone involved in a similar project in the Middle East. OneVoice brings together ordinary Israelis and Palestinians in a shared conversation about the peace process using the Internet. Their aim is to empower individuals and community groups at the grassroots, using new communication technologies. Ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, they believe, are often more moderate than their political leaders, and this is one way of letting their voices be heard.

A few days earlier, I met leaders of yet another project, Merchavim, which engages Jewish and Palestinian Israelis in the idea of shared citizenship, promoting a stronger sense of the common good, and working to improve equal access to cultural, political and economic opportunities regardless of group identity. This too, in the five years of its existence, has been a healing force.

The most powerful initiative I have come across recently is the Parents’ Forum, created by Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Israeli whose son was kidnapped and killed by Hamas in 1994. It brings together Israeli and Palestinian parents whose children have lost their lives in the current conflict. Instead of seeking revenge, they have pledged themselves to work for reconciliation. They visit schools and community centres, speaking to Israelis and Palestinians alike. They donate blood to each other’s hospitals. They have held together despite appalling tensions in both societies. And they are realists, not utopians. “I do not love Palestinians — they killed my son,” said Frankenthal, “But I have respect for Palestinians as a people and want them to have the same dignity that I would give to an Israeli.”

Jews pray for peace. There is hardly a prayer in our liturgy that does not end with a plea for peace. But the words in which we do so are significant: “May He who makes peace in His high places, make peace for us”. The meaning is clear. It is not enough to make peace in high places, through summit meetings, international gatherings, diplomatic initiatives, resolutions, declarations and political settlements. Peace must grow from the ground.

Its seeds are planted and tended by hundreds of local encounters in which ordinary men and women — yes, and children also — meet, talk and make the effort to understand each other, hearing the hopes, fears, anxieties and resentments of people on the other side. Those encounters are taking place in an astonishing variety of ways, but often they go unreported and unknown.

No less than political initiatives, they too must be recognised, supported and made part of the peace process. For without them, resolutions made on high will stay on high. With them, peace may yet grow from the ground.

(First published in The Times)

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