July 20, 2006

A Vision of Peace by serrano

[Thanks to Toni for the link]
It would have been a signal event at any time, this unlikely road trip of Mayors from both Israel and Palestine, traveling, speaking, and 'hanging' together, all clearly committed to their joint endeavor. The fact that it took place against a backdrop of rockets and carnage at home made their calm determination all the more remarkable. Follow me to the jump for a little hope...

The setting was the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Sister Cities International, founded by one of our greatest war leaders ever with the profound hope that if people knew each other as friends, they would be less likely to confront each other as enemies. We were within view of the U.S. Capitol. In the last 50 years, Sister Cities has spearheaded efforts at Citizen Diplomacy in Germany, Japan, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Vietnam, China, and now, the Middle East...not always your top vacation spots. This latter appears as challenging as any. But what emerged from this incredible panel discussion, delivered to a packed ballroom at the Hyatt Capitol Hill, was an incredible vision of eventual peace in the area, peace that, the panelists were sure, would not come from above, but from below, from the grassroots.

So how did this unlikely event come about? You would never, ever take Avi Rabinovich for some kind of wild-eyed peacenik. A strong, burly man with close-cropped hair who moves with that kind of hastened Israeli waddle that comes from God knows where, he looks like a tough guy. But when he speaks, you quickly note the fierce determination, the urgency that motivates him. "When I first talked of this five years ago," he notes, "I felt like some kind of leper--everybody thought I was meshuginah (crazy). And now, five years later, I still have problems. My problem now is that everyone wants to go on this trip." With this, he flashes a grin. Sitting comfortably next to him is a Palestinian Mayor from the West Bank, who speaks movingly and with equal conviction. Neither trusts their national politicians, and both believe that, together, they can begin to create a new reality on the ground. As Mayors, they note, they cooperate daily--to get people to hospitals, to repair sewers--to make things work on the local level. For this Palestinian Mayor, it was his first trip away from his Homeland. They all appreciate that this Sister Cities Conference provided them the ideal venue for this courageous venture.

Even more hopefully, these two were not alone on the panel. They were joined by two remarkable young students, both Muslims, who had participated in the Y.E.S. exchange program and lived with American families for a school year. They were accompanied by a young Palestinian woman (actually an Arab Israeli whose family lives in Haifa), and a young woman from Syria. Their roots were in Jordan (the young man) and Pakistan. They spoke w/remarkable candor and confidence, admitting they first arrived here with considerable misgivings. They were clearly touched at the welcome they received from their American families, fellow students and others, and were comfortable discussing their experiences and their hopes.

And they are full of hope. They know--for a fact--that all Americans are not evil devils. They have been encouraged by the possibilities they have come to believe in for their own countries, and they have developed, each one of them, such a determined confidence that you know--somehow--they will realize their dreams.

At the final dinner, the keynote speaker was Michael Beschloss. His masterful discussion of the critical role of Citizen Diplomacy began with the personal note that his wife had been an exchange student, continued through his very intimate understanding of Ike, and highlighted the special role played by the Peace Corps, student and teacher exchanges, private business, and a host of other private initiatives that, he fervently believes, have an impact on the world. Laced with key historical references, little-known facts, and an intimate understanding of his subject matter, the speech was a tour de force--and then he was upstaged.

As her fellow students stood supportively behind her, this 19-year-old young woman from Syria--yes, Syria--recounted her trepidation when she first came to America, spoke of the incredible warmth with which she was greeted and the profound friendships she had developed. She paused at times, seemingly on the verge of emotion taking over as she addressed the august assemblage of more than 1000. But each time, instead, she emerged from the emotion with even greater conviction and confidence. While she had thought of following her family traditions in medicine, she said, she had changed her mind--she will go into politics!!!! At this she beamed, asserted her hopes for the day when she and many more, including these Mayors from Israel from Palestine, all incredibly weary of the morbid morass of war, will come together to find a way of peace for themselves and their families.

As unlikely as the realization of their hopes and dreams may appear at this moment, having seen firsthand the determination of these remarkable pioneers--and I spoke personally with each of them--I would not be foolish enough to bet against them.

In my own small bit, I wanted each of these Palestinians and Muslims to know that at least one Jewish guy shares their enthusiasm and their hopes. If we are smart, we will support this hope, and help it find some way to flourish.


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