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In his April 29 letter to the editor, Dr. Marvin Engel recites a familiar litany of claims about the hostility and intransigence of the Palestinians. He ends with the question “There is a Jewish Voice for Peace. Is there an Arab Voice for Peace?” We can answer that question with a resounding “Yes!” On our recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, we met numerous Palestinians who are seeking peace and justice through nonviolent means.
Near Gush Etzion Junction (a highly contested area in the West Bank) we spent a morning at the peace center on the family land belonging to Ali Abu Awwad, who created Taghyeer (Change), a Palestinian national nonviolent movement. There we met Rabbi Shaul Judelman, from the Tekoa settlement, who partners with Ali to promote dialogue and shared learning among Israeli settlers and neighboring Palestinians. Children learn photography together, and community programs have included concerts with Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) and Israeli pop star David Broza.
At the Nassar family’s farm southwest of Bethlehem, we visited Tent of Nations, an educational and environmental family farm where people from many different countries come together to learn, share and build bridges of understanding and hope. Among almond and olive groves and vineyards, they host summer camps for Palestinian children, workshops and international gatherings. A stone marking the entrance is engraved with “We refuse to be enemies.”
In Dura, near Hebron, we spent a day with Huda Abu Arqoub and her family. She is the regional director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a network of more than 90 civil society organizations of Israelis and Palestinians working together in sports, music, coexistence and cooperative activities. We attended a gathering of more than 50 organizations, including the environmental group EcoPeace, and MEET, a program where Israeli and Palestinian high school students learn computer science together from MIT students.
In Nablus, we visited the home of one of the senior elite of Palestine, Munib al-Masri, an industrialist and longtime adviser to the PLO who has worked for peace for the last 40 years. Al-Masri and Israeli high-tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi created the Breaking the Impasse Initiative in 2012, which brings together prominent Palestinian and Israeli businesspeople and civil society leaders to promote “two states for two peoples” as the only way toward a viable economic future for both peoples.
In Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, we met with Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan from the Parents Circle Family Forum, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member because of the conflict.
Bassam was in an Israeli prison between the ages of 17 and 24, but realized that armed conflict was not the solution. In 2005, he co-founded Combatants for Peace with former combatants on both sides who wanted to work together to promote a peaceful solution through dialogue and nonviolence. In 2007, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier while standing outside her school.
On the Forgiveness Project website Bassam said, “Abir’s murder could easily have led me down the path of hatred and vengeance, but I felt compelled to return to dialogue and nonviolence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but it was one hundred former Israeli soldiers, Combatants for Peace, who built a garden in her name at the school.”
We could continue with many more examples of Palestinian business leaders, civil society activists and grassroots peace advocates whom we have gotten to know. There is indeed a growing Palestinian voice for nonviolence and peace.
However, it would be naive to conclude that peace is around the corner. All those we talked to recognized that it will be hard. First, they do not believe that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his government have the courage and vision to go beyond the locked-in positions of the conflict — just as many Israelis do not see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a true advocate for peace.
Second, voices of extremism in both societies are getting louder and can drown out the voices of those who recognize that only a negotiated agreement can bring peace and justice. A single teenager with a pair of scissors can make news around the world, while the voices of hundreds of people building institutions for nonviolence and peace don’t make the newspapers.
Dr. Engel’s letter is a valuable case in point. He ends with the observation that “the silence is deafening.” No such silence exists when you actually talk with Palestinians like the ones we met. Sometimes it is difficult to hear the quiet voices over the din of angry shouting on both sides. But it is in these quiet voices that we will find the seeds of peace.
Terry Winograd is professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford University. Carol Winograd is professor emerita of medicine (geriatrics) at Stanford and is vice chair of the J Street national board.
This piece was originally written for J Weekly