It’s a five minute walk for Dana Salah to reach The Bean coffee shop on 12th Street and Broadway on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The 22 year-old young woman is cozily bundled up in a maroon sweater, thick scarf, and hijab against the dreary December weather. In Dana’s hometown, the village of Bethlehem in the West Bank of Palestine, it’s a balmy 73°. But the weather isn’t the biggest difference that Dana notices — it’s that five minute walk.
“In my country I get up two hours before the university because there are checkpoints. It makes life difficult,” Dana says. “The life here is totally different than Palestine. Totally free.”
This semester is Dana’s first as an NYU student. She’s here as part of a university program which brings four Israeli and four Palestinian students to the school for a semester of classes and intensive dialogue about the conflict in their homeland. The program’s mission is made clear by its name: Paths to Peace.
“I want to have this chance to talk to Israeli people,” Dana says. “I wasn’t allowed to go to Israel so I never had the chance to talk to Israeli people.”
This semester provided that chance. The eight students live in two rooms in Palladium, where they share a bedroom with a student from the opposite territory. The entire group participates in dialogues led by two P.h.D. students twice a week, when they tackle the whole range of issues: “the conflict, the history, the legitimacy of the country, the definition of terrorism,” as one program participant put it.
Paths to Peace was launched in 2007, imagined and funded by Stern ’67 alumnus Howard Meyers. Today, Meyers runs Quexco Incorporated, a recycled lead distributor and battery producer. In a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, he explained that he sees the program as an opportunity to develop new leaders in the conversation around co-existence by providing an opportunity for dialogue between young people from both sides of the conflict. “If we can get one of these leaders to go back and create some understanding, it will be worthwhile,” Meyers told the Journal.
For the woefully uninformed, a sanitized history of the conflict in fewer than 100 words: in 1948, the United Nations formalized decades of British colonial policy by codifying the state of Israel in what had formerly been the British colony of Palestine, and before that part of the Ottoman empire. Surrounding Arab nations invaded, but Israel was victorious. Over the next decades, between the influx of Jewish settlers from around the world and the ongoing regional violence, millions of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes. Meanwhile, Israel slowly expanded outside the borders established in the 1948 declaration, then beyond the borders agreed to in a 1967 truce.
About 6 million people remain in the Palestinian Territories: the West Bank and the tiny Gaza Strip, a densely-populated territory between Israel and Egypt. In Gaza, Palestinians recognize Hamas as the ruling party; Israel calls them a terrorist group. Palestinian militants launch rockets against Israel, and Israel responds with warplanes and crippling sanctions in a cycle of violence seemingly without end.
Within Israel, 20% of the population identify as Arab Israelis. Amal Aun, a Paths to Peace participant this fall, is one of those 1.5 million citizens. She lives in Nazareth, said to be the childhood home of Christ.
“We’re not refugees,” Aun says. “We’re just living there as a minority — an indigenous minority.” The three months she’s spent in New York City have changed Aun’s perspective on Israel considerably. “I don’t want to go back there,” she said. She tells me there’s only one reason that she’ll still return: her family, whose names are tattooed in Arabic on the sides of her fingers. Then, Aun pauses a moment. “Well, two reasons,” she continues. “not losing my land.”
Aun especially misses her sister, who she’s watched grow worrisomely radical in the last few months. “She says, ‘I hate all Jews,’” Aun said. “I tell her, ‘no, don’t say that.’ I’m afraid I will go back to the university and feel that. I don’t want to feel that.”
For some in the program, the situation back home is even worse. “Two Gazans are living with us,” Aun told me on the fifth day of Operation Pillar of Cloud, Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza this November. “It’s very personal to them. Their families are dying. Their friends are dying. It’s very real.” After a week of attacks from both sides, the BBC reported 103 civilian deaths in Gaza and 4 Israeli civilian deaths in Israel. Approximately 55 Hamas fighters and 2 Israeli soldiers were also killed.
“The war period was the most difficult part of the experience,” Dana from the West Bank told me a few weeks after a cease-fire was reached. “We didn’t talk to each other. I was very worried for my family and friends.” For those students from Gaza, it was even more difficult. “They were always angry, nervous,” Dana said. “You know, their families are under attack, under fire. It’s very difficult for them.”
Transitioning to New York City and dealing with a roommate can prove challenging for any student, so the university goes above and beyond to make sure the Paths to Peace students are taken care of. Wanthani Briggs serves as the administrative director of the program, and works full time to support the students while they’re here. “There can be a tension that builds,” Briggs said. “It helps to bring our participants together in a lighter way.” Briggs leads the group on trips to Broadway, the United Nations, even Washington D.C. (where one Palestinian student told me she set foot on a boat for the first time).
Since the program was funded with a $10 million gift in 2007, 75 students have participated. “It’s a full scholarship program, which means that pretty much everything is covered,” Briggs said. “They get quite, quite a lot.”
Over the course of the semester, Briggs watches the students’ transformation. “They grow and learn so much as adults, as human beings,” Briggs said. For many, that’s a product of the unique opportunity to develop close personal connections with individuals from the other side of the conflict. “Many of our participants have never had a chance to meet the Other, to talk to the Other,” Briggs explained. Now, they share a bathroom.
Often, real friendships are formed. Amal Aun, the Palestinian Israeli, said that she and one of the other parcipants – who she described as a Zionist Israeli – have become very good friends. “I do believe in coexistence,” Amal said. Dana was surprised to find out how much she had in common with her Israeli roommate. “There are a lot of similarities between my religion and hers,” Dana said.
The hope is that after the students return home, the close personal connections they developed with young people on the other side of the wall will help form a foundation for more conversations between parties in the future, hopefully leading to a lasting peace. The program’s 75 alumni give reason for optimism. “They still remain in contact with one another,” Briggs said, “even if their ideals still differ.” During Operation Pillar of Cloud, Briggs said that alumni reached out to her to check on the wellbeing of their friends in Palestine who had been cut off from communication.
What’s next for this batch of students? Amal Aun says she plans to pursue activism or nonprofit work dedicated to improving education for Arabs living in Israel. Dana Sala will shortly be receiving a degree in Biology from Al Quds University, and thinks she may work in a hospital in the West Bank.
One day, these women could be leaders in a movement to lay down arms and find peace. But of course, the program’s director must be pragmatic: “I’d say it’s probably too early to tell.”
Editorial Note: This story was reported from students who participated in Paths to Peace in Fall 2012. Besides Amal Aun, the Palestinian Israeli, the other three Israeli participants declined to speak to NYU Local.