This post was originally published on the Newsweek/Washington Post “Faith Divide” blog.
This past summer in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to meet two young Israelis who were backpacking across America. They had just completed their mandatory military service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), a three year (two years for women) requirement for all Israeli citizens over the age of 18, and had decided to delay their studies to see the world. After sharing travel stories and talking about the future of electronic music, I posed a question very near to my heart: “Do either of you have any Muslim or Arab friends back home?” The lively spirit that had colored our conversation vanished and, after an awkward pause, one of them stated, “No, it doesn’t really work like that. We’ve just spent three years fighting Arabs; do you really think we could all go to the clubs together at night?”
This encounter and recent events in Gaza have forced me to think seriously about the consequences of militarizing, year after year, entire generations of young people in Israel and Palestine. Young peoples’ identities and worldviews are deeply shaped by the experiences they have and the institutions of which they are a part. What, then, happens when the vast majority of youth in Israel and Palestine are asked to serve in military roles that further embed an “us vs. them” mentality? Is it possible that the institution of compulsory military service cements an oppositional identity between the very people on which peace in the Middle East depends?
What if there were an alternative institution shaping how young Israelis and Palestinians perceive one another? Given the serious security threats to the people involved, I am not arguing for an elimination of mandatory military service. Instead, the respective governments should create a parallel opportunity where young Palestinians and Israelis could legitimately fulfill part or all of their civic duty by serving in a joint Israeli-Palestinian interfaith “Peace Corps.” This initiative would facilitate interfaith peace exchanges, cooperative service immersion experiences, and constructive dialogue among thousands of young Israelis and Palestinians each year. Instead of pitting Israeli and Palestinian young people against one another during their most formative years, this initiative would help them form constructive relationships based on positive interactions, shared values, and common goals.
This initiative would be effective in fostering peace for two main reasons. First, it would bring adversarial groups together to work toward common goals (e.g. regional peace, quality of life for refugees, access to health and education) that could not be reached without the cooperation of both groups. In his classic “Robbers Cave” experiment on conflict and cooperation, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif forcefully shows that social tensions are significantly reduced when groups in conflict jointly pursue and achieve shared goals; the same lesson applies to peace in Israeli-Palestine.
Second, this initiative would teach and train future foreign ministers, faith leaders, and policymakers to partake in constructive dialogue, be empathetic toward the circumstances of others, and utilize nonviolent and cooperative strategies for building a more stable and peaceful region. This model is the same one used by Teach for America (TFA) in their efforts to reform the education system in America. TFA is effectively equipping future leaders in all fields to be lifelong advocates for educational change. For evidence of the effectiveness of this model, check out the impact of TFA Alumni.
Young people will make an impact in the world. If we want them to leave a legacy of peace in Israel-Palestine, then they must be shaped and empowered by nonviolent leadership opportunities. Peace in Israel and Palestine depends on whether both governments can find a more constructive way to engage their youth.