The Words of the Lorenzana Family

Young People in a Land of Old Conflicts

Joshua A. Lorenzana
April 2008

Efforts to bring peace in the Middle East have been ongoing for decades, with diplomatic successes too often overrun by violence and reaction on the streets. In the past three months, the Youth Federation for World Peace (YFWP), in partnership with the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) in Israel, has introduced an ongoing initiative for local and international youth that offers a new paradigm of young leadership for the divided region.

The vision for YFWP's new initiative, the International Youth Leadership Program, came from YFWP's president, Hyun-jin Moon, and Martin Luther King III, son of noted civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While in Israel last August, Hyun-jin nim called for the launch of a Global Peace Festival in Israel that would create a broad coalition of stakeholders in the peace process, including government officials and agencies, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations. While the two were appearing together at Hebrew University and at a subsequent forum with Palestinian youth in Bethlehem, Martin Luther King III highlighted the largely untapped potential of the region's youth to find new paths to peace.

The International Youth Leadership Program builds on the history of the UPF interfaith Middle East Peace Initiatives but was specifically organized for young leaders. In the program, participants from the United States and Europe joined Israelis in visits to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for fact-finding sessions, interfaith dialogue, community service and immersion in the culture of the region. In an approach reflecting the significance of the Holy Land's religious heritage, the delegates also toured Jewish, Christian and Islamic sacred sites.

A different standpoint

One of the most important goals of the initiative was to bring a "parental" perspective to the historic conflict that divides the three Abrahamic faiths. "This time you are going to view things from a different point of view-the parental heart," Hod Ben Zvi, the secretary general of UPF Israel, told participants. "We listen with compassion. From the start, we as youth leaders should exercise a parental role by not taking sides. If we are able to maintain the heart of a parent we will not only grow personally and in our leadership capacity, we can also help the local people."

"The tragedy of human pain and suffering exists on both sides," said YFWP Executive Vice-President David Caprara, recalling that a week before, Jewish students were killed in retaliation for an Israeli military action in Gaza that killed nearly a hundred Palestinians. "Somewhere... this cycle of violence must end," Caprara noted. "It was young people that stood up and launched major changes for justice and ideals. You have the power of imagination and dreams."

Hod Ben Zvi and Giorgio Gasperoni, the UPF secretary-general of San Marino, organized a pilot program with Italian youth in December 2007. In January another twenty young Italians came for a week-long learning and service program.

From February 29 to March 1, seventeen Jewish and Arab students and young professionals attended a seminar to learn about social activism aimed at peace, as well as the YFWP leadership concept and peace initiatives. A follow-up program from March 10 to 16, jointly sponsored by YFWP and Realizing the Dream, Mr. King's organization, empowered a total of forty new youth peace ambassadors, including young leaders from the United States and Europe with the cadre of Israeli and Arab youths trained in the prior workshop.

The power of young people united. These four programs included elements of learning, service, interfaith dialogue and interaction, bringing a comprehensive approach to peace building. Even more notable, the projects emphasized activism and establishing new relationships across cultural lines among those formerly perceived as enemies, thereby advancing the universal vision of one family under God.

Throughout history, young leaders have been instrumental in creating positive social changes. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, led the Montgomery bus boycott while in his mid-twenties.

The Italian, American and European youth met with young activist counterpart groups such as the One Voice Movement and the Democratic Mizrachi Keshet. Dr. Muli Peleg, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University and director of One Voice, facilitated a discussion on social activism.

Following a meeting with the Democratic Mizrachi Keshet, an organization that helps less privileged Middle Eastern Jews, participants went into the community for hands-on service work.

The young leaders also exchanged views with young political activists and Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Israeli students. These dialogues provided a space to voice the diverse concerns of Israeli society. At one forum at the Yitzhak Rabin Center, Jewish political party representatives from the left, right and center of the political spectrum became embroiled in a debate touching on their most cherished beliefs and stances on issues. Despite sometimes passionate disagreements, each of the representatives came to understand the YFWP vision and vowed to support the Global Peace Festival to be held in the city of Haifa in November this year.

In their interactions with Arab-Israelis, many young delegates recognized how stereotypes distorted their views. Overseas participants particularly could see how sensational news accounts of acts of terrorism had influenced their image of Muslims and Arabs. The warmth and hospitality of Muslims toward the international group, particularly during a visit to an Arab town in northern Israel, made it plain that the vast majority of Arab Muslims desire peace.

Service as a catalyst

Knowing that service is a foundation for peace, participants invested their efforts in a number of community projects. The Italians planted trees and cleaned an area that had been a Jewish settlement. The American and European group painted with children who only recently had had heart surgery and planted flowers in the yard of the building where the youngsters stay.

In these service projects, volunteers felt a sense of purpose and hope. One participant, Meinan Goto, reflected, "We don't really have to worry so much about politics when we serve something higher and the people who really need it... I see how barriers are broken. This is a really important step in bringing peace-not just talking about peace but really living peace through service."

Although the participants came from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, through the process of serving, listening and sharing, they achieved a sense of ownership of the vision of one family under God. During morning services, participants read passages of scripture from different religions on the same theme. They also listened to the testimonies of representatives of the faiths. One Jewish student revealed that it was the first time he has made Muslim friends. A Muslim from the United Kingdom recognized that the spiritual dimension of the project was much needed for real peace. Indeed, a common vision of peace beyond racial and religious boundaries united everyone.

The staff of Realizing the Dream Foundation shared the same goals and worked closely with YFWP, while stressing a message of non-violence based on the American civil rights movement. Their joint guidance provided the framework and culture of inclusion for this youth leadership experience.

As a participant in these projects and as an intern from the Unification Theological Seminary, I feel hopeful that this kind of leadership paradigm will change the landscape of peace relations in this region. While many young people end up being skeptical about peace because of the unending conflict, this program awakens and legitimizes idealism, which has become rare among people who have suffered so much injustice. A new breed of peace activists is needed, as recognized even by peace-building scholars, to counter the reactive and oftentimes destructive religious extremism among some young people. This initiative provided a model for future peace programs. A big step has been taken, with only better things to come.

Joshua A. Lorenzana is a student of interfaith peace building at the Unification Theological Seminary in Barrytown, New York. He is in the middle of his six-month field education at UPF in Jerusalem. 

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