On a recent trip to Israel, I was reminded of the importance of people-to-people relations in breaking down stereotypes and building cross-cultural relations.
As part of Pittsburgh’s Partnership 2000 (P2K) delegation, I attended meetings in Pittsburgh’s sister communities of Karmiel and Misgav, in northern Israel. I also felt honored to participate in the dedication of the fantastic new P2K Bicycle Trail that was built with Pittsburgh seed money and Israeli initiative and leadership.
P2K is an important program in our Jewish community, and a major reason for its importance is the people to people contact that takes place between residents of Pittsburgh and Karmiel-Misgav. As we have worked together to develop programs that impact our communities over the last 14 years, Pittsburghers and Israelis have developed strong and lasting friendships.
Programs that have involved a collection of teenagers, social workers and educators that have focused on women’s programs and community needs have created significant bonds. Karmiel-Misgav residents love to visit Pittsburgh, and the beauty of the Galilee and the hospitality of the Karmiel-Misgav residents are the face of Israel for many Pittsburghers I know.
But something was decidedly different about this trip, at least for me. I had the chance to gain a taste of people-to-people programming with Palestinians as well.
When our P2K meetings ended, I accompanied my friend and noted Pittsburgh labor attorney, Louis Kushner, to a one-day training program he conducted in Ramallah, on the West Bank.
As part of a U.S. Agency for International Development Rule of Law Assistance Program, Louis volunteered his time and expertise to present a seminar on mediation to approximately 30 Palestinian judges, lawyers, businessmen and Ministry of Justice officials.
Over the course of the daylong session (in a very nice hotel in Ramallah), I watched Palestinian men and women actively discuss the details of mediation, share their own experiences, and participate in the workshop’s role-play. It struck me that, except for the language difference, we could be attending a comparable seminar in the United States. The participants were animated, involved and displayed an avid interest in a subject that affects their daily lives. In addition, like my friends in Karmiel-Misgav, they were appreciative of the assistance provided and interested in a deeper and more lasting relationship based upon common interests.
I was lucky to have the chance to attend the session and to meet Palestinians in such a context. I couldn’t help but think of the positive impact of more people to people contact and programs at the grassroots level. Activites like this seminar, which displayed goodwill and a desire to help on a practical level, can be instrumental in changing personal attitudes for all concerned.
P2K is a program that was built over years of trust building and planning. Replicating such an effort with Palestinians or in a trilateral fashion is not something that can be achieved overnight. But as I watched the interaction among Palestinians and Americans unfold in that Ramallah hotel, I realized that people-to-people programs could be a spark that reduces distrust and eventually helps solve a long-standing problem.
While many focus on the larger political issues, more people-to-people contact may help foster goodwill that may make a more permanent solution possible. My hope is that the day Louis spent presenting this seminar and our conversations with individuals provided the participants with a glimmer of what is possible if more engagements between our peoples take place on a personal level. As a community, we should seek to take that next step — the potential returns for all of us are worth it.
(Skip Grinberg is the co-chair of the Partnership 2000 committee of the United Jewish Federation.)