By Jonathan London
Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, Michael Brown. What do these people have in common?
They all died far too young this summer and their deaths touched off waves of violence and soul-searching that extended far beyond their individual circumstances.
Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah are Israeli teens murdered by Palestinians on the West Bank. Muhammad Abu Khdeir is a Palestinian teen murdered by revenge-seeking Israelis. Michael Brown is an unarmed black teen killed in a confrontation with police in Ferguson, Mo.
In Israel/Palestine, the double teen killings brought simmering tensions between Hamas and the Israeli government into a violent boil as Israel invaded Gaza (leaving more than 2,000 Palestinians dead, many more wounded, tens of thousands displaced) and Hamas bombarded southern Israel with rockets, causing thousands of Israelis to flee their homes and killing several.
Brown’s death led to community protests that were met by a police crackdown complete with tanks, assault weapons and body armor. Protests with their distinctive chant, “Hands Up: Don’t Shoot!,” spread to cities across the country as did questions about race and the militarization of police.
Much blood and ink has been spilled over these events, and it is not my intention to rehash or pass judgment on them. Instead, I hope to draw from these tragic stories some insights about the ways in which young people are often on the front lines of political crises and what they can teach us about achieving peace and justice.
Namely, what can be done in the face of this level of hate, these structures of inequality, this legacy of cyclical violence?
One remarkable new study on practical methods of peace-making has demonstrated the healing power of humanizing the “Other.” Seeds of Peace is a summer camp in Maine where young people from warring nations (Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis, the Balkans and other) experience carefully facilitated dialogue sessions mixed with typical camp activities to get to know each other as real people, not faceless adversaries.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University assessed changes in perceptions that members of each opposing group had of the other during the camp and after re-entry into their home environments. Their finding of significant improvement in inter-group perceptions during the camp is encouraging if not surprising. But, it is the lasting effects of this positive change that gives hope.
The researchers found that the best indicator for long-term positive regard for the opposing group was the formation of just one friendship that crossed the line of conflict. As they wrote in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “Conflict may seem more surmountable when you know someone on the other side.”
Positive regard between individual Israelis and Palestinians alone will not stop militants in their respective governments from firing rockets at each other, will not stop Israeli occupation of Palestine, will not stop Palestinian suicide bombers on Israeli buses. But, planting peace, seed by seed by seed, may offer the only long-term hope for this and other war-torn regions.
Closer to home, a community mobilization prompted by the explosive mix of race and the militarization of police set off by Michael Brown’s killing prompted the rejection of the Davis Police Department’s acquisition of a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle. While the Davis Police Department’s claimed that the MRAP would be used only to counter highly armed criminals, the war-zone images from Ferguson led the City Council to wisely “tank the tank.”
Consider these scenarios: How might Davis’ African-American residents, who already face the jeopardy of driving in Davis while black, feel with an MRAP on traffic patrol? How might the UC Davis police pepper-spray scandal have spun further out of control if the MRAP had rolled onto campus?
Fortunately, the people and elected leaders of Davis acted decisively to prevent this tragedy in the making.
Avoiding problems is good, but how can Davis plant its own seeds of peace? A powerful response to this call recently rang out at Davis High School as the community celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the launch of what would become the Race and Social Justice history class.
The strategies of using student-led research, multicultural student organizing, and establishing a permanent class for informed dialogue on the vexed topic of race, have represented a proactive and effective response to waves of hate incidents in Davis. The event’s inspiring keynote address by Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the “Little Rock Nine” and author of “Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir Of The Battle To Integrate Little Rock’s Central High,” spoke to the power of persistence and grace in the face of hate.
While the levels of physical violence are not remotely comparable to Little Rock, Race and Social Justice students’ research has surfaced the emotional toll of racial and ethnic educational inequities in Davis schools. It has also shown some important progress over time.
RSJ and the community organizing that has supported it has demonstrated that changing entrenched social patterns is a long-term project, but one that can be achieved through the humanizing action of walking step by step and planting seeds together.
— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at [email protected]