Writing Program Empowers Israeli, Palestinian Youth

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When President Donald Trump announced plans to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, individuals from across the political spectrum voiced their opinions.

One voice missing, though, said Robert Vogel, professor emeritus at La Salle University, was that of young teenagers impacted by the conflict. So he reached out to the Israeli Jewish, Israeli Arab and Palestinian students in his program, Writers Matter, to collect their thoughts.

“I don’t understand why it is a big deal that Trump says Jerusalem is the capital of Israel — it always has been. I just think that if he were really a leader he would know what we all learned in the kindergarten — it’s best to share,” a 13-year-old Jewish Israeli girl wrote.

“I will not keep my hands tied … but I struggle with all of what I have, I feel a revolution inside me that arrests my heart, so much sadness clouds me resulted from this occupation that steals from us all good and precious things,” a 13-year-old Palestinian girl wrote.

Writers Matter, which operates out of the University of Pennsylvania, has 250 students participating in eight schools in Israel and the West Bank. The program encourages 12- to 14-year-olds to express themselves through writing.

“The important thing is not for the readers who want to read this to take a side, it’s to take a step back and listen to these young kids and what they’re thinking about,” Vogel said. “These are the young kids who are going to grow up and hopefully make some changes down the line.”

The Israeli program is based on a Philadelphia program of the same name. While the Philadelphia one seeks to empower students in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, the focus of the Israeli program is to empower students whose entire lives have existed in the context of political conflict.

In the program, the young teens write about themselves, their families, their challenges, how they live their lives, their aspirations, their dreams and their fears. Occasionally, they do other assignments as well, such as responses to the moving of the embassy, or the 2015-16 knife attacks in Israel. Sometimes, specific teachers will have their students write about other topics in addition, such as religion or the environment.

Robert Vogel (back left) and Sami Adwan (back right) with Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab students | Photo provided

Writers Matter began in Israel when Vogel took a group of students to Bethlehem University, where they met with Palestinian educator Sami Adwan and his students. There, Vogel told Adwan about the program, which impressed Adwan. Adwan had the idea of adapting the program for schools in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The program started in 2011 in two schools in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam and Jawarish.

“It really has a very positive effect on children,” said Adwan, who co-directs the program with Vogel. “Of course, from one side, it improves their writing skills. On the other side, it helps them as they are in a conflict situation, to be able to relate to the social, political, economic plights they are living in.”

While the main goal of the program is to improve writing skills, a less direct goal is also to develop future leaders in the region and perhaps even cultivate coexistence.

Once a year, the program brings together Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli students to share their writings with each other. While Vogel said they would ideally bring the Palestinian children as well, getting the students through checkpoints is too difficult.

He said many of the teachers also have concerns about safety in getting children through checkpoints. But they are all supportive of bringing the Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab children together.

“They get a chance to actually communicate with either an Israeli Arab or an Israeli Jew, maybe for the first time ever,” Vogel said. “And they find out that they have so many more things in common. Because they’re doing writing together, they’re like a family. They talk about food, they talk about music, they talk about sports, and all of a sudden, they find out that they have so many things in common, that they don’t understand why they don’t get along.”

The program also brings the kids together with their parents for a day. During that time, the students and the parents write letters to each other, and Vogel said that, every year, parents are surprised over the topics their children think about. They often write about subjects they’ve never discussed with each other before.

“We emancipate them from the adults, and [they] try for themselves to share their opinions and bring it to the table, so adults can listen to them,” Adwan said. “It’s time that we have the time to listen to the children.”

Vogel said he was not particularly surprised by what he read from the responses to move the embassy.

“They’re not really interested in all these political things going on. They want a future,” Vogel said. “They really want to have a peaceful society in which to live. They want that badly. These are kids who have all grown up in conflict, and it’s not the way we want kids to grow up.”

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