Seattle’s Middle East Peace Camp (MEPC), a weeklong summer program that brings Arab and Jewish children together, encountered controversy this summer.
The camp, founded in the summer after September 11 by local activist Kay Bullitt, the Arab Center of Washington, Beyond Borders and Kadima, Seattle’s Reconstructionist congregation, strives to build a community of Arabs and Jews “based on peace, justice and compassion through recreation, education and leadership development,” according to its website.
The MEPC’s mission is intended to create lasting friendships while eschewing politics in the hopes it will foster long-term understanding and compassion between youth affected by the conflict in the Middle East.
But the camp stirred emotions in Jewish community leaders when it brought in Susan Koppelman from LifeSource, a Palestinian organization, to discuss Palestinian water rights with camp counselors. The lecture was one of two group conversations held between camp counselors and community speakers, but it raised concern when it presented a seemingly one-sided perspective.
“The presented information was typical for an organization with an agenda against Israel. However, I was truly disappointed that a camp that works toward peace through understanding would only present to the counselors one side of an issue,” said Ellie Rudee, a 21-year-old counselor at MEPC this year. “To me, taking sides is not an effective method to build peace, but rather a tool to ensure hostility and ignorance.”
LifeSource, an organization that claims to protect water rights for Palestinians, actively promotes utilizing boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to achieve its goals. Elana Feldman, 25, who grew up in the Kadima community, defended the decision to include the LifeSource lecture, maintaining that the camp is kept almost entirely neutral.
“Our objective is to raise a community that can think consciously about the Middle East,” Feldman told JTNews. “Not talking about the issues would be worse, and the counselors need to hear from all perspectives.”
The politically centered aspects of the camp are limited to counselors, ages 12 through 21, who are pulled out in groups for discussions and lectures aimed at understanding issues and opening up a dialogue between teens of different backgrounds.
Rudee observed that the majority of the Jewish counselors were connected to Kadima, which she felt resulted in a lack of political diversity. Kadima supports a progressive outlook on Israel.
Camp counselor Eli Davis said the talk “was a little forceful for the camp. In the end, I think it was good in the sense that it got us talking about what ways we want to set up these discussions in the camp.”
“She was very straightforward in her opinion that…it was all Israel’s fault,” said Davis of Koppelman. “We weren’t necessarily prepared for that.”
Davis said Rudee helped the counselors organize a response when they were floundering. “We all realized we can’t just leave it at that,” he said.
The MEPC staff agreed to bring in a speaker from progressive Israel advocacy lobbying group J Street to balance the discussion.
Politics aside, campers ages 4–11 enjoyed many apolitical activities such as arts and crafts, sports, dancing and cooking, all centered around this year’s theme of “food and community.” Many campers were nevertheless curious about the inevitable political nature of the camp and were eager to learn about the more controversial topics.
“Interestingly, the older campers were already trying to grasp the more political issues, and I could tell that they were already being affected by discussions at home,” Rudee said. “I received questions like, ‘Was it the Israelis or the Palestinians who did 9/11?’ and ‘Which side are you on? I’m on the Palestinian side, because how would you like it if Israelis destroyed your house?’”
Feldman said the counselors encouraged conversation, even if they didn’t agree with the ideas. The MEPC focuses on fostering relationships between campers through fun, collaborative activities, she said, while emphasizing commonalities and celebrating differences among the youth. Counselors facilitated activities with the campers, working to promote trust and teamwork.
After the week-long session, camp leaders offered Rudee the opportunity to help plan the speakers for next summer, demonstrating an effort to rebalance the camp’s apolitical purpose. This year, as the camp celebrated its tenth year of operation, it hosted 30 campers and 30 counselors, and Feldman says she is hopeful to involve even more of the community in the coming years.
According to Davis, this year’s camp attendees leaned “maybe more so against Israel, but I wouldn’t say that’s characteristic of the camp.” He noted that sometimes controversy is a good thing.
“The point of camp is to hold these discussions and debates where no one feels pressured,” he said. “We’ve done a pretty good job in the past.”