I am a Seed of Peace: Music and Israeli-Arab Peacemaking

Seeds of Peace International Camp for Coexistence, a summer camp for teenagers from conflict regions around the world, particularly the Middle East, creates a social context that uses music to form and solidify a new identity that allows youth to transcend their nationalities and connect with one another in a meaningful way.  Through a discussion of the use of music, particularly the Seeds of Peace song, “I am a Seed of Peace,” as an integral part of the camp’s peacemaking process, I hope to highlight certain processes that can be applied to other instances of conflict resolution.  This discussion is based on my experiences as a Seed of Peace, as a music counselor at camp, and on research I conducted at Seeds of Peace in the summer of 2009.

Before embarking upon this paper, I want to make clear that I approach the relationship between music and peacemaking in ethnic conflict as a skeptic, and the arguments presented here do not depend upon a postulate of musical universals or an idealistic belief about music’s political influence.  In my experience, music is not a universal language that can somehow transcend barriers of ethnicity and culture to connect people through a shared meaning.  Rather, music acquires its meaning through cultural or life experience. Obviously, simply singing a song or playing a piece of music will have no tangible effect upon a situation as deep-seated and violent as an ethnic conflict, unless the music is further grounded in the performers’ and listeners’ culture or life experiences. However, as I will explain in this paper, I do believe that music can be used as a powerful tool for peacemaking in ethnic conflict if used within a social system that infuses it with meaning.

Seeds of Peace is an American, politically unaffiliated organization that runs a summer camp in Maine for high school students from the Middle East and other regions of ethnic conflict.  Journalist John Wallach founded the camp in 1993, the summer before the Oslo Accords, dreaming that one day, the leader of the Israelis and the leader of the Palestinians would both be graduates of Seeds of Peace, sharing a fundamental identity as “Seeds” and a mutual understanding that would take them that much closer to a peaceful solution to the region’s violence.[1]  As an organization, Seeds of Peace straddles two complementary, but fundamentally different, approaches to peacemaking.  Its focus on youth and interpersonal understanding—summarized by its slogan, “Treaties are negotiated by governments; peace is made by people”[2]—emphasizes a bottom-up approach that stresses that without societal preparation, official diplomacy will be ineffective at ending ethnic conflict.  However, John Wallach’s dream, and Seeds of Peace’s ultimate goal to “[empower] leaders of the next generation,”[3] resonates more with the top-down approach to peacemaking that focuses on negotiation between the leaders of governing bodies.  Only the best and brightest high schoolers are selected by their schools, Seeds of Peace staff, or national ministries of education to attend Seeds of Peace, and the unfortunate necessity of using only English as the lingua franca at camp in order to maintain trust among the campers further limits the pool to the socioeconomic elite of each society.

The community of leaders formed at Seeds of Peace transcends national boundaries through the creation of the identity of the “Seed.”  This identity is literally imprinted upon all campers from the moment they are given their Seeds of Peace t-shirts (the only attire permissible at camp) and is reinforced throughout each three-week session through a variety of shared experiences and performances.  Each “Seed” goes through a combination of professionally-facilitated political dialogue and normal summer-camp activities with a coed “dialogue group” of fifteen or so teens, grouped by region of conflict.

The combination of political dialogue and summer-camp activities is of critical importance: without engaging the difficult issues of the conflict, the teens would not gain any understanding of the “other side’s” grievances, its narrative of the conflict, or its identity as a group, nor would they have to confront their own.  Without this political dialogue, their experience would be limited to a fleeting dream in which they played basketball and sang together as friends, but which was not ultimately grounded in any understanding that could be applicable back home, where “Israeli” and “Palestinian” define every aspect of how these teens can relate to each other.  Still, playing basketball is every bit as important as political dialogue, because Seeds of Peace’s dialogue model could not succeed if the Seeds did not become friends along the way, as will be demonstrated.

The teens in each delegation arrive at camp having been taught their whole lives that the “other side” is inhuman, and immediately prior to arriving at camp, their delegation leaders, educators from their respective societies whose goals do not always correspond with those of Seeds of Peace, prime them with political and historical arguments to hurl at their perceived opponents so that they can “win” dialogue.[4]   “Dialogue,” for the teens, starts as a battle to tear down the “other side’s” history, sense of righteousness and entire construct of nationhood.  Being a good Israeli means rejecting all Palestinian claims of victimhood, and being a good Palestinian means forcing the Israelis to acknowledge that they are the aggressor.

Each dialogue group has a unique progression, but usually, about halfway through a session, the teens in each dialogue group run out of arguments, and it is precisely at this point in the program that they have begun to become close friends with one another through the activities they share outside of dialogue.  They have also begun to adopt the identity of the Seed.  A good Seed is one who is able to listen, rather than speak, in dialogue, and it is each Seed’s job to “make one friend” from the “other side.”  Once the Seeds stop arguing and realize that their interlocutors are actually their friends, whom they have come to trust, they open up to one another and begin sharing personal stories of pain and loss.  At this point in a session, Seeds from both sides of the conflict realize that their former enemies, but now fellow Seeds, are suffering too.  This fundamental insight, the first step towards mutual understanding, would be inconceivably more difficult without the trust of friendship and the common identity of the Seed, which frees the teens from the constriction of their national identities and allows them to empathize with one another without betraying who they are.

What do Seeds usually take from a three-week session at camp?  Surveys that Seeds of Peace conducts at the beginning and end of each session show that Seeds feel increased comfort with the perceived “other side” and have dispelled various stereotypes about its members by the time they leave camp.[5]  More importantly, Seeds of Peace produces lifelong friendships.  Forged within the conflict itself rather than by ignoring it, these friendships can stand arguments, political turmoil and violence without shattering.  Finally, while Seeds of Peace may not change a participant’s political opinions, nor is it its goal to, it invariably broadens and deepens each Seed’s political understanding, and reinforces this understanding with the strong friendships that are made at camp.

Music plays an integral role within this process of building friendship and understanding.  While not an explicit part of political dialogue, music is used, through repeated communal performance, to create and sustain community at Seeds of Peace by establishing and reinforcing the identity of the Seed.  As Najat, an Israeli Seed, said, “at camp, we have our own language – of music, sports, table cheers and fun”[6]  From the moment delegations arrive off the bus, they are welcomed with a drumming and chanting celebration, which Hamzeh, a Palestinian Seed, said made him feel “at home in the first ten minutes of camp.”[7]  On day two, the first full day of camp, each new Seed learns the Seeds of Peace song, “I am a Seed of Peace.”  This song is a critical part of the Seeds’ orientation, and is repeated throughout camp on important occasions to reinforce communal solidarity and identity.  It goes as follows:

“I am a Seed of Peace”[8]
Chords: Am7 // C7/G // Fmaj7 // Esus4 → E7

CHORUS:

I am a Seed of Peace, a Seed of Peace, a Seed of Peace.
I am a Seed, a Seed of Peace.
I am! You’re what? A Seed!  That’s right.  I am a Seed of Peace.
Peace, peace, peace, peace.

VERSE 1:

People of peace, rejoice, rejoice!
For we have united into one voice:
A voice of peace and hate of war;
United hands have built a bridge between two shores.

VERSE 2:

We on the shores have torn down the wall;
We stand hand-in-hand as we watch the bricks fall.
We’ve learned from the past and fear not what’s ahead;
I know I’ll not walk alone, but with a friend instead.

The chorus reiterates the identity of the Seed of Peace.  Indeed, the call and response section of the song (“I am!” “You’re what?” “A Seed!” “That’s right”) can be understood as a rehearsal for maintaining the identity of the Seed when challenged, the most formidable hurdle Seeds face when they return home.  The verses narrate, metaphorically, the process that Seeds undergo of coming together to break down barriers and work together to construct a better future.  Moreover, the verses are self-fulfilling, as Seeds enact their words by singing them together, hand-in-hand (as the Seeds of Peace song is always performed).  With the end of the second verse, in particular, each Seed assures all others that they are not alone in their quest for peace, an assurance that is indeed realized through the song’s performance.

Perhaps the most important performance of the Seeds of Peace song occurs at the flag-raising ceremony on the third day of camp.  Everyone gathers at the camp gates for each delegation to raise its flag and sing its national anthem, a display of national identity that is not permitted once the campers re-enter the camp gates as Seeds.  Once the national anthems are completed, all of the Seeds, delegation leaders and staff join hands and sing, “I am a Seed of Peace” together.[9]  As an American Seed, Elizabeth, remarked, “Everyone has their national anthem, and they’re really proud of it, so if you sing the Seeds of Peace anthem, then everyone’s proud of the same thing.”[10]  The young leaders repeat the song as they walk into camp as Seeds who have embraced their new identity and left all performances of the old at the camp gates.

It is a powerful moment, though a moment that perhaps feels more symbolic than real so early in the session.  But the Seeds of Peace song acquires more meaning as the Seeds begin to understand what it means to struggle with who they are.  Throughout camp, when the Seeds need support from one another, the Seeds of Peace song helps the individuals who sing it reaffirm their faith in themselves, in one another, and in the project they have decided to undertake together.  Particularly when performed back in the conflict regions, it summons a powerful memory of all that was accomplished at camp and an assurance that one is not alone in the quest for peace.  As Cameel, a Palestinian Seed, affirmed, “It unites us all.”[11]

A special case in which music acts in much the same way is when there is a song that both sides of a conflict region come to camp already identifying strongly with.  In the summer of 2009, A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire was such a hit for the Indian and Pakistani.  Whenever there was an argument in the bunk, or Seeds came back from a heated dialogue session, counselors could play Jai Ho and everyone would almost automatically begin dancing and singing along.[12]  “Jai Ho” made the South Asian Seeds feel comfortable and at home – and that home, musically, was a place they already shared with one another.  Such a dynamic raises questions about the potential for such a song in the Middle East, were an artist to succeed in composing a popular song that the Israeli and Palestinian societies could both identify with as their own.

In addition to cross-conflict identity formation, music is also used within the framework of summer-camp activities as an effective method for fostering teamwork among the Seeds, as well as one that provides them with avenues for developing close friendships.  The music curriculum at Seeds of Peace involves a variety of listening, discussion, and performance-based activities, aimed towards using music as a vector for interpersonal and intercultural understanding as well as fostering teamwork.    Seeds bring in their favorite music to talk about and teach one another their favorite songs in their native languages.  Instructors play different musical samples from the conflict regions and guide discussions around the pieces as sociopolitical signifiers.

Perhaps most effective have been the activities at Seeds of Peace that involve small performance ensembles.  The camp’s music curriculum in 2009 grew to include a cappella groups, rock bands, and an African drumming and dance troupe.[13]  Even just in normal music classes, entire dialogue groups sang songs together in multipart harmony, Such small performances not only have the virtue of strengthening the smaller communities that exist within Seeds of Peace, but also have the power to draw teens who feel excluded from normal camp life into a positive relationship with their peers and a feeling of membership at camp.  For example, a percussion ensemble during the first session of 2009 provided a social space that allowed Amir, an Arab citizen of Israel who felt caught in between his two national identities to feel at home in the group.  Rather than annoy his peers to get attention, this Seed realized that he would be valued simply if he contributed to the group as a musician.  His contributions made the performance, and his behavior changed completely.

The potency of large- and small-group performance for the creation of identity is greatly strengthened during the last few days of each session.  Each session culminates with Color Games, an intense camp-wide competition between arbitrarily divided teams of green and blue.[14]  Seeds compete in everything from volleyball to chess, and music is no exception.  In addition to an “all-star music” event in which eight campers from each team have an hour to work together to write and perform a song about their experience at Seeds of Peace, each team competes at the variety show for the best a cappella group, instrumental ensemble, and original team song, a song that all its members must learn and perform together.  Seeds take the competition very seriously – indeed, one’s color is just as important for graduate Seeds as what session one went to camp, or even what delegation one came with.  The music that is created by Color Games is similarly treasured in Seeds’ memories: in 2006, Ghassan, a Palestinian, remembered every word written for his Green Team song two years before.[15]

But it is at the end of this competition that the Seeds of Peace song once again assumes its primacy.  After the results of Color Games are announced, everyone rushes into the lake, laughing and hugging one another.  After much splashing, everyone joins hands in the water and once again sings “I am a Seed of Peace” to come together again as a community, and it is at that moment that all of the drive of color games is redirected to the real challenge of camp – working together as Seeds of Peace to make friendships and end war.  In the halo of Color Games, the Seeds feel like anything is possible – the performance of “I am a Seed of Peace” in the lake after Color Games is a profound and undeniable moment   of communal determination for all who have experienced it.

The Seeds of Peace song and the meaning it accrues have several implications. Firstly, the role that the song assumes in the lives of the Seeds who sing and remember it shows that music largely devoid of cultural signifiers can be used as a tool of cross-cultural identity formation in situations of ethnic conflict.  This conclusion makes three claims.  Firstly, it asserts that music devoid of cultural signifiers can acquire significance through one’s life experience.  The Seeds of Peace song shows very little musical influence from the cultures of any of the conflict regions represented at Seeds of Peace – it is essentially in the style of a strophic American folk-rock song with an unusual chord-structure (Am7, C7/G, Fmaj7 and Esus4 → E7) that shares very little with the traditional music of the Middle East, South Asia, or the Balkans.  Secondly, it shows that music can aid in the creation of a new identity, or even a new culture: through the repeated use of the Seeds of Peace song as communal ritual, “I am a Seed of Peace” becomes a critical part of, and helps instantiate, the identity of the Seed of Peace.  Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, it works with members from opposing sides of several ethnic conflicts – Israelis and Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and others.

The most pressing question, though, is whether music can have such an impact on peacemaking efforts in the conflict region itself.  Can music create a cross-cultural identity when not sheltered from the external pressures and pulls of one’s family, friends, and nationality?  Can music become so infused with life (and life with music) when the peacemaking program is more diffuse and drawn out over a longer period of time?  And can music actually succeed in creating a meaningful community if a political dialogue process to ground it is not explicitly intertwined with that community’s formation?

Ultimately, I occupied a dual role of researcher and participant at Seeds of Peace. Two summers ago, after first giving this paper, I traveled to Jerusalem to further study the questions I had thought about and lived at the camp. In Jerusalem, the programs I studied (including Seeds of Peace’s regional follow-up) had immense difficulty not only balancing music and politics within the interaction, but also even getting kids to come on a regular basis.   I was confronted instead with a new question: how do you incentivize participation in regional programs when both societies discourage involvement?  And how does your choice of incentives affect the kinds of programming that is possible?  As I work to establish an Israeli-Palestinian youth choir in Jerusalem this coming year, I will have to fully contend with the realities of life on the ground.  But I will never forget the process I am seeking to emulate: that through repeated performance, the song “I am a Seed of Peace” plays a critical role in the development and sustenance of the identity of the Seed at Seeds of Peace – an identity which is ultimately critical to the camp’s success, and to the growth of future leaders.

Works Cited

Beinart, Liza.  “Children as agents of peace: conflict transformation, peacebuilding and track two diplomacy amongst children in Israel/Palestine.”  Doctoral Dissertation, 2005.

Hendler, Micah.  Field Notes.

Hendler, Micah.  “’I am a Seed of Peace:’ At a summer program in Maine, children of conflict sing out       a new harmony.”  The Yale Globalist 10.1 (Fall 2009): 36.

Seeds of Peace.  www.seedsofpeace.org


[1]    Seeds of Peace.   www.seedsofpeace.org/?p=11048

[4] Micah Hendler, Field Notes.

[5] Liza Beinart, “Children as Agents of Peace: Conflict Transformation, Peacebuilding and Track Two Diplomacy Amongst

Children in Israel/Palestine, Doctoral Dissertation, 268.

[6]     Hendler, Interview with Najat, Field Notes.

[7]     Hendler, Interview with Hamzeh, Field Notes.

[8]   “I am a Seed of Peace,” Words by Amgad Nagiub & James Durst, Music by James Durst, © 1997 PhoeniXongs ASCAP / S.O.P.I.C.

[9] “Seeds of Peace Campers Confident About Changes.” News Center.  NBC. WCHS, Portland, ME. 29 July 2011. Television.

[10] Micah Hendler, “’I am a Seed of Peace:’ At a summer program in Maine, children of conflict sing out a new harmony,” The Yale Globalist (Fall 2009) p. 36.

[11] Hendler, “I am a Seed of Peace,” The Yale Globalist, p. 36

[12]  Hendler, Field Notes.

[13] Hendler, Field Notes.

[14] Seeds of Peace. www.seedsofpeace.org/?page_id=1586

[15] Hendler, Interview with Ghassan, Field Notes.

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