IN THE SUMMER OF 2014, as Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza during the military incursion known as Operation Protective Edge, Salma Faysal, a 17-year-old from the area, was at sleepaway camp in rural Maine. Faysal was a second-year camper at Seeds of Peace Camp, a coexistence initiative that brings Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together each summer on the shores of Pleasant Lake, an hour northwest of Portland. Every day for a little under two hours, in facilitated dialogue sessions squeezed between regular camp activities like basketball and sailing, participants discuss their experiences on opposing sides of a geopolitical conflict; beyond those sessions, staffers discourage political conversation. But in 2014, as Palestinian campers struggled to reach family members back home—cell phones are prohibited at camp—something gave way.
In the middle of the July session, Faysal and the rest of that summer’s Palestinian delegation left their regularly scheduled activities, put on keffiyehs, and silently protested in solidarity with Gaza on the camp’s central lawn, near a green shed lettered with the words “This is the field”—a reference to a cloying English translation of a Rumi poem that begins, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” The demonstration was virtually unheard of in the camp’s history. Camp leadership reprimanded the Palestinian teens, according to Faysal and Hamzeh Ghosheh, a Palestinian counselor and Seeds alumnus, telling them that regulations dictated they should be sent home. But, Faysal explained, “they couldn’t send home a whole delegation.”
The incident foreshadowed a turning point at Seeds of Peace. Partly to maintain the cooperation of participating governments, the camp has remained staunchly apolitical, touting a mission of developing youth leadership for global change but avoiding taking a position on particulars like military occupation or borders. But in the past few years, Seeds of Peace’s year-round staff began calling for sweeping changes to this approach, including an overhaul of the camp curriculum. (Full disclosure: I was a counselor there in 2014 and 2016, though I’ve never been involved in staff organizing.) The organization’s leadership pushed back, creating a dispute that came into public view early in 2020, when camp director Sarah Brajtbord—who had been involved with Seeds of Peace since her own time as a camper in the early 2000s—announced in a blistering Facebook post that she had been fired by a board of directors intent on stifling “long overdue change.” More than 100 of the camp’s seasonal staffers responded with a letter to the board demanding that the body become more accountable to and representative of the community it serves, hire a third party to investigate possible retaliation against Brajtbord by a board member, and—most dramatically—cancel camp that summer while the organization reconceived its vision. That last demand quickly became moot: Seeds of Peace announced last March that in-person sessions would be canceled for 2020 due to the coronavirus. But the fate of future summers remains in flux.
Seeds of Peace was founded in 1993, the year of the first of the Oslo Accords, and quickly became emblematic of that era in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. At the close of the camp’s very first session, campers—or “Seeds,” in the organization’s parlance—traveled to Washington, DC, to attend the signing of the accord on the White House lawn. A year later, another group of Seeds visited the White House, where President Bill Clinton told them, “The image of you smiling together, of you singing together, of you being together will spur us on to try to make sure that the future . . . will be a future you share together.” (Clinton is still listed on the organization’s advisory board, along with a handful of other Oslo-era figures, most of whom are now deceased.) For years, participants met with State Department officials like Madeleine Albright; in remarks to campers from 1999 aired on C-Span, the former secretary of state called Seeds of Peace her “favorite group.” Such endorsements gave the camp early momentum, which has subsequently inspired countless articles in the press. “Now I do think that there will be peace between Israel and Palestine,” a Palestinian camper named Mirna Ansari told the BBC in one typical piece. “If we as teenagers believe that, then when we grow up we will work on it.” (Today, Ansari manages Seeds’s Palestinian programs, alongside a number of colleagues across the organization’s various international offices who first got involved as campers.)