While some Arab-Jewish camps in Israel look forward to a summer of healing, others halt

While initiatives with Arab Israeli participants see a surge, those involving West Bank Palestinians appear to struggle more; there’s been a 'really visceral breakdown in trust,' one camp organizer says

Every year since 1989, the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, Israel, holds its Arab-Jewish Summer Camp for up to 100 Jewish and Arab Israeli 6- to 11-year-olds, and this year looks to be no different. Counselors are eager to return, and their camp director, due to have a baby three weeks before camp starts in mid-August, insists she wants to be there. As tension throbs throughout the region, the camp community yearns to get back. 

“The summer camp has a really great reputation,” Rabbi Oshrat Morag, senior rabbi and head of the community department of the Leo Baeck Education Center, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “Throughout the years, it has become an island of sanity where people feel like this is where we go when we want to feel that [the conflict] doesn’t touch us. People won’t tell us how to live our lives. We get along together.”

In Israel and the West Bank, a number of summer camps have spent decades working to cultivate connection between Arab and Jewish communities, but the Oct. 7 attacks and ensuing war in Gaza are threatening — or at least halting — those attempts at coexistence. While many camps look forward to a summer of healing, others have ground to a halt.

It’s camp sign-up season in the United States, but in Israel and the West Bank, “Nobody’s thinking about camp until June 31,” Rabbi Shaul Judelman, the co-director of Roots, which holds a camp for Palestinians and Israelis living in the West Bank, told eJP. Still, he can’t imagine Roots’ camp will take place this year.

Roots launched its first camp amid war. In early 2014, a $2,000 donation came in for children’s programming, so Roots began planning a summer camp, but then came Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 51-day war in Gaza that year. “We almost canceled camp,” Judelman said. “But then we decided, ‘You know what? We will do something small.’”

Headquartered about 200 meters from Gush Etzion Junction, the site of numerous shootings and stabbings, Roots has held a weeklong day camp for 5- to 10-year-olds every year since 2014, excepting the pandemic. The first year’s “small” number ended up being 50 Israeli and Palestinian children attending. For three years, they also held a weeklong overnight camp for teenagers.

While some camps within Israel proper will be in session, “There’s a very different attitude to the war between Arab-Israeli citizens and Palestinians in the West Bank,” Judelman said. According to a December Palestinian Center for Policy Survey and Research study, 85% of West Bank Palestinians reported feeling “satisfaction with the role of Hamas” in the current war. Meanwhile, post-Oct. 7, Arab Israeli citizens have felt increased solidarity with other Israelis.

Judelman understands how tough it is for West Bank Palestinians. Roads are shut down. Surveillance skyrocketed. Israeli military operations have ramped up. Traveling is difficult. And settler violence against Palestinians has surged, according to watchdog groups. Meanwhile, Israelis fear violence in return, following regular Palestinian terror attacks in the West Bank, as well as in Israel proper. “Both sides feel an extra level of fear driving on the roads,” Judelman said. There’s been a “really visceral breakdown in trust.”

Now is not the time to force people to come together and get along, Judelman said. “We know we’re going to seriously disagree about a lot of things right now. When the fight is over, we’re going to still have the work of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation in front of us. Let’s not burn ourselves out [debating] the war… Sometimes you’re able to do more for the values of peace building, for the values of reconciliation, from really speaking [out against prejudice and anger] within your community.”

Meanwhile, in Haifa, Americans visit the Leo Baeck Center seeking hope, Morag said, and they find it. There are waiting lists to attend this year’s camp.

Even though camp demand is high, immediately following Oct. 7, there was hesitation in the greater Leo Baeck community to hold their monthly shared society meetings between Arabs and Jews, but they realized they needed to push through. Most families in the community have known each other for years. They needed to be together. Normally camp is held for one week, from Sunday through Friday, but there is hope that they can extend it to 10 days, so parents can attend programming too. They also are aiming for a winter camp to bridge relationships over the year.

Although campers learn a bit of Hebrew and Arabic, the goal of the camp is to simply “have fun together,” Morag said. “Just to feel like they’re our friends. They’re citizens of Israel just as we are, and they deserve the same rights.”

Playing together “takes off a lot of the prejudice and pressure and fear,” she said. “We don’t really speak about the tensions because they’re really young.”

But for attendees of the Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF)’s Peace & Reconciliation Camp, the tension is unavoidable. Since 2003, the camp has brought together 40 to 50 Israeli and West Bank Palestinian teens. Everyone involved has lost an immediate family member to the conflict.

Three weeks prior to the Oct. 7 attacks, on International Peace Day, camp attendees signed a charter for nonviolence and reconciliation at the United Nations’ Jerusalem office. But after the attacks, the teens flooded their social media accounts with polarizing memes and messages. Suddenly, friends were at odds.

At first, the PCFF held virtual groups for Palestinian teens to talk with other Palestinian teens and Israeli teens to talk with Israeli teens to discuss their feelings, while guided by staff. Then, seven weeks ago, the teens all met together to talk via Zoom. They listened and realized they share the same pain.

“There has to be a very strong sense of trust for them to want to talk to each other,” Robi Damelin, an Israeli peace activist whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2004 and who is spokesperson and does international relations for the PCFF, told eJP. This trust has been formulated over years.

Due to travel difficulties in the West Bank, for the first time, this year’s Peace & Reconciliation Camp will be held outside Israel, in either Cyprus or Italy.

“I would imagine that we will have to do a lot more circles of discussion and sharing [this year] because there’s so much to share,” Damelin said. “Israel is really such a small country. All of the kids know somebody who either is a hostage or got killed. For the Palestinians, even though they live in the West Bank, they have a lot of family that live in Gaza, and the situation in the West Bank is pretty dangerous at the moment.”

For Judelman, this year is causing him to rethink strategy. “I work for a peace-building organization and let’s be honest, we failed. This last year was about, let’s do some serious accounting for ourselves. What’s been working? What doesn’t work? What impacts more than just the people in the room?”

Still, he’s seen the way playing and dancing together brings kids together. He’s had counselors tell him that the experience of working at the camp healed childhood wounds. He knows of Jewish and Arab parents who send their kids to the camp because they don’t want them to fall into extremism. So as the summer nears, he still has hope.

“We might be saying, ‘OK, things have calmed down enough,’” he said. “We don’t plan so far ahead, [but] we also move fast.”