These days it is easy to fall prey to a growing sense of despair – I’m almost afraid to read the news, afraid to hear of the latest development, be it locally or abroad, that is guaranteed to increase the rift between peoples, obscuring the inviolability of our shared humanity. While I was feeling increasingly helpless and hopeless, it was the students participating in our pilot program who reminded me that despair is, in itself, a kind of illusion – a willed forgetfulness. For isn’t it fundamentally true that so long as there is even one person working to heal the wounds of his or her fellow human beings, there is still hope – a light shining in the darkness, robbing the darkness of its killing power?

At one of our international schools in Kenya, the program is being piloted in the context of the senior (12th grade) Current Events class, which, among many other things, has a unit on Israel and Palestine. When they study this unit, the students are asked to role-play key figures or decision makers in a debate that aims to discuss the various issues pertaining to this conflict. For the most part, the students play all the top-level politicians on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, but this year, with the incorporation of the Peace Heroes’ stories, the teacher also included approximately six Palestinian and Israeli peace advocates into the debate. Reading through dozens of reflection papers, I quickly came to see that their inclusion had a singular effect on students across the board (no matter who they were playing): it gave them hope in what might otherwise feel like a rather hopeless situation.

Practically speaking, this is how it works: In preparation for the simulation, students must do some in-depth research into the person they’ve been assigned – his or her background, ideology, and political stance on certain key issues – and must be prepared to argue this position intelligently while remaining true to the worldview of his or her character. Then, on the day of the simulation, the class gathers round-table style for a “political summit” of sorts, to negotiate and (hopefully) agree on a solution to the various issues being discussed. It’s a great way for students to learn about the complexities of the conflict through their own research as well as that of their fellow students. The simulation really brings the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to life for students who, for the most part, have had very little exposure to it.

As I watched a number of video clips of the various simulations (three different classes have done this exercise so far) and read through the students’ reflections, I was struck by how the inclusion of peace heroes really changed their perspective. The peace heroes somehow managed to humanize the conflict for all the students – even students who weren’t playing them. I also noticed that those students who were assigned a peace hero tended to be much more open to hearing both sides (rather than getting caught up in their own narrative). Interesting observations, in terms of the subtle yet powerful nuances that emerge when we give peace a voice . . .

Here are a few thoughts from the students themselves:

“The solution to peace or even a less threatening relationship between the two parties would be calm discussion, which would entail compromise. Take for instance peacemakers and advocates such as Ali Abu Awwad. This Palestinian refugee turned peace activist encourages the two parties to hear each other’s voices . . . To understand that there is pain within both parties . . . If people start to adopt this method of thinking in addition to composed discussion, then the violence will surely decrease and that in turn, will bring about a greater level of peace.”

“Role playing as a Palestinian peace activist allowed me to take a non-biased and peaceful approach to the issues being discussed, and understand all the problems from both the Israeli and Palestinian perspective in order to come up with viable and nonviolent solutions. As a peace activist, my character believed that we need to show people to live peacefully in day to day lives, educating people about nonviolence and allowing the Palestinians and Israelis to learn and understand more about the other side’s culture and traditions.”

“Playing the role of Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger helped me get a deeper understanding of this conflict. His perspective of this conflict is very unique because he thinks that both stories are true . . . He repeatedly says, ‘half-truth + half-truth = full truth.’ This means that he thinks both nations have a right to live on this land. I was surprised how each politician in each government had a blind spot for the opposing side’s viewpoint. They never considered the situation of the other nation and were not ready to compromise . . . You do not obtain justice by attacking others. You achieve justice by helping other people to do the right thing. It could be being friendly to each other or changing their perspectives on the situation. My character, Rabbi [Schlesinger], helped me to understand this. I still think that peace making is possible if both nations work together for a shared goal: peace.”

And then there is that seemingly elusive hope – a possibility that cropped up in a majority of the papers, reminding me that I have no right to despair, with so many people giving their lives to change this situation for the good:

“After studying some of the ‘peace heroes’ who are working towards a non-violent approach, I do think that there is hope for the situation at hand. Simply because there is still compassion and understanding left for each other even if it is not entirely evident, the respect for each other and each party is still a possibility. If this way of thinking spreads then more people are likely to act on that knowledge and bring peace.”

“I think there is a lot of hope in this issue. There are many people who are determined to find a solution, and many people who realize that more violence is never the answer. If these people get their way, we would have peace very soon . . . Especially after seeing people like Ali and Shlomo and even Robi, it is clear that there are some people who truly have love in their hearts, and desire peace above all else. There is hope in this situation, and people must be reminded to not lose sight of it.”

“I do see more hope in the situation because there are many people, including Israeli settlers and Palestinians who want peace . . . In my opinion, if the governments listen to the suggestions of these people, it is possible for peace.”

Finally, I would like to close with one of the most poignant reflections I read:

“True change,” the student writes, “begins with the strong, beautiful, broken individuals in a nation.”

She goes on to say:

“When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems dark and hopeless, we need only to examine the lives of noble peace-keepers like Ali Abu Awwad or Ayed Morrar, and some hope will be restored. These people demonstrate that hate is not the final word. Love and understanding can be reached; peace and nonviolence can prevail. If the peace heroes preached of respect and humility without having experienced the devastation of losing a family member or sacred land to the other side, then their words would not hold authority. But many of the heroes have experienced great loss and would be justified in resenting the people who wounded them. Yet they have chosen a different path. Resentment cannot win. After reflection on these brave peace heroes, I definitely recognize hope in the conflict. All is not lost. The situation actually provides a unique opportunity for individuals to overcome stereotypes and hatred. It’s incredibly difficult, but also incredibly rewarding. It’s evident that love and understanding can flourish even in the most desolate places. And that, for me, is exceedingly hopeful.”

This is where hope is found – in the life of every individual who chooses the way of peace, no matter how dark the path ahead seems to be.