THE BLOG

For a Glimpse at the Future of Peacebuilding, Look to an Experiment Begun a Decade Ago

05/18/2015 12:58 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

When we were both 14, our Israeli and Palestinian parents and teachers enrolled us in a massive, life-altering experiment, the effects of which are still playing out, over a decade later.

We are both from Jerusalem, and at age 27, we are part of the reason the Middle East is experiencing the highest ratio of youth to adults in history.

This "youth bulge" provides the experiment's context: there are over 100 million youth in our region between the ages of 15 and 29. And while this demographic, combined with low economic opportunity, can be fertile ground for extremism and violence, it can also be a powerful force for positive change.

The experiment, conducted in two dozen countries by an organization called Seeds of Peace, began with a question: what type of impact could you have on young people from opposite sides of intractable conflict if you gave them the time and space to get to know each other?

In other words, what would happen if you brought the two of us -- an Israeli and a Palestinian -- together on neutral ground. Could we overcome bitter lines of division and mistrust by engaging each other in open, honest, face-to-face dialogue? Would we form connections that would survive the crucible of the conflict?

Most importantly, would we be inspired by this transformational experience as teenagers to work for change as adults -- to influence our societies and help create the conditions essential to peace?

The first stage of this experiment has been an unequivocal success. It works. Researchers at the University of Chicago have studied the impact of Seeds of Peace and found significant positive shifts in attitude by participants with regard to how they feel about their peers on the other side of the conflict.

We embody this transformation. Where relationships between Israelis and Palestinians are near impossible, we have been friends for over 12 years. And there are now over 5,000 young people like us who now see the conflict's "us vs. them" as a divide between those who want to perpetuate the status quo and those working to disrupt it. Even for those of us who have not remained in close touch with those from the other side, the opportunity to view the conflict from a different perspective compels us to seek change.

Of course, unless these relationships translate into action towards true institutional change, they don't mean all that much beyond symbolism.

Earlier this year, we met with several hundred of our peers -- Arabs and Israelis, Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans -- who have participated in the same journey as us through Seeds of Peace and similar people-to people programs. What these emerging leaders, entrepreneurs, activists, and journalists are doing to advance change is incredibly inspiring.

We heard about projects that are instilling critical thinking and empathy in youth. We met Christina, who is creating a platform to connect the mainstream media with citizen journalists covering protests, and Micah, who is connecting youth in Jerusalem through music and dialogue. We heard from Qasim, who has launched a project that reveals the biased history being taught to school children in conflict areas, starting with India and Pakistan, and from Parnian, who is a fierce advocate for women's rights in Afghanistan.

Each of our peers we met is actively working for positive change. Many are working to change the social and political status quo. Others are working for economic change. The next stage of the experiment is well underway.

Seeds of Peace, having successfully invested in thousands of teenagers, is now investing in their ideas and projects as adult changemakers, and last week launched two new fellowship programs at the Clinton Global Initiative in Marrakech to accelerate our ability to create the conditions necessary for peace.

Though our political leaders have yet to bring freedom, prosperity, and stability to our region, we are not waiting.