The Sound of a Forest Growing

An ancient proverb says “a falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest.” This is as true today as it was a thousand years ago. Bad news makes daily headlines, while quiet progress toward peace, particularly at the grassroots level, gets little attention.

The changes rapidly transforming the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region represent both enormous challenge and opportunity. The region has seen more change in the last three years than in the previous three decades. We read each day of conflict, violence, and upheaval. At the same time, millions of people are standing up and calling for tolerance, peace, freedom and justice.

One of the most encouraging developments is the mobilization of young people to effect positive change. In the first half of 2011, a new internet-based, youth-focused peace movement called YaLa Young Leaders was formed, founded as a collaboration of the Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Palestine (YALA stands for Young Adult Leadership Alliance). The initial membership was comprised of young Israelis and Palestinians embracing coexistence and peace. In just over two years, the movement has grown from 80,000 members/supporters at the end of 2011 to 365,000 earlier this year, and over 419,000 currently. Content from the YaLa Young Leaders facebook page is averaging over 230,000 views per day. The base of support is expanding, and includes the U.S. State Department, which sponsored a recent YaLa youth conference in Jordan. In 2012, YaLa hosted an on-line peace conference that attracted 40,000 participants and viewed video presentations from Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

YaLa growth has come from beyond Israel/Palestine and extends to the entire MENA region. Here are some membership figures from The YaLa Annual Report for 2013:

Israel  14,542      Iraq 31,319
Palestine  22,675      Morocco  26,516
Egypt  106,839      Tunisia  26,382
Algeria  43,041      Jordan  21,548

The YaLa Young Leaders Declaration of Principles (on page 3 of the annual report) focuses on values shared by young people throughout the world: personal freedom and freedom of speech and belief, equality for women and religious minorities, social justice, participatory democracy, and most importantly, peace. The foundation of this movement and movements like it is a belief that peace must come from the people.

The faith community can make a necessary and important contribution to this growing movement. We are proud to say that Presbyterians are supporting these efforts through programs such as the Face to Face/ Faith to Faith program sponsored by Auburn Seminary. This project brings young Israelis and Palestinians together to learn from the “other” and break down barriers. The video “Voices/Peace” at the top of the PFMEP homepage was filmed at a Face to Face-sponsored gathering of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. PFMEP will soon be releasing a study guide that accompanies the video that individual churches can use for a Christian education class in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Interfaith collaboration and dialogue are necessary conditions for peace in the world. In this way we learn to accept others, and we find that our common values overwhelm our differences. After many failed attempts to solve the problems in the Middle East from the top down, it is time to give “bottom up” a chance, and recognize that the next generation must be brought into the picture to effect positive change. At the 220th Presbyterian General Assembly in 2012, the GA embraced unambiguous support for positive investment in Middle East peace. As the 221st GA approaches next year, we hope to see this commitment reaffirmed and expanded.

Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  In Palestine, Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, we see this exciting, growing movement of YALA peacemakers.  It is our hope and prayer that the PCUSA will learn from these young people as we shape our own Middle East peacemaking efforts.