Unsung Hero of the West Bank; Profile of a Peace Activist
After a recent visit to a friend in Jerusalem, I felt first-hand the echoes of the violence and fear that can spread like an epidemic. Two days after the stabbing that left an elderly man from Bethlehem injured and a teenage girl shot, I sat with Yakir Englander, a peace activist and the director of Kids4peace (K4P), in the shelter of a bourgeois café in Tel Aviv.
Englander, in his late 40s, with a receding hairline and face with childlike idealism, rode by motorcycle after appearing on radio Tel Aviv to discuss the role of religion as both an obstacle and a tool of peace. He dressed casually in a black t-shirt, a far cry from the conservative image I had conjured in my mind of a clean cut and ascetic academic, Harvard professor, Fulbright scholar and accomplished author.
Yakir’s journey to peace activism began sequestered behind the walls of a Yeshiva, deeply insulated from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His choice to leave his tight knit orthodox community, was motivated, he says, by an inner conflict with exclusion of women, homosexuals, and other religious narratives. Today Englander works in the trenches and most dangerous corridors of Israel. With his compass turned toward unwavering faith he visits neighborhoods at the source of conflict, as a representative of kids4peace. He wades knee-deep in the turbulent waters in the poorest and darkest corners of Arab and ultra orthodox communities trying to cultivate dialogue, build bonds of trust and create unlikely friendships between Palestinian, Israeli, Christian and Jewish youth on every extreme.
From East Jerusalem to the settlements in the West Bank he struggles to diffuse escalating tensions and violence that have been simmering after years of conflict. He is trying to teach the language of peace to parents and youth whose native language has become one of mistrust, hate, anger and fear. Yakir’s mission is to cultivate a new generation of peace leaders empowered with knowledge and training.
To do this Englander encourages them to share their most deep rooted perceptions of each other, however ugly. He hopes to challenge these conceptions by replacing expectation with experience. His own evolution has put him in the perfect position to be the ambassador to help them navigate their path through these extremes. Raised in the ultra orthodox settlement of Bnei Brak, it is a world starkly different than the one he inhabits now. He lived in a world defined by separation and check-points, where men and women lived in separate domains, where Jews did not interact with non –Jews.
Their nuance and conflicting points of view and religious questioning were confined to the theoretical domain of theory and religious study. Unable to reconcile the dichotomies of orthodox teachings and its restrictions, he sought answers outside the confines of his community. His exodus from his native world view began in the Israeli army. There he came face to face with the literal casualties of the conflict, where he was assigned to a unit responsible for recovering the bodies of fallen Israeli soldiers and Palestinians.
Though he is careful to avoid politically charged terms like occupation, terrorist, and two state solutions, Yakir is not nearly so delicate with his personal politics. He is ruthless in his criticism of the Israeli and American government’s complicity in perpetuating the conflict. In his frequent posts Yakir blogs his outspoken opinions on everything from his objection to unilateral funding of war by the US and his objection to unconditional financial support for the Israeli military, to his belief in the need to raise the age limit that Israelis are required to serve in the army. Despite resistance, he has spoken regularly with high level officials in the military of his ideas.
His opinions are colored with the blood stains of his own military service, an experience that had a dramatic impact on Yakir, and fueled him with a desperate passion to understand the religious and political roots of the conflict, to pave a road to peace.
The final catalyst of his peace activism came during his academic study at Hebrew University during the second intifada. He once again found himself at the center of the violence. The bombing attack by terrorists at the student cafeteria, that left several American students dead and countless others injured, was a crucial turning point for him.
I was determined to “find out exactly what the Arabs want from us,” he said. His choice to turn anger, grief and fear into a search for understanding over vengeance, is central to Yakir’s personal philosophy and is a crucial part of the teaching and strategies he uses in his work with Kids4peace.
After seeking answers in a variety of different organizations that did not resonate with his religious values and roots, Yakir was introduced to Kids4peace. Still a neophyte organization, Kids4peace gave him a gentle and safe space to explore the questions in his own faith, and interact with many different points of view on the conflict. The Washington-based K4P International provides a six-year program for ages 12 to 18 that includes dialogue groups, community events, volunteering, local and international summer camps, bimonthly meetings and leadership training. It has 10 chapters worldwide. K4P Jerusalem, led by Jewish and Muslim co-directors, began in 2002 with four Jewish, four Christian and four Muslim families. The program now boasts 400 active participants.
Yakir continued to work interfaith relations between Palestinian, Israeli, Christian, Orthodox, and secular Jewish Youth. During his doctoral studies at Hebrew University in Modern Jewish philosophy, Englander maintained close ties to the organization and became Vice President. After completing his doctorate in modern Jewish philosophy he received a prestigious Fulbright grant to do post-doctoral work at Northwestern University. During his tenure he participated in many interfaith conferences on peace and continued his quest to delve deeper into solutions and use his faith based strategies to build tolerance, peace and larger networks to become a more effective peace leader. Yakir is ruthless in his commitment to peace which is reflected in his controversial tactics and points of view to reach his goal. For him peace will not come without risk, and this relationship to risk is not just philosophical. From dialogue to action, in its latest incarnation, Yakir Englander is cultivating a generation of peace leaders who can put theories into practice.#