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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

The journey for peace: Gainesville program strives to bring peace to the Middle East

<p>Steve Kalishman, president of the Sister City Program, talks about how the program can help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his office in Haile Village on Sept. 15, 2015. "We can be a bridge and we can bring about change through relationships--real, lasting relationships," Kalishman said.</p>

Steve Kalishman, president of the Sister City Program, talks about how the program can help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his office in Haile Village on Sept. 15, 2015. "We can be a bridge and we can bring about change through relationships--real, lasting relationships," Kalishman said.

Inside Steve Kalishman’s office, behind a mirrored door and down a narrow hallway in Haile Village Center, shelves and walls are decorated with ornaments and gifts from Palestine, Israel, Tajikistan and lands beyond.

A painting behind his chair depicts three white doves — circled by U.S., Israeli and Palestinian flags — connected by their wings and surrounding Earth.

A Jewish man, Kalishman said he loves Israel and wants to see her succeed. He said he also wants to see a Palestinian state. More importantly, though, he wants to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"I feel like for whatever reason — destiny, fate, something — I’ve been put in a position where I can actually make a difference there, and I feel an obligation to do that," Kalishman said. "This is what I’m suppose to do."

It’s critical, the 61-year-old Gainesville resident said; for the sake of Israel, for Palestine, for the Middle East and, most of all, for the world.

As president of the Gainesville Sister City Program, he’s not just dreaming about it — he’s making it a reality, one step at a time.

• • •

On Sept. 3, City Commissioners approved Kalishman’s request to establish sister city relations with Deir Alla, Jordan, making Gainesville the only U.S. city with sister cities in Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

Khalifeh Ad-Dayyat, mayor of Deir Alla, wrote in an email that he’s excited about the program.

"I think the people of both communities can help each other," Ad-Dayyat said.

The Jordan River suffers from detrimental pollution and contamination, causing health problems and argument over who’s to blame for the issues. EcoPeace Middle East, a nongovernmental organization, is leading a project to restore the river, bringing together Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis in the process.

Gainesville’s partnership with the NGO and Deir Alla opens the door for Americans to be involved too, both in finding a solution to the river problem and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Finding solutions to both problems hasn’t been easy, though. Decades of hostility between the three countries have led to deep mistrust among the people, making cooperation difficult.

"Challenge is our middle name," said EcoPeace Middle East Amman, Jordan, Office Deputy Director Yana Abu Taleb. "Everything we do is challenging."

Abu Taleb said despite promises brought by peace treaties signed between Israel, Palestine and Jordan in 1994 and 1995, there is still tension and mistrust among the people.

"A few years following the peace treaty, people were set back that nothing is happening," she said. "And we as an organization were founded anyways to be kind of the watchdogs for all the promises of peace and the development it was going to bring."

But, she said, the organization’s focus on water and environmental issues has started to bring people together.

"Through this dialogue that they have, they found out that they will benefit together from this cooperation," she said.

"Along the years, this is the real peace on (the) ground because it has to be among the people."

• • •

Kalishman’s plan for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict traces back to a trip he took to the region in 2011. He was joined by Gainesville city officials, residents and a Los Angeles-based hip-hop group called the Luminaries, which tagged along after Kalishman asked for permission to use one of its songs in a documentary about the program.

For some on the trip, it was their first time visiting the region.

The trip began with a visit to the Palestinian prime minister, then seven mayors, three governors and three university presidents. When they weren’t in heavy political meetings, they were playing soccer with kids or talking to farmers, businessmen and other ordinary people.

Most people — Palestinians and Israelis alike — told them they were tired of the war and wanted peace.

"I really saw in the eyes of the youth that they were ready for this change," said Luminaries member Chris Devcich. "They told us over and over again, ‘We don’t hate these people. We want to know these people.’"

One of the most memorable experiences of the trip came during a hip-hop performance in Qalqilya, a conservative Muslim-Palestinian city in the West Bank.

The Luminaries performed at City Hall, and as fate would have it, a Palestinian youth group named the X Games Team was also in the city. The X Games Team members were the city outcasts, the kids with strange haircuts, tattoos and piercings who also skateboarded, beatboxed and did parkour. With its harsh political message about occupation and oppression, Kalishman said the X Games’ music was a stark contrast to the Luminaries’ performance.

"So these kids, they’re ready to walk out the door," Kalishman said. "They don’t want to hear anything about peace or love."

"It’s the hip-hop of resistance."

But right before the group left, the Luminaries reached out and invited them to perform on stage.

Everyone loved the performance, Kalishman said. It got better when the Luminaries joined in, suddenly bridging the gap between two worlds.

"The parents of these kids for the first time realized that it’s OK for their kids to do hip-hop. It’s better for them to express their emotions through their music than it is through other means," Kalishman said.

It was a prime example of what he and others hope to accomplish through the Sister City Program. In a country divided by walls, Kalishman said bridges have to be built.

When Devcich returned to L.A., he had a new outlook on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

"It’s one thing to hear about suicide bombs in Israel or the atrocities and horrendous conditions that Palestinian people have to live under," Devcich said. "It’s another thing to go first hand and see those conditions and talk to people who lost relatives to some sort of act of violence."

That change in views is exactly what Kalishman hopes to achieve.

"You say the word ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinians’ in the U.S., what’s the first word that comes to Americans’ mind? ‘Terrorists,’" Kalishman said. "How do you fix that?"

Kalishman hopes to send more Americans to the region to see what the conflict is really like and who the people living there are.

"The magic of the Sister City Program is direct interaction with people, either here or there or somewhere else," Kalishman said. "Just getting people together, it just builds bonds of friendship and trust, and then you just don’t see things the same way."

So far, putting aside the politics has worked.

"I think the trick for us has been… we never talk politics," said Oak Hall Fine Arts Chairman Robert Ponzio, who also went on the trip. "We just deal with culture and friendship and being people."

From there, change can begin to happen. Gainesville can’t solve the conflict alone — it’ll need the help from other U.S. cities — but it’s a start, a step in the right direction, Kalishman said.

"Everybody wants (peace)," he said. "But nobody can imagine it happening. So somebody’s got to make it happen."

Contact Hunter Williamson at hwilliamson@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @hunterewilliam

Steve Kalishman, president of the Sister City Program, talks about how the program can help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his office in Haile Village on Sept. 15, 2015. "We can be a bridge and we can bring about change through relationships--real, lasting relationships," Kalishman said.

Khalifeh Ad-Dayyat (left), Mayor of Deir Alla, Jordan, poses with Gainesville Sister City Program President Steve Kalishman. Gainesville’s City Commission recently approved Kalishman’s request to establish sister city relations with Deir Alla.

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