Jewish and Palestinian Teens Write—and Brave the United States—Together

Digital Editor Noah Phillips discovered that the six Israeli teenagers' biggest fear was facing polarization in the United States.
By | Apr 30, 2024

I am from

I am from ash

I am from my blood, my skin

I am from ash, clay, and just a little soul 

a little soul who makes mistakes

a little soul who gets lost, a little soul who does not know.

I am from mess and chaos.

I am from, loving swimming, but remembering drowning.


When we log on to the Zoom meeting, the students are skittish—or maybe just tired. It’s 3:37 p.m. Eastern time, and they’ve already been to two schools to present their work today. After meeting with me, they’ll be talking to a class at American University. The group of six Israeli teenagers—four Jewish and two Arab—are partway through a ten-day trip, sharing their writing and showcasing their optimism that even in the midst of devastating violence, hope for coexistence is possible. Many American Jews and others are desperately thirsty to hear this message in these dark times, but the students are tired—and wary of being recorded, lest they say something they or their families may someday come to rue.

Steven Aiello, the main organizer of the trip, tells me that this reticence is new. “I’ve been doing [dialogue work with teens] for almost ten years, and we’ve never had somebody who doesn’t want to be photographed,” he explains. “Usually it’s just someone who doesn’t like how they look. Now everyone’s scared. And there’s a reason for that—people around the world and at home are intimidating those of us who are trying to make a better future.”


I am from loving winter 

I am loving nature, from looking outside my window and admiring the beauty 

I am from the euphoria of swinging a little way too high in the swing and feeling the whole world stop

I am from hearing the sound of prayer next to my house.

I am from my first cats, “Sukar” and “Loz”.

I am from loving animals, or maybe animals taught me how to love 

I am from olive oil.


Steve Aiello grew up in a “black hat” family in Brooklyn and decided to make aliyah while studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Although he remembers the insularity and xenophobia  prevalent in his home community and all-boys religious high school, he also notes that he worked with his father to start an interfaith basketball league after 9/11, when he was in eighth grade. His father told him at that time that “it takes courage to make peace.”

After getting an undergraduate degree at New York University, Aiello entered a graduate program in diplomacy and conflict studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He says it was there he first was exposed to and befriended Palestinians, who also felt like outsiders attending school in their second language. While completing his army service, Aiello began running Model United Nations programs—which are designed to teach kids about diplomacy, research and public speaking— at both Israeli and Arab schools. Before long, he founded Debate for Peace, an independent organization with the explicit purpose of bringing together civic-minded Palestinian and Israeli teenagers around political topics—unlike many other coexistence programs, which he says try to downplay divisive issues in favor of good feelings.

Aiello, now 35, says that most of his Jewish-Israeli students in Debate for Peace UN have little prior exposure to Palestinian Israelis, and vice versa. “Most of the kids in the program don’t go to mixed schools because there aren’t that many,” he says, adding that the students are ideologically and geographically heterogeneous.. “Overall you get a nice mix.” Over the ten years he’s been running Debate for Peace, which is sponsored by the American Embassy in Jerusalem, the only alum of the program who has gone into politics ran with Yisrael Beiteinu, a right-wing, Russian-speaking party. “Most kids that do Model UN [or Debate for Peace] don’t go into politics. They want to be doctors, engineers. They’re STEM kids,” he says. “They love politics, they love debating, but politics here is pretty messy so they don’t really choose that as a career path. Which is fine—I’m trying to build civil society.” He says hundreds of students participate in Debate for Peace annually.

After October 7, Aiello’s operations with Debate for Peace and Model UN were suspended. Aiello himself lost friends that day, and has lost more friends—in Gaza, the Israeli Army, and the West Bank—since. “October 7 was just a day that changed everything for all of us,” he says. “But it’s made me want to push harder for finding a peaceful way of living together, because Israel is my home. It’s where I choose to live, it’s where I want to live, and I want it to be a safe place for all of us—at least those of us who want to coexist together.”

[Read: “A Cooling: Jewish-Muslim Interfaith Work after October 7 and Gaza.”]

In contrast to many American interfaith efforts, which largely stalled after October 7, the first thing Aiello did after October 7 was set up a daily Zoom meeting where both Jewish and Palestinian students and teachers could join and process their feelings about the terrible war that was unfolding around them. The daily zoom lasted two months, and at its height included dozens of students, not only in Israel and Palestine but from around the world.

One person he invited was his friend Amal Buqai Keyal, a Palestinian Arab teacher who lives in Judeida-al-Makr, a village in northern Israel near Acre. “After October 7, I was supposed to stay inside with my kids—there was supposed to be no work and no school for two weeks,” says Keyal. After Aiello sent the link, she began to participate eagerly. “Every time we have the opportunity to cause a change, we need to go for it and not miss it.”

Before long, the daily zoom meetings attracted the attention of Professor Bob Vogel in Philadelphia, whose writing program Writers Matter connects youth from different parts of that city. “He got on a zoom and said ‘I can help design a program that can help you all process what you’re feeling,’” Aiello recalls. “I said, Let’s do it, and we did it!”


I am from sitting under the olive tree for long hours

I am from sitting in front of my mirror for even longer.

looking, searching, checking in a broken mirror too broken to see who I am

I am from the politics of saying where I am from, who I am, what I am, and what I want to be, nowhere in the world does being who I am cause dialogue, except where I am from 

I am from the confusion when anyone asks me what I like, they want to know who I am “Just say what you like.”


About 20 students participated in Aiello and Vogel’s Writing Matters program. The work is very diverse, and includes poems, essays and short stories, some generated by prompts for both individual and paired reflection, such as “I am from…” and “What is the difference between loneliness and being alone?”

Tomer, a sixteen-year-old Jewish student from Netanya whose family is from Ukraine and Belarus, shares how meaningful that first prompt was—after October 7, he was surrounded by family members but still felt a sense of isolation. “It felt so lonely. I had no one to talk to, no way to express myself, my feelings, my emotions,” he says. “Through writing, I’m free from judgment from other people and from myself as well. I wrote a story that sounded nice both on the outside and had hidden meaning on the inside.”

Tomer’s story follows a man haunted by the violent death of an innocent—though reckless—friend. Tomer says he hopes to write a book someday, but that the writing program has been more than an opportunity to hone his craft. “It was so much better than just writing. I got to meet amazing people. And in the United States, I got to read my poems and my stories.”

“Obviously two different nations are in a state of trauma and fear right now, and everyone is unsure what to do,” a fifteen-year-old student, tells me, noting that this war is the first major conflict her generation has experienced first-hand. “I think, I hope, that our generation won’t look at this war and grow up to continue to hate the other side. I hope that because of the resources we have today, and because we are progressing, that we take this war and change something.”

Much of the writing has to do with that theme. One student wrote a poem called “Lilies and Doves, Pawns of War,” which discusses the loss of hope all children experience during wartime. It begins:

I am a lily, and you are a dove

Destined to blossom and destined to fly above.

Yet, how can I blossom with no water and light,

And how can you soar, wings clipped, in this fight.


Aiello says that the writing was mostly composed and shared originally in small, intimate groups, which allowed the participants to go deep. The program culminated with a reading on Zoom attended by 50-60 audience members.

Yet even this event was dwarfed by the students’ American tour, which had segments in both Washington DC—organized by Jonathan Kessler of Heart of a Nation, an organization that works for peace between Israelis and Palestinians—and Philadelphia, organized by Vogel. The group of six students and two adults presented at 20 events to a total of 500 strangers over eight days. The readings took place at middle schools, high schools, universities and with groups of young professionals.

Keyal has been very inspired by the trip and the delegation’s optimistic message. “For me. it’s like, I need the whole world to read [our work], to spread it internationally, to put it under a spotlight,” she says. “We’re here, please help us to be together. None of us is a monster. We’re all here, we’re all creative.”

Yet in the American environment, new issues rose to the surface. “Before we were just writing to express our own emotions—that alone took a lot of courage, but it was all about empathy,” says Aiello. “Once we started reading for audiences in the United States, I think we felt the politics of the conflict a lot more vividly. At a certain point it felt like audiences were choosing between which side suffered more.”

“Any sentence that you say could affect your life, your career, your social life, your future,” one Palestinian student adds after assurances of anonymity. “But that’s why we have these kinds of programs where we try to bring peace, try to bring people together.”

A Jewish student who lives two miles from the Gaza border agrees. “After surviving the massacre and seeing how [Hamas] dehumanized us, and seeing all the things they have done, [it’s important to] still come together with Palestinians who want to live a mutual life, who believe in peace and want to write together and make hope for other people, to show them that things are possible.”

I hope that our generation won’t look at this war and grow up to continue to hate the other side.

Yet ironically for a writing program based in a war zone, the biggest concern for Aiello, students, and their parents in making the trip was safety. “Bringing kids back home safe and sound is always the number one goal with any youth delegation, and the news of U.S. college campuses is pretty disturbing,” says Aiello.

My discussion with the group is interrupted when Jonathan Kessler comes in to let them know that the next audience is waiting for them. Of the six traveling students, four have spoken to me over the past forty minutes. Through the Zoom screen, I see Aiello glance over his laptop at the remaining students, and look back at me.

“We need support from people outside,” he says. “The fact that there are students who don’t want to go on the record because they’re worried about intimidation, antisemitism, discrimination against Palestinian sentiment, all kinds of reactions to what they might say—that wasn’t the case before October 7.”


I am from a world of individual people, within groups, who maybe rely on these groups to get to know themselves, who do not know themselves, I mean you’re only as deep as you have met yourself

I am from all of my mistakes in the past and all of my decisions 

maybe even I don’t know what I like and want in life 

but I know I am from home

I am from Jerusalem, my father’s village up north, and my mom’s city

I am from reading, writing, and listening.

but when everything stops and no labels are around, I am Quds, I am me: that’s the only thing I will never lose, and that’s what stays with me always.

Note: Except as noted, poetry excerpts are taken from “I Am From,” by a Palestinian participant in the program. 

One thought on “Jewish and Palestinian Teens Write—and Brave the United States—Together

  1. Very hopeful for information I received. I pray for peace for all and pray it happens soon.

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