Swapping Stories for Peace

Israelis and Palestinians may be as far apart from each other as they have ever been, certainly when it comes to the never-ending saga that is the Two-State Solution. Yet as the Palestinian Authority heads to New York this week to confront the Israeli government at the United Nations with a declaration of statehood, back in Israel a group of Jewish and Arab kids are laying the foundations for a more hopeful future through the art of storytelling. They are taking part in a groundbreaking program called Story Swap International (SSI).

Story Swap is an innovative educational project that uses storytelling to foster understanding among diverse populations, whether in conflicted territories or in an English classroom. Established in 2007 by the Aspen Writers' Foundation (AWF) Story Swap has since taken place all over the world: within neighborhoods, across economic divides, over state lines and in numerous countries.

The Story Swap in Israel is just the most recent incarnation of the program, which the AWF has expanded to an international level in partnership with Global Nomads Group (GNG). "Nowhere else does a program like Story Swap hold the potential, not to end the conflict, but rather to build a dynamic that might allow a resolution to survive," said Mickey Bergman, SSI advisor and director of Middle East Programs at the Aspen Institute. According to program's leaders, there is no more important place to test the hypothesis that knowing the story of another allows us to better understand each other.

This is how Story Swap works. Two groups of individuals from different backgrounds come together to form partners. They are seated face-to-face, sometimes through the lens of interactive video conferencing, and asked to share an important story from their life that, in some way, represents who they are. They then take turns writing each other's story as though it were their own. It's a simple yet profound process. By receiving the story of another, making it their own and, then, exchanging the recreated stories, participants experience the transformative process of walking in each other's shoes and sharing the view they see from another's eyes.

"The program's model taps into the creativity of youth and engages them not through the lens of their conflict, but rather through their storytelling and listening. The methodology allows participants to genuinely take in perspectives without the 'threatening' proposition of agreeing with one another," said Bergman.

Past swaps have demonstrated that the transformative effect of the program lies in imagining the potential in their partner, which allows swappers to imagine the potential in themselves and, in turn, the world.

"Story Swap is powerful precisely because it harnesses storytelling -- the most accessible and universal of all human activities -- to open the doors of communication that might otherwise be closed," said Lisa Consiglio, executive director of the AWF. "It works because when listening to stories, we suspend argument, engage our imagination, and, walking in the shoes of another, experience compassion."

Bridging divides is not exactly part of the Israeli-Palestinian narrative right now. Fear, anger, pessimism -- these are the dominant emotions among Israelis and Palestinians. Maybe it is too much to think that decades of mistrust and misunderstanding can be washed away simply by telling each other stories. But since nothing else has had much effect in bringing these two people closer together, perhaps just sitting down and simply listening to each other is not such a bad place to start.