by Jo Miller
Groups of Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians are being brought together, developing personal relationships and using music as a tool to bring peace through an initiative called The Middle East Program.
Founder of The Middle East Program (MEP), Asgeir Foyen, is spurring an alternative approach to peace in the Middle East through his grassroots movement. He is a Norwegian who has been working internationally for 20 years and has been focusing on the Middle East since 1994.
Foyen started off Whitworth’s 54th year of the Great Decisions Lecture Series on Thurs., March 3 by sharing his vision and the progress made through MEP since its start in 2002.
MEP is a leadership-training program for Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Norwegians. Its mission is to build relationships between the groups and work towards a mutual respect of justice and human rights and an appreciation of religious, cultural, and political diversity.
“We believe it is possible to create a Middle East that is peaceful, open and prosperous,” according to MEP’s vision statement.
Michael Ochs, an American Jew and award-winning songwriter, joined Foyen in the lecture to play some of his songs written for MEP and share about how music is bringing otherwise estranged groups together.
Ochs joined MEP while writing music in Nashville and considers his agreement to go to the Middle East and recruit musicians for the songwriting team one of the best decisions he has ever made.
Songwriters from all sides of the conflict were brought to a retreat on a farm to get to know each other and make music. Ochs showed video clips of Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians describing the surprising joy that filled the atmosphere on the farm. People were shown singing enthusiastically and jamming on instruments together.
Whitworth graduate, Carolina Beck, said hearing about the retreat was the most important because it showed how people of different cultures could get together, be friends, and have fun.
The songwriting team has written 50 songs to date, recorded 12 of them, and has plans to make an album. They are able to go and do concerts, but the concerts still must remain private because of safety concerns, Ochs said.
“I know now that on the ground in Israel there are people on both sides that are just like each other,” Ochs said.
MEP boils down to one-on-one relationships. The progress Foyen sees in MEP is they now have a solid relationship ground for dealing with increasing issues.
Relationships have to be the glue and being honest and transparent is a good thing, though it can be costly, Foyen said.
MEP started out with only 12 members. It took eight years until they were ready to include more people.
Long-term relationship development on a small scale is what characterizes Foyen’s new vision and alternative approach to peace in the Middle East.
Foyen feels that international society is in a hurry and is pushing leaders of the Middle East to sign agreements under unrealistic time frames.
There are a lot of difficult issues that need to be dealt with before they are ready for peace, Foyen said. The people of the Middle East need space and an opportunity to decide how they want their area to look. We can only encourage and inspire them.
“We can’t walk for them, we have to walk with them,” Foyen said.