Israeli ‘soldier for peace’ draws a crowd at Brown University

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Risking your life, forfeiting your safety, and putting yourself through hell for a higher mission. These are all sacrifices we attribute to soldiers, and they are sacrifices that Yakir Englander makes every day. But Englander does not fight for war: rather, he is a soldier for peace.

Brown University Students for Israel, joined by J Street U Brown, hosted Englander at a campus event on Nov. 16 titled “Enacting Change in the Streets of Jerusalem.” The event drew a sizable audience to hear about Englander’s powerful experiences working to bridge Israeli and Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank. His interfaith youth movement, Kids4Peace, is the embodiment of his earnest belief in peace, in engagement and in mutual empowerment.

Englander grew up in an Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, and he recounted the violent tension between his community and surrounding Palestinian communities.

Upon entering the Israeli Defense Forces, he came face to face with the trauma that the conflict causes to many innocent victims. But even in the most shocking outbreaks of violence, his first thought was always, “How can I help?” Even more powerful was the lasting impact it had on Englander: it taught him to love even more.

When he finished his service in the army, Englander was deeply upset by the way many peace activists stigmatized the Orthodox Jewish religion. Religion was the soul of his life, and he by no means saw his theology as contrary to peace efforts. After earning a Ph.D. from Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, in Jewish philosophy and gender studies, he launched his grassroots peace organization, Kids4Peace.

According to its website, www.k4p.org, Kids4Peace’s mission is “Transforming divided societies into communities of lasting peace.” This is accomplished by international summer camps, leadership programs and a six-year, year-round program for more than 500 Palestinian, Israeli and North American youths. Englander says the organization strives to be apolitical, and reaches out to families and community members who lack resources that others might have.

But the true power, the real courage of Englander’s peace efforts, comes from the risks he encounters almost every day: He has taught Israeli and Jewish history in Palestinian schools in the West Bank that were hostile to such teachings; put himself between violent protesters/army officers and Palestinians, and received countless death threats.

Englander inspires other leaders and community members to put themselves at risk to bridge the deep divides between Israelis and their neighbors. He encourages and empowers his constituents to feel safe in dangerous situations, in the interest of peace and mutual understanding. 

Englander recounted the story of an Israeli father who came to him with his child, saying, “I was a bus driver, my bus was bombed [by Palestinians]. I hate them ... but I don’t want my kid to hate.” Kids4Peace exists precisely for this reason: To turn a heartbreaking present into a hopeful future for all.

It is no surprise that Englander’s address drew people from all over the Brown University community. His message of peace, of love, and of embracing religion spoke to everyone: Yakir Englander reminded us that there is room to fight – not to burn bridges, but to build them.

MICAH ROSEN is a board member of Brown Students for Israel.