Helping all sides imagine the ‘possible’
Growing up in South Orange during the Kennedy era, John Marks learned about the Jewish concept of tikun olam, repairing the world.
“It was the atmosphere of ‘Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,’” he recalled.
What he did with that idealism — trying to end conflicts in communities all over the world through dialogue and cooperation — pleased his mother but horrified his father.
“He’d have liked me to go into insurance. He was concerned that I didn’t have the resources for what I wanted to do,” Marks said.
He found those resources, and continues to do so. With funding from government foreign aid agencies, individuals, and foundations, Search for Common Ground, the Washington, DC-based organization he and a partner founded in 1982, now has a staff of 560 and offices in 33 countries.
In addition to its person-to-person encounters between people from opposing factions, the organization produces radio and television series and movies with peace-oriented themes.
One of the most recent is Under the Same Sun, which is being shown in West Orange on Saturday, April 5, as part of the 14th Annual New Jersey Jewish Film Festival at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange. Marks, the movie’s executive producer and story originator, will be there for a panel discussion after the screening.
The SCG website states, “Our methodology is based on one fundamental principle: Understand the differences; act on the commonalities.” The fictional characters in this movie do just that. Two entrepreneurs, one Israeli and one Palestinian, join forces to launch a solar energy business.
“It’s about what is possible,” Marks said. “There’s nothing in it that couldn’t be true in the near future.”
The locations — in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and elsewhere in Israel — are all shown as they are, without set dressing. The crew — with members from various groups — “showed the same cooperative spirit” that the film depicts, he said.
The movie was shown last October in simultaneous broadcasts on Israeli and Palestinian television. “That was unprecedented,” Marks said, “and the response was very positive from both sides.” Since then it has been shown at a number of film festivals, including the Peace on Earth Film Festival in Chicago, where it won the award for best feature narrative.
Before launching his nonprofit, Mark said, “everything contributed to what I’m doing now” — though along the way it didn’t always seem the case. He joined the United States Foreign Service after graduating from Cornell University, and in 1966 was posted to Vietnam. He resigned in 1970 in protest about American policy in Cambodia, and then served as executive assistant to the late U.S. Sen. Clifford Case (R-NJ), working on the amendment that cut off funding for the Vietnam War.
He went on to become an investigative reporter, and wrote two controversial but well-received books about the CIA. But he had grown weary with the focus on war, and began to focus on peaceful conflict resolution — whether that involved dealing with the environment, economics, ethnic clashes, or politics.
These days, Marks has plenty of family support. His wife, Susan Collin Marks, is a senior member of the SCG staff, and their son Daniel is an Emmy-winning cinematographer.
And Marks remains optimistic about repairing the world.
“When you look at how the violence in the Middle East has increased, it can seem as if we’re working against the trends,” he said, “but in other ways, things are moving in our direction.”