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Schools for Peace

     Siegfried Ramler reports on his recent visit to the Middle East:


     "If we are to have real peace, we must begin with the children." This statement by Mahatma Gandhi carries an imperative for the 21st century, applicable to every region of our globe. It is an imperative with particular urgency in regions where conflict is deeply rooted, where opposing sides are intractable in their positions, and where voices of reason and reconciliation are frustrated by radicals and extremists.
     I recently had an opportunity to explore peace education initiatives in the Middle East, with particular focus on Arab-Jewish co-existence in Israel. My quest, though limited in time and scope, took me to schools, education officials and institutions dedicated to dialog and peace projects.
     In the 52 years since the establishment of the state in 1948, Israel has experienced six wars, with a tendency by the population to mark phases of the nation's brief history as having occurred before or after this or that war. Much of that history, characterized by a position of isolation and non-recognition by its Arab neighbors in the early decades, has resulted in a siege mentality and a preoccupation with military strength for survival.
     However, the mood in Israel at the beginning of the millennium offers signs of hope. After the Oslo accords, which opened the dialog with the Palestinians, references to the "Arab-Israeli conflict" have been replaced in the media and in educational circles by the "peace process," a phrase now considered politically correct. The succession of the previous right-wing Netanyahu government by the more conciliatory Barak administration has given new impetus to initiatives fostering peace education, given high priority by Yossi Sarid, the current Minister of Education. A wide ranging project for schools throughout the country includes a multi-disciplinary "peace curriculum" for tenth graders including sociology, history and literature, encounters between Israeli classes and their Palestinian counterparts, and in-service teacher training. Currently that project involves 32 Israeli and Palestinian schools, approximately 200 Israeli and Palestinian teachers, and about 3000 Israeli and Palestinians tenth graders. Sarid, while determined to expand the project to reach more schools and children, faces opposition by conservative and religious groups in Israel. While I was in the country, the conservative opposition party accused him of adding the works of an allegedly militant Palestinian poet to the required curriculum, causing a motion of no confidence in the parliament and a storm of controversy in the media.
     An interview with Sarah Harel, Director of the Ministry of Education's department responsible for peace education initiatives in the schools, yielded interesting comments. I was intrigued to learn that as part of her own preparation for her job, she went on a mission to Ireland to explore Catholic-Protestant issues and see what lessons for Israel can be gained from Ireland's experiences and peace initiatives. She cited the example of a school exercise where students examine a Catholic narrative, a Protestant narrative, and then work on an approach for reconciliation, writing on a blank third page. This is a model now used widely in Israeli schools and in encounter groups.
     Harel stressed the need to build mutual understanding which transcends politics, a task made challenging by the fact that schools are influenced by the political climate and by children who often bring a family bias into the classroom. The call for openness and objectivity in education also requires the removal of nationalistic bias from textbooks and curriculum. An interesting example mentioned by Harel is the history of the 1948 war, creating the Arab refugee situation and one of the most sensitive and intractable issues in the peace process. There is now a rethinking of the approach to that history, treating it with objectivity, an approach which would have been considered treasonous in the past.
     There are as many as 60 non-governmental institutes, community centers and schools in Israel devoted to peace education, mostly funded by sources outside of the state along with some government support. I visited one of the oldest and best known integrated K-6 primary schools with a student body of 250 children, half from Arab and half from Jewish families. With a double name of Wahat Al-Salam (Arabic) and Neve Shalom (Hebrew), meaning Oasis of Peace, the school campus is nestled in a small village in the hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The village, established as a joint initiative of Jews and Arabs in Israel, is seen as a model of cooperation and coexistence.
     The teaching staff consists of an equal number of Palestinian Arabs and Jews, teaching subjects in both Arabic and Hebrew. While most Arabs living in Israel will master Hebrew as a second language by the time they reach high school, only a small percentage of the Jewish citizens achieves a working knowledge of Arabic. Recognizing the role of language as a key cultural bridge for understanding, this school, by using Arabic extensively, represents an effort to overcome the language divide.
     On the playground, reminiscent of multilingual schools I have observed in the United States and Europe, Arabic and Hebrew are used interchangeably by the children. As an attractive bonus for the children , both Jewish and Arab holidays are celebrated. Though the children continue their education in an Arab or Jewish school in their respective communities after grade 6, a foundation for understanding and positive co-existence will have been established. Neve Shalom's Secretary General, a Palestinian Arab educator, described to me his plans for the school's expansion with an anticipated increase in the government's subsidy and external contributions.
     The same campus, using Neve Shalom's facilities and buildings, houses an outreach institute named School for Peace, which conducts short-term residential youth encounter programs targeting Arab and Jewish secondary schoolers, university students and teachers from throughout Israel and from the Palestinian territories. Every year the program is attended by over a thousand students. The group encounters, limited to no more than 15 students and divided equally among Arabs and Jews, are led by trained Arab and Jewish co- facilitators. Each group is seen as a microcosm of the reality existing outside, with every issue on the table for dialog, and with all the tension, anger and frustration engendered by such a discussion. The objective is not to reach agreement, but to see issues from the perspective of the other, to achieve greater awareness and understanding of the issues, and to lay the basis for rethinking assumptions and set positions.
     In the Israeli port city of Haifa, overlooking the Mediterranean, I visited "Bet Hagefen," the first Arab-Jewish community center dealing with education for peace. Located in a city with a large Arab population, characterized by a greater residential integration among Arabs and Jews than other regions of Israel, this center features imaginative activities and outreach to groups of students and adults coming to visit from various parts of the country. A popular feature sponsored by the center is the Festival of Holidays, celebrating simultaneously Hanukah, Christmas and Ramadan, holidays of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, falling roughly during the same time of the year. This festival, symbolizing coexistence and understanding, offers exhibits of works of art, fairs, concerts, and an international conference of religious leaders. As an outgrowth of the peace process, the center also conducts common cultural projects with the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Morocco.
     Against the background of continuing stresses in Israel, such as internal conflicts between the religious orthodox population and the majority of secular Israelis, as well as the continuing disputes with the Palestinian Authority and with neighboring Lebanon, peace education faces an uphill struggle. Yet the attitudes formed by students in the classrooms throughout the Mid-East will determine future peace and stability. In the search for peace in that region one is reminded of the Greek myth of Sisyphus and the futility of rolling the stone up the steep hill. And then Albert Camus' interpretation of the myth comes to mind, when he finds Sisyphus smiling as he walks down the hill to try once more. After all, it is the process which counts.

Ronald Hilton - 4/18/00