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A peace process occurs between nations transferring them from a state of war between enemies to a state of peace between partners. A successful peace process requires a shift of attitudes in a cross section of the society and must be built between the peoples. This lengthy process also requires formal education that should take place through the educational system.
Education is a powerful agent of change and socialization into society's values; unfortunately, it sometimes also acts as a transmitter of conflict-producing and conflict-sustaining myths. Hence the need for serious and systematic educational approaches that teach conflict-solving values and skills and brings together Israeli and Palestinian teachers and students, on equal footing, to encourage discussion, to empower both sides and to emphasize the role of education as an agent of change. This process empowers the teachers to use their newly learned skills in their classrooms with generations of students to come.
Textbooks and curricula are determined and issued by governments. Textbooks reflect the official values that societies wish to impart to their citizens. Beyond the main task of ministries of education to provide the young people with international standards and high levels of academic education, the Israeli and Palestinian Authority ministries of education also face the significant task of providing their children with a strong values-based education aimed at building their respective society and the future of their states. An essential aspect of this values-based education is imparting and building the national identity with all of its many facets. This kind of task is complicated under the best circumstances, and when faced with a 100-year violent conflict with the neighbors, it becomes extremely problematic and difficult.
THERE IS ALMOST nothing in Israeli and Palestinian text books that teaches the students something objective or positive about the people they are in conflict with and with whom they hope to some day soon live with in peace.
Teaching about commonalities in culture can also serve as an open door for exploration (in textbooks of both sides). Whether looking at common foods, similar music and dance or even through looking at the Arabic and Hebrew languages, there are endless possibilities for new discovery and ways to develop a more positive attitude toward fostering a desire among the children to want to know more about people on the other side. Educators should not fear that by teaching about the "other" they are in any way weakening their national identity or collective solidarity. In fact, the opposite is quite true.
In this context, it is also worthwhile to point out the importance of teaching not only commonalities between the two peoples, but also the differences. A culture of peace fosters an appreciation of diversity and encourages the ability and desirability to celebrate those diversities as well.
Because of the inextricable link between education and values, Palestinian and Israeli actions taken regarding the review and revision of textbooks and curricula would be an undeniable fact that could not be overlooked regarding their intentions for making peace with each other. The decision of what to teach the young generation is perhaps the most accurate litmus test of what the future may have in store.
The government of Israel and the PA need to pick up the challenge. Both sides should appoint a national advisory committee on textbooks empowered to review the textbooks taking into account the critiques that have been raised over the past years and working on a set of agreed criteria. There is a need for both governments to revise and reform textbooks. Israeli textbooks teach too little about Arabs and Palestinians. If Israel is calling for the Palestinians to revise and reform their textbooks in the spirit of making peace, it must also look inside its own classrooms and do the same. This would also be a serious indication of intentions to make peace with the Palestinians.
Both sides should progress on this issue without regard for what the other side is doing. This is not a question of negotiations, mutuality or reciprocity. Each side must demonstrate the values that it holds dear without regard for what the other side does. The true test of the ability of both sides to make peace will be to degree to which both sides take positive action in educating the next generation in a true spirit of pursuing peace.
PALESTINIAN AND ISRAELI societies have spent the last years trying to come to terms with the viability of peace between them. This period has been marked with periods of cautious optimism that peace might be a reality, coupled with periods of great pessimism and lost hopes. The past years have been marred with extremely violent conflict during which time the hope of peace has almost entirely vanished. Both societies began a process of developing and incorporating elements of peace education within their formal school systems. Most of these efforts have ceased now.
Yet is has become increasingly clear that the lack of ability of individuals and collectives from both sides to understand the perspectives of the other side points to an acute lack of tools, skills and cognitive training to understand the underlying interests, concerns, needs and fears which are the root causes of the conflict. Providing youngsters and their teachers with the training, skills and cognitive understandings of conflict resolution, management and prevention and nonviolence, we can begin a process of leading the region toward a more secure and realistic peace process.
Those who live under conditions of an ongoing violent conflict may find themselves accustomed to attitudes and behaviors which derive from such a situation of violence and distrust. This context refuels attitudes and behaviors that construct and reinforce it, and so we find ourselves imprisoned in a vicious cycle of violence.
The goal of peace education is to bring about change, social change, a change in awareness and patterns of thought which will bring forth a change in the behavior patterns of all those who are involved in the educational process (students, teachers, school principals, the program's staff, etc.); a structural change in which the vision of an equal, just society, that contains and accepts the other within will be actualized; a society that regards just peace as a state of mind, a chosen value and a way of life.
Even though real peace seems quite distant during these days, there is a need to penetrate deeply into both societies so that real peace in the future will be firmly rooted on both sides. Supporting the incorporation of peace education into the formal curricula of both sides could potentially advance peace even as the conflict continues today.
The writer is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org