Educating for which future?

The war in Lebanon, the Intifada, the continued question of disengagement and realignment are political concerns for everyone. Even children.

jewish kids 88 (photo credit: )
jewish kids 88
(photo credit: )
here are places in Jerusalem where Palestinian, Israeli-Arab and Jewish children play together, bake bread together, watch puppets, build human pyramids, hold hands. There are places in this city where children can laugh in the moment, as children and not as players in the Palestinian-conflict. With the exception of a few institutions, such as Hand-in-Hand/the Bi-lingual School and Neve Shalom's schools, the overwhelming majority of Jewish and Arab children go to separate schools and rarely interact. Yet, dozens of informal education activities, broadly labelled "co-existence programs," do take place in Jerusalem. Sponsored by various groups and organizations, these programs have different goals, different methods and varied levels of success. The consensus among program leaders, participants and academics is that participation in these programs leaves a profound and long-lasting effect on the individuals. Yet at the same time, they also agree that there seems to be little hope that the personal change brought about by "co-existence programs" will be able to shape large scale political processes or bring about social change. Currently, there are about 200 co-existence programs in the country with 70 percent of them targeting children. They range in size from large (over 200 children) to small initiatives developed by parents hoping to promote friendship within their neighborhoods. Anat Reisman-Levy, an expert in the field of co-existence programs, was formerly the Director of the co-existence projects, serving some forty schools in Jerusalem and the West Bank, at the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) for seven years. She attempts to explain what 'co-existence' programs are by questioning the terminology. "Co-existence is not exactly the right word," she says. "The terminology that is now used is conflict transformation. This means to transfer the conflict from violent to non-violent. Then arguing that "conflict resolution is too much of a demand on these programs," Reisman-Levy discusses "peace education" - and again proceeds by questioning what appear to be self-evident definitions. "You have to define peace. And then think what we are trying to accomplish here. This involves getting to know the other, getting to know the needs of the other and understanding mechanisms of control," she explained. Despite their numbers and diversity, no compiled data regarding the exact number of programs or children served is currently available and no overview can be completely comprehensive. According to its website, the Jerusalem Foundation, one of the most active institutions in Jerusalem in this field, has funded over 2,000 joint Arab-Jewish projects, in an attempt to turn Jerusalem into what they term "an ideal city." Among these many projects, the Jerusalem Foundation sponsors the Hattie Friedland School for the Deaf, which serves both Arab and Jewish children and is widely-regarded as a flagship school for pupils with special needs. The Foundation also sponsors programs implemented by Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), which runs youth leadership programs serving hundreds of Palestinian and Jewish teens and children, and a joint Palestinian and Jewish circus that has managed to survive the worst of the Intifada's violence. The Abraham Fund, one of leading promoter's of equality in Jerusalem has started a large-scale program called 'Language as a Cultural Bridge.' This program, currently running in Carmiel, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and some local districts in the South is designed to teach Arabic to school children. Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeannu, the Executive Director of the Abraham Fund in Israel, believes that it is necessary to teach Arabic in schools in order to "foster equality." With language instruction, he says, "Attitudes change completely. Part of this is because some of the teachers are Arabs themselves. They bring to the class their dignity, their culture, and their personality. For most of the Jewish schools throughout the country, to have an Arab teacher is revolutionary. He acknowledges that the program will not change the political situation, but believes that it is "not only about teaching language. It is about cultural activities that we are bringing into the classroom." Organizations and institutions such as IPCRI, Neve Shalom, and numerous others often invest in what are popularly known as dialogue-groups, in which children and teens meet, often for extended periods of time or for intensive weekends or week-long programs, and discuss the conflict. Programs of this nature are very expensive to run, says Reisman-Levy and demand professional staff who can be sensitive to the children's growing understanding of the conflict that surrounds them, in the context of their normative developmental needs. Such programs require at least two trained facilitators (an Arab and a Jew) and at least two translators per group. Programs must also cover, she notes, the costs of preparation at schools, transportation, and costs of food and lodging. "You need trainers to train the teachers, and coordinators to work with and support the teachers...If they weren't convinced that the program worked, they couldn't have done the work properly," she adds. "In a school where we worked with the entire tenth grade...the cost came to $70,000 dollars for the students alone," she says. The budget for IPCRI's educational programs, funded by the US government and the European Union, totaled over $800,000 per year. Eventually, it became impossible to raise these sums of money, and the programs were cancelled. Similar financial difficulties plagued the Van Leer Institute's "Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue Program," which paired Jewish teachers with Palestinian teachers from Gaza, and culminated in a bilingual puppet show in Liberty Bell Park for the teachers' classes. Although Program Director Amit Leshem is convinced that the project had potential to bring about personal and collective change, it was funded for only one year. "The forty children who had this experience benefited from it greatly," she says, but forty children compared to the millions suffering from the conflict seems like a minor step, no matter how strong the personal impact. Also citing financial cut-backs, Seeds of Peace, the well-known international program, is closing its center in French Hill and reopening smaller centers in Ramallah and Tel Aviv, although organizers say that they are also looking for a smaller, less-expensive location in Jerusalem as well. Other groups, such as "Faith to Faith," are allied with religious institutions. And numerous sports teams serving both populations have sprung up in the last decade. Two years ago, Alon Liel, former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa and Turkey, founded a joint Arab-Jewish soccer league for Abu Gosh and Meveseret Zion, with the support of both local councils. Sports activities, Liel says, are "more effective than talking about the conflict because they affect the lives of people. They give people who are not intellectuals, who have not graduated from high school or college the chance to meet Jews or Arabs that they would not meet otherwise." Under these circumstances, he says, "they can change perceptions about each other." Referring to social and economic inequality between Arabs and Jews, Liel continues, "this enables dozens of Arab kids to dream about becoming football players. And they get to play in a decent environment, to have facilities that they would never get to otherwise." Yet even this ostensibly un-political approach has faced some resistance, especially in the beginning, Liel acknowledges. "Players and the respective communities each complained that the 'other' was favored," he recalls. Liel says that the team has even achieved some success on the playing field, proving that they have, at least, achieved some sort of victory. The team is popular, and even in times of heightened political and security tensions, the players continued to train together. "People, regardless of race or religion, are very passionate about sports," he says. Yet Liel's goals include more than a good soccer team, and his conclusions remain positive. "We did not manage to stop Nasrallah's missiles," he quips. "But, there has been a regional impact. I think that it is improving the Jewish-Arab relations in our area of Mevasseret...We wanted to show that it is possible, even in Jerusalem where life between Jews and Arabs is so complicated." In contrast, the situation in Issawiya, a village in east Jerusalem, remains complicated. Funded by His Excellency Kyungtark Park, Korean Ambassador to Israel through the Peres Center, the new, hi-tech synthetic soccer field in Issawiya and the "Twinned Peace Soccer School" that uses it are meant to serve as another proving ground for Palestinian and Jewish children. The field, says Ron Pundak, Director of the Peres Center, should be "a place where skill is more important than which side of the wall you live on." Yet even a spiffy new soccer field proved to be more than just a place to play ball. As reported in In Jerusalem("How they play the game," December 30, 2005) Gaza authorities criticized the stadium when it was built and even threatened sanctions against Palestinians who participated in a joint Israeli-Palestinian team that traveled to Barcelona. And this year, no children from Issawiya will participate in the Twinned Peace Soccer School. "There was a conflict with the organizers of this area," explains Ronit Asoulin, Director of the Sport Department at The Peres Center, but declines to provide details. "Some kids participating next year will train there, but they will not be from Issawiya." She acknowledges that this is a major set back, especially for the children who will not be able to play on the field that is in their own village. Yet even Asoulin professes to continue to have hope. Passionately, she says, "If we give up, all our work would have been for nothing. This project is on a small scale. We only work with about 2,400 kids [throughout Israel.] But, these children have parents, siblings and family. When they transfer the message, we are doing our share. "We know we won't change the world, but if every year we bring 2000 new children into the program and they can transmit a message of peace then we are on the right path." The Israel Museum's joint Arab-Jewish art classes, operating since 2003, are also designed to teach and entertain children and teens without directly engaging them in issues surrounding the conflict. Despite teaching art in the same program, Smadar Levy, the Jewish facilitator, and Alaa Khanger, the Arab facilitator, differed greatly in their experiences of the classes and in their opinions of the value and success of the program. Levy expressed reserved optimism. "I think it works because both sides really want to participate," she says. "The children really care for each other even if they didn't succeed in building a good connection or friendship between them." Khanger seemed to have taken part in a different program. He is dismayed at the way the children interacted. "The problem was that they didn't work together," he says tensely. "They enter the classroom, but then the Jewish kids sit together and the Arab kids are at another table. Sometimes, we make them sit together. But when we do, the class ends in fights." Levy and Khanger both said that the program suffered from "technical problems" - another way of saying, according to Levy, that the one-year program does not provide the teachers or the students with enough time to get to know each other or develop lasting friendships. She also said that many of the Arab children dropped out of the program and had difficulties traveling to class. The program only managed to finish half of the scheduled curriculum. Although the majority of programs suffer from lack of funding, the larger question of whether providing small groups of individual's with contact and dialogue in order to increase knowledge of the 'other' is worthwhile in the face of an on-going political conflict. There is little consensus regarding the definition and scope of these programs. There is also no consensus among experts as to what constitutes "success." According to Dr. Yifat Ma'oz of Hebrew University's Communications Department, an expert on the impact of co-existence programs on children, about 15 percent of the Jewish-Israeli children have actually participated in one of these programs. Based on this small percentage, Ma'oz says categorically, "These programs don't help with a solution." In her research, Ma'oz says, "We have found no effect of the encounters on the political level, only on the personal level...It [the effect] is very tentative. We don't think that encounters bring a solution; the effect does not spread to the macro-political or social level." Despite Ma'oz's academic observations, others would argue that the change on the individual level is a large accomplishment in and of itself. Jerusalem was the epicenter of the Intifada and continues to be a place where conflict impacts children - Palestinian, Arab, and Jewish alike. Every Jerusalem child has experienced the conflict, whether directly or indirectly. In this context, some contend that "merely" teaching children about the "other" can be considered a success, since it might have the power to help shape Jerusalem's political and social future. Reisman-Levy describes the difficulty of running co-existence programs in Jerusalem. "In Jerusalem, the climate is very anti-peace education, with the exception of several schools," says Reisman-Levy. In the city's heated political atmosphere, she says, Jerusalemites are quick to label programmers. "If you are leftist, you are seen as against the State and against your own people because the climate is one of war, of conflict. If you talk about peace education, you are seen as an enemy." The same is true, she says, in the Palestinian Authority. "In the Palestinian territories, people immediately assumed that if you promoted peace education you were promoting the Oslo Plan, which was perceived as unjust," she says. Furthermore, can programs such as IPCRI or Dialogue be successful if the Ministry of Education and the municipalities do not provide large-scale support. In a written response, Sha'uli Pe'er, a spokesperson for the Education Ministry, noted that the staff for the implementation of the Shenhar and Kremnizer reports, is actively "promoting coexistence in schools in all sectors." In addition to programs operating nationally and in other locations, he notes that the Ministry implemented some 58 hours of in service teacher training in Jerusalem alone, focusing on "coexistence and life in a Jewish and democratic state." The Jerusalem municipality did not respond to In Jerusalem's request for information on programs sponsored or implemented by the Jerusalem Educational Authority ("Manhi.") Yet, speaking personally, Reisman-Levy told IJ that after several years, she had begun to experience "personal and ideological differences," with the educational programs. "Unfortunately, co-existence programs have nothing to do with reality," she criticizes. "If you don't try to change the laws or impact the government, or fight for more investment for the Palestinian population in Israel, the discrimination will continue, the rage will continue to grow. Co-existence programs cannot shape the political reality in Jerusalem."