Teachers greet 'the enemy',
A meeting of minds may just lead to a better educational future
Israeli teacher Miki didn't think she wanted to talk. Palestinian teacher Ibrahim didn't think he wanted to listen. But in spite of their mutual distrust, both agreed to be part of a group of about 80 educators that went to Turkey in February to learn how to talk to each other.
Afterward Miki said, "I didn't know it then, but I really wasn't ready for any kind of dialogue. In my heart, I wanted to prove to the Palestinians that they are wrong, that they are terrorists, and that we, the Jews, are right."
Ibrahim said, "As a Palestinian, I really didn't want to hear how the Jews have suffered. I didn't want to hear that people they love have died, or that they are afraid."
Before the trip, Miki, a teacher from Israel's central region, was anxious and excited. "What will I say to them?" she asked herself. "How will I get to know them? What if this doesn't work? What the hell am I doing here?"
Kobi stood off to the side, reading a mystery novel. Until almost the very last minute, he wasn't sure he would come.
"I was a combat soldier, and I've done reserve duty during this intifada. Friends of mine have died fighting Palestinians. I didn't know what I wanted to say, and I didn't know what I wanted to hear."
But his school adopted the "Pathways to Reconciliation" project, and he wanted to be part of it, so he had to come.
Ibrahim, a Palestinian educator from a village near Jenin, stood with the other Palestinians. They have different passports and had to go through a different security check. His attitude was a mixture of angry defiance and an almost-submissive fear.
Later, Ibrahim said he realized he was becoming angry because he didn't want to listen. "But I listened, and then we were able to stop competing over who has suffered more, begin to empathize, and think about what we could do to make things better."
This group of Jewish Israeli, Arab Israeli, and Palestinian teachers from the West Bank spent five days in Antalya at a conference entitled "Continuing Dialogue in Times of Crisis."
But this was not the usual academic affair. It was an emotionally demanding, intellectually challenging, and morally troubling experience for all, with each participant confronting his or her self as well as the enemy "other."
These educators will be implementing "Pathways to Reconciliation," a peace education program now in its seventh year in 60 Jewish and Palestinian high schools, sponsored by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI).
For many of the Jewish participants, it was the first time they had met a Palestinian who was their social and professional equal. For many Palestinians, it was the first time they had met an Israeli Jew other than a soldier.
Some organizations avoid discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or discuss it only obliquely. IPCRI's dialogue went to the heart of people's feelings and its discussions were aimed at creating a feeling of equality between the Israelis and Palestinians.
"This is the first time I ever felt equal to Jews," said Ibrahim. "Most of the Jews I know are soldiers, and they are more powerful than me. They have guns and they rule my life. They decide if I can pass through a checkpoint or if they will shoot me. In the discussions, I felt equal, so after a while, I felt less angry."
But equality is difficult.
"One of our roles as facilitators," said Fakhira Halloun, an Arab from northern Israel, "is to help the participants realize how complicated these issues are. Both sides feel powerless, and both sides have power, but it's hard for them to acknowledge this."
Explained Michal Levin, who co-facilitates with Halloun: "Without facilitation, Israelis and Palestinians will just reproduce the usual kinds of power relations, with endless cycles of mutual blaming and attacking. I believe that people want an opportunity to experience themselves in a different way, but they are also afraid. Our job to help them, sometimes despite themselves."
It wasn't easy. Noah Salameh, a Palestinian facilitator from Bethlehem, is director of the Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation. During the first intifada, he was arrested and spent 15 years in jail. Because of security restrictions, he is the only participant who wasn't allowed to come through Israel, so it took him three days to arrive in Antalya.
"Facilitation is demanding, draining, and rewarding," Salameh said. "As a facilitator, I have to neutralize my own feelings and experiences in order to create an atmosphere in which the group members can express theirs. I have to be able to hear their pain, anger, frustrations, and hopes without putting my own needs into the process. It is very hard but, if in the end they have learned something, if they have grown in their ability to listen to each other and promote peace, then I feel rewarded and satisfied."
But even introductions were complicated.
"I don't know what I want to say about myself," said Nihaia Taha, from Kafr Kasim. "What do I want these strangers to know about me?"
It didn't take long before conflict appeared, as people introduced themselves by telling about their personal pain and suffering. Jews talked about fear of terrorist attacks, their disappointment that there really isn't "anyone to talk to" on the Palestinian side. Palestinians talked about the checkpoints, the degradation and humiliation, and the disruption of all normal life in the territories. Everyone talked about death, destruction, and loss.
Halloun observed: "There is always a paradox here. On the one hand, participants say they want to hear the truth from each other. But the truth is painful, and so they start to feel guilty, and don't want to listen. It is a struggle."
The participants wrote questions and comments on note cards, and tacked them to the walls for all to read. "Shalom to the Jews," one Palestinian wrote. "What is the source of your feelings of suspicion and lack of trust toward Palestinians who are citizens of Israel?"
"A question to the Palestinians," a Jew wrote. "Do you personally know the mother of a shahid who blew himself up? If you do know one, tell us what she goes through."
At one point, half of the group were blindfolded and led around the hotel by other group members. Blindfolded participants didn't know who was leading them. One blindfolded Palestinian instinctively sat down, his legs crossed and hands behind his back, as he did when arrested not long ago by Israeli soldiers. A Jewish woman was overwhelmed by feeling responsible for a Palestinian.
Another time, a large number of balloons were put in the middle of a room. The Jews were told they had to move all the balloons to another part of the room within five minutes. The Palestinians were told they had to do the same thing - but within seven minutes. Neither group knew what instructions had been given to the other group - but neither were they told that they couldn't ask.
They didn't ask, so they never realized there was no contradiction between the two "missions."
The Jews began to form barricades to prevent the Palestinians from reaching their balloons. The Palestinians responded by popping the balloons to prevent the Jews from having them. Within minutes, there were only pieces of torn balloons in the middle of the room.
They talked about this for many hours.
At several points, participants formed uni-national groups.
Explained Halloun: "The uni-national groups had two goals. On the one hand, they provided a safety net for people, a support group; on the other hand, in an environment where people feel accepted and supported, they can examine their most basic individual and collective stands."
In such groups, each nation wrote a collective narrative, describing its understanding of how the country came to the situation it is in. In one group, the Jews couldn't even agree enough to write one narrative and had to write two: one a traditional Zionist narrative, and one a post-Zionist narrative that described Zionism as colonialism. The discussion was heated and angry.
"I was appalled at the stances that some of my friends took," said Shiri, a teacher from the Tel Aviv area. "I told them that when I was younger, I had helped establish a settlement in Judea and Samaria and that I was proud of that. Some of the Palestinians could hear that, but some of the Israeli Jews couldn't stand it. They called me an occupier."
Kobi said: "I always defined myself as a liberal leftist. But I never really thought about it. When I actually sat down in the uni-national group, I realized how important some things - Jerusalem, my Zionist legacy - really are to me."
For the Arabs who are citizens of Israel, the uni-national meetings were often the most difficult. Which group should they join? The Palestinians from the West Bank? The other Israelis? Should they form a group of their own?
They referred to themselves as "1948 Palestinians" (those who stayed in Israel) or "1967 Palestinians" (from the West Bank and Gaza).
Nihaia said: "For the first time, I really had to face my own identity. Who am I? An Arab? A Muslim? An Israeli? I live in the State of Israel, I study in institutions run by the State of Israel. I could be killed by a terrorist, too, yet I feel my fellow Palestinians' pain."
By the middle of the fourth day, members of the group was ready to try to solve problems. But first they had to learn to look at conflict in a different way - in terms of needs, not in terms of demands, positions, or stands. The facilitators told the teachers:
A state isn't a need - but a sense of identity is.
Sovereignty over the Western Wall isn't a need - but the right to pray there is.
No checkpoint is a need - but dignity is.
Said Levin: "When you learn to restate a problem in terms of needs, not in terms of positions, it is very liberating. People learn that their position is merely one way of trying to meet their needs - and it may not be the best one."
Some were able to reach agreements so creative they would impress official Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. Others were stymied and frustrated. Not everyone learned to be empathic, not everyone could listen, and, even after four days of dialogue, not everyone wanted to.
Yet on the last night the mood suddenly became fun and festive, almost manic. Despite the reality that they were about to return to, many of the teachers began to dance debkas and rock together.
But then they returned to reality. When they entered Ben-Gurion Airport, the Palestinians from the West Bank were separated from the Israelis and underwent an additional security check. The entire group stood and waited with them, even though everyone was eager to go home.
Shiri felt confused. "I knew that we needed these security checks. I knew that our soldiers were protecting the State of Israel at the checkpoints. But in Turkey we were all together and everyone felt safe, and now they, because they're Palestinians, have to be separated. It's necessary, it's humiliating to us, it's degrading to them. It's confusing."
Ibrahim answers her: "The bad guys make it difficult for all of us."
The day after
'The meetings changed my life. I met the Israeli enemy, and I know that we share a common humanity. I hope I will be able to pass this experience on to my students and my family," reflected Ibrahim, a Palestinian teacher, two weeks after returning from the "Continuing Dialogue in Times of Crisis" conference.
The cost for the five-day conference came to well over $60,000, sponsored by a grant from the US State Department. While it was clearly an important emotional experience for the participants, do such meetings have any broader social significance or political importance?
These programs are funded as part of the "People to People (P2P)" project. P2P was created under the 1995 Interim Agreement of the Oslo Accords, based on the idea that "politicians can sign the peace agreements, but the people have to make peace happen."
According to an official in the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, P2P programs were meant to bring ordinary Israelis and Palestinians together for dialogue and cooperative ventures, thus creating "the relational infrastructure necessary to advance and increase support for the official peace process."
The international community - in particular the United States and Norway - provided the funding for these programs. According to most estimates, this has come to over $25 million over the past seven years.
Many of the P2P programs focus on education, including teacher training and curriculum development, in the hope that the teachers will act as agents of change within their societies.
"Pathways into Reconciliation," IPCRI's peace-education program, is one of the larger P2P programs. Introduced seven years ago, it now operates in 60 schools (30 in Israel and 30 in the Palestinian Authority), with the participation of 300 teachers in 200 classes. Recently published research by Dr. Yifat Sassa-Biton from Haifa University found that Israeli and Palestinian participants defined "peace" more broadly and were less willing to support violent solutions than students who did not participate.
Yet P2P programs did not prevent the current violence, and since the outbreak of violence, most P2P programs have ceased to function.
According to Maya Kahanoff, of the Swiss Center for Conflict Research, Management, and Resolution at The Hebrew University, the Oslo process was mostly a "top-down program," involving primarily the political, diplomatic, and academic elites.
Less than 5% of Israelis and Palestinians ever actually participated in peace-related P2P activities. Yet, she maintains, even small numbers of P2P participants can have a positive effect on the region.
"Each year a few hundred teachers influence several hundred students. And all of them influence their families, friends, and communities. Eventually, the positive effects of these meetings will proliferate, even if it takes much longer than we had hoped."
She concludes: "It's important to know that Israelis and Palestinians can meet together, with professional facilitation, and discuss their differences rather than kill each other."