Education, especially in the Middle East, has been a major tool for long-term change, as it affects the attitude and behavior of younger generations and the future. The nations of the Middle East are young by international standards due to a persistently high reproduction rate. For this reason, processes like education that affect the younger generation have great influence, and the relatively weak traditions of democracy and respect for due process allow populism to gain unusual significance. Populism, in turn, thrives on an active young generation and can be influenced a great deal through the schooling process.
For all of these reasons, education is a sphere of intense competition between the various groups in the Middle East. Many parties are actively trying to use education to build a peaceful and stable region, propagate values of democracy or spur economic rejuvenation. The pursuit of these worthy agendas demands our attention and new educational efforts. At the same time, this pursuit will only be possible if our new generations are hooked into the international agenda through the process of globalization in its most positive manifestations, i.e. by benefiting from international advancements, while at the same time maintaining a sense of cultural individuality and uniqueness.
The problem here is that these groups and their agendas do not have a monopoly on outreach to the region’s youth. Education is also widely used to forward the agendas of traditional forces in power in most Middle Eastern countries. The ideology of Islamic extremism is one expression of these traditional forces. Blind anti-globalization (rejecting change for the sake of rejecting it) is another expression of the traditional mindset. Certainly, regional detachment from recent significant technological and scientific developments has been the worst outcome of such closed ways of thinking and shortsightedness.
Here, in the peace process between Israel and the Arabs, education has been similarly misused. New generations in Israel, for example, are taught in ways that encourage widespread racist attitudes and practices among Israelis about Arabs and Palestinians. (We all know these myths, which pitch the ignorant Palestinian peasant against the brave, pioneering Israeli settler or the defeated Arab army against the tiny Jewish militia--never mind the superpowers that Israel had on its side). The Israeli official account of recent history plays on these stereotypes and thus prevents tolerance and mutual understanding--both of which are crucial to coexistence.
It is only thanks to recent writings by Israel's "new historians" that traditional Israeli education has come under scrutiny and subsequently challenged. To base political pursuits on exclusivist historical and religious beliefs that give rights to only one party is the route to prolonging this conflict, not ending it.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority cabinet and has served for many years as a political analyst and media contact.
Ours is a prolonged conflict, not only with the Palestinian people, but with other parts of the Arab and even Muslim world. Moreover, uniquely in the world, our very long history is a never-ending story of attempts to destroy us as a people. We commemorate the ways in which we fought back and were saved, through holidays like Pesach, Purim, and Hanukkah. We mourn our defeats at Holocaust Memorial Day and Tisha b'Av (why don't we have an Inquisition mourning day?). The Jewish people teaches its children that they are living life at the existential brink, because in historical terms, they are; you can't undo 3,000 years of history. We place great religious and societal emphasis on the sanctity of human life; but all the while there is a huge cloud of history hovering over us.
Now factor in the face-to-face conflict with the Palestinians over the Land of Israel/Palestine. It has lasted several generations, but the last three years have been the worst, due primarily to the suicide bombings, which send a message of sanctifying death, but also because conquest and re-conquest and occupation of
Palestinian towns and villages has to an extent dehumanized us. We have more violent crime, more family and school violence, more brutality in politics. Many of us have also to a large extent become convinced that the long term Palestinian struggle (and that of the Islamic radical movements) is directed not just against occupation but against the Jewish people. Whether this is a correct judgment or not is debatable; given our history, it is understandable.
How do we continue to raise our children as proud and aware Jews, and at the same time isolate and identify the ill effects of conflict and occupation in order to educate against them? How do we teach them to distinguish between the Arab and Islamic threat to Israel on the one hand, and the Palestinian individual with his/her basic human rights on the other? How can Israel Defense Forces tolerance training for troops destined to man roadblocks in the West Bank counter the effects of fear, isolation in enemy territory, and youth and immaturity in Jewish 18-year-olds who are defending their country and people, and produce more considerate soldiers who engage in less gratuitous violence?
There are other societies, like the United States, which have high levels of violence--rape, murder, drugs, the death penalty--but for reasons very different from ours. Some parts of Arab/Islamic society maintain particularly violent traditions, such as "family honor" killings of young women and vengeance killings, which have nothing to do with our conflict--unless, conceivably, they helped cause it. While all three monotheistic religions harbor in their teachings certain inclinations toward exclusivity and intolerance, Islam currently appears to have fostered the most venal and radical fundamentalist movements, which place not only Israel but increasingly the West in general in an existential defensive mode that does not easily lend itself to tolerance training.
Which comes first: political reconciliation through negotiation, or grassroots reconciliation through education? Ten years of a failed peace process have taught us that the two must go together. But what inspired the Cypriot Turks a few months ago to defy their deadlocked political process and their hawkish leaders and demand to open their green line boundary to mutual visits with the Greek Cypriots? I doubt it was anything special in their education under two generations of Turkish rule. More likely the economic and political incentive of European Union membership played a key role, at least in the timing, rather than Turkish Cypriot educational policies and political leadership.
For political, economic and ideological reasons, Israel has seriously neglected and distorted its entire educational system in recent years. The most obvious result is the disastrously low international testing results that were published recently. I doubt we can have better education for peace and tolerance as long as we don't improve our teaching of mathematics, science and civics. But even if we do, real education for peace can only accompany peace itself, or at least an end of conflict. Peace education, like peace itself, requires a partner. Most Israelis are certain there is no such partner on the other side.
In this regard, if we can't find a partner for peace, then we must consider unilaterally disengaging, including dismantling settlements and building fences on the green line. This may be the only way to save Israel as a democratic Jewish state that can raise generations of its children in something approximating a sane atmosphere.
Yossi Alpher is co-editor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior adviser to PM Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Peace does not mean the occupation of memory
an interview with Ahmad Harb
bitterlemons: Over the last twenty years, have you noticed any fundamental changes in how Palestinians educate their children?
Harb: The effect of the occupation has been disastrous. Early on, the whole system was under the supervision of the [Israeli] occupation authorities, the civil administration. It intervened in the curriculum; under security pretenses it closed schools and arrested students.
With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, nothing dramatic has changed except that the Authority has the entire thing in its hands, and has tried to revise the curriculum and build new schools. We noticed some positive changes in the transition period after the Oslo accords.
But with the second intifada and reoccupation, all that was built in the Oslo period [was destroyed]. There were dire effects due to the closure and there was the psychological effect on students of the destruction of homes.
Now with the resumption of peace negotiations--perhaps more than after the signing of Oslo--there is a continuing Israeli effort to intervene in the Palestinian curriculum under certain pretexts: to prevent "incitement" and so-called "propaganda" against the Israelis. The Palestinian Authority has been under pressure to comply with Israeli and American demands concerning the Palestinian curriculum, but so far, it has succeeded partially in resisting such intervention.
bitterlemons: Why would Palestinians resist that pressure? The concept of "peace education" sounds quite innocuous and even desirable.
Harb: When you look at peace from the Israeli point of view, it is not only to have the land and the geography, but also to have sovereignty over Palestinian culture and education and history.
Even if we sign a peace agreement, we cannot sign peace agreements in a vacuum. Aside from our history and our past, Palestine is part of our selves, our culture, our education. If I reach a political peace with the Israelis, that doesn’t mean that you disinherit me. That doesn’t mean that you occupy my memory or that you erase my memory. That is what Israelis want: to erase the personal and collective Palestinian memory.
This is impossible. Even if we wanted to succumb to Israeli pressure, it is impossible to make a Palestinian teach his child that Jaffa or Haifa or Palestine before 1948 was not his land. On a practical level, I would say that most Palestinians want peace. They want peace with equality and relative justice. But you cannot impose on any people that they forget their culture.
bitterlemons: Are you saying that political agreements need to come before social reconciliation?
Harb: I am saying that we must be able to differentiate between a political peace and cultural reconciliation. If the Israelis sincerely want peace, then we must work for cultural reconciliation first. Cultural reconciliation must not be imposed only on Palestinians, it should be bipartisan. All the political agreements between Palestinians and Israelis have failed because the Israelis have not come to recognize that reconciliation should take precedence. Israelis want to impose their political will over Palestinians, while at the same time imposing their view of the reconciliation.
They don't even use the word "reconciliation". When we are talking about "reconciliation", we are talking about two parties on equal footing, two parties respecting each other's cultures, two parties recognizing each other's suffering and two parties recognizing each other's history. But we are facing a party that has the power and that party wants Palestinians to forget their history and to give hegemony to the Israeli perspective of Palestine.
That will not happen. Even if we are politically weak, and even if there are political agreements imposed on the Palestinians, real reconciliation will not take place if there is no mutual recognition of the suffering of two peoples.
bitterlemons: How serious is this battleground?
Harb: As I see it, the Palestinian Authority and those who are supervising the educational system are not doing enough to resist those pressures. Let's be frank. I know that these issues are being raised in almost every political meeting. In every education circle out there, the Israelis are using this issue as propaganda against Palestinians under the mantle of so-called "terrorism". They say that Palestinians should change their curriculum in order to fit the peace that they are promising them.
But [Palestinian officials] are not arguing in these international forums in order to expose Israeli pressure and to defend their point of view. This has not been taken very seriously by the Palestinians. We satisfy ourselves by saying, "No, you cannot impose that," but in the international arena, we have not done enough.
Ahmad Harb is a writer and dean of the faculty of arts at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
From the political point of view, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was jump-started with the signing of the Oslo Accords. A famous handshake between two enemies raised hopes for a peaceful future, close at hand. Since then, it has become clear that such diplomatic efforts alone are insufficient to bring peace to the Israeli and Palestinian communities who have been adversaries for so many years.
Political leaders may attempt, and occasionally succeed, to conclude agreements about borders, water and security, but their efforts, vital as they may be, are conducted in the rarefied atmosphere of high level international diplomacy. They do not directly advance reconciliation between peoples. In order to create a just and stable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, individuals, communities and civil institutions must join hands with the diplomats to facilitate deep changes in attitudes. The way to do this is to design, implement and participate in creative joint activities that challenge existing stereotypes.
Even the most honest, good faith implementation of political agreements cannot repair the chiasmic psychological, emotional and educational fault lines opened after years of conflict. If left unattended, these "black holes" can swallow up years of hard diplomatic effort. Our painful experience has taught us that we have no choice but to recognize the educational system as playing a strategic role in the political process. This is important for two reasons.
First, the education systems can only be used as a means for dissemination of peace if their legitimacy as shapers of attitudes is restored and recognized by political leaders. Addressing these issues on the strategic level shows to the peoples on both sides that ultimately it is their commitment to peace and reconciliation that will assure the outcome of the political process. If the political leaders fail to recognize the role of the educational institutions in the process and in future stability, how can we expect the next generation to put its faith in that same system? Already we witness the strong negative effects of the mass media, as the issue of incitement is raised as a tool for each side to de-legitimize the other. If we do not recognize educational institutions as vehicles to create and affect society, we leave a vacuum for others, proponents of hate and conflict, to fill.
Secondly, in trying to create stability in a region so wounded and affected by violence and war, the educational institutions must be seen as central partners in the rehabilitative process. One of the fundamental building blocks of a stable reality is an educational system that enhances the capacities, values and responsibilities of citizens. This is not a question of how a child learns to perceive his or her former enemy, but rather a larger question of how a child becomes capable and confident to provide for his or her future. Peace and security cannot be guaranteed by security measures alone which, as necessary as they are, can often antagonize and divide. Such security measures will serve their purpose if they are enforced in the context of a civil society, which can exist and flourish only if supported by an effective and exciting educational system. Thus, politicians and diplomats will find their efforts frustrated if they do not work strategically to assure an accommodating educational environment.
What do we mean when we speak of education on the strategic level? Clearly this does not imply that the political negotiators should begin to design textbooks or argue over relevant curricula. It also does not mean that mere lip service should be paid to the need for including values of understanding and peace within the educational curricula. These are issues that need to be developed on the professional level, much as any other strategic area of the negotiations. Creating a strategic place for the educational systems would mean that just as the negotiators on all levels consult military experts, economic experts, diplomatic experts and sometimes health and media experts as well, so too an educational track should be consulted. Once this is recognized, then there is a legitimate role for education in implementation, too. A negotiating and follow-up educational committee should be created alongside all other such committees.
The content of the educational component of a peace agreement would need to address the following issues:
1. How to ensure that schools will be accessible and safe environments for all children ages 3-18;
2. How to provide adequate support (including compensation) for teachers to contend with (a) the dynamic changes in the reality, and (b) the suffering and trauma of themselves and their students;
3. How to address issues of a core unified curriculum; to what extent is such a curriculum advisable in creating a stable, confident and open-minded society;
4. How to address the role of communications (mainly TV, radio and internet) as competitors (with a negative impact) to the formal educational systems;
5. What should be the role of the educational systems in reaching out to the communities (mainly parents and informal education);
6. What shall be the criteria for renewing textbooks; who is in charge of monitoring them, and at what frequency?
Any peace process, even if just at the stage of a ceasefire, must recognize the role of those who stand at the forefront of society day in and day out--the educators. The questions outlined above require strategic discussion, as well as policy decisions. These cannot be taken only at the grassroots level. If we demand of the educational system to work for the implementation of a peace agreement, including a detoxification of society from hate and animosity and an enhancing of skills for non-violent conflict resolution, it is necessary to provide the leaders of that system with the mandate to do so.
Adina Shapiro is an educator. She serves as the Israeli co-director of the Middle East Children's Association, an Israeli-Palestinian organization focusing on educational cooperation.
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