Co-directors of a Palestinian/Israeli-led NGO, the Middle East Children’s Association, emphasized the need for "peace education" -- revised curricula and textbooks that eliminated hatred and provided students with the tools to balance conflict and differences in values. Those who designed textbooks and curricula in developing countries were the same ones who kept the keys to the prisons, one said.
Panellists this morning also included: Adina Shapiro, Co-Director of the Middle East Children’s Association; Bertan Selim, Youth Counsellor with the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation; and Prosper Bani, Programme Specialist with the United Nations Volunteer Programme. Carol Rittner, a professor at Stockton College, moderated that discussion.
The NGO/DPI Conference met this morning for a discussion entitled “Against the Odds: The Process of Reconciliation” on the third and final day of its annual session, held under the theme “Rebuilding Societies Emerging from Conflict: A Shared Responsibility”. The afternoon session would discuss “Demobilizing the War Machines: Making Peace Last”.
Statements of Morning Panelists
GHASSAN ABDULLA, Co-Director and Founder of the Middle East Children Association, expressing his condolences to the families of the victims of the 11 September 2001 attacks, said that despite the most difficult and deteriorating situation in Palestine -- the daily killing, injuring, demolition of homes, restrictions on movement and humiliation –- the teachers had not given up because education had much to contribute in areas of conflict and bloodshed. Cultural background, daily sufferings and the spread of violence and terror had motivated the teachers in the region to create an alternative.
Unfortunately, he said, the Palestinians and the Israelis had missed the train for decades. Neither had dared faced the question of who was on the other side. Stereotyping was still the dominant aspect in Palestinian/Israeli communications. Because of his organization’s belief in the role of education it was committed to helping teachers and students “find the other face of the coin”. Indeed, the group was established in 1996 to promote understanding, cooperation and mutual acceptance with the aim of making it clear that everyone had a right to live in peace and that everyone was different but equal.
One theme that the Association was addressing was the gap between textbooks and the study of history in schools, he said. What was learned in the textbooks was totally different from what they learned from daily life. While Palestinian textbooks stressed a combination of national identity, cultural pluralism, pan-Arabism and Islamic studies, more pluralistic elements were beginning to appear, including images showing Islamic and Jewish leaders together.
Deteriorating economic and psychological conditions was another area of focus, he said. Financial support for the Association came from international donors, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Konrad Adenaeur Foundation.
ADINA SHAPIRO, Co-Director of the Middle East Children’s Association, said that this time of year between the Jewish New Year and the day of atonement, referred to by Jews around the world as “the days of awe”, was a time of reflection, of raising questions and not on giving answers. That was the role of education and its significance to any peace process. An educator's task was to raise the sensitivity in the minds of students, the future generation, and draw their attention to the moral dilemmas and constant complexity of the world.
She said that in a region of conflict, such as the Middle East, education geared towards the sanctity of life, human rights, national pride, and basic tolerance and respect could, ironically, contribute to hatred and demonization. Reconciliation was only possible if students were given the tools to balance values and always recognized the conflict in values and the complexity that came with difficult choices, with a combination of humility and decisiveness. An educator should provide students with the ability to recognize that while defending oneself and one’s country against a series of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, one should not ignore the human rights of the society perceived to be harbouring the perpetrators.
The lives of many innocent children had been lost, she said, asking the Conference to join the Association in promoting the balancing act of “peace education” as a critical part of any future political negotiations. Experience in the Middle East had taught that a peace process without a significant educational component could not last. Any future peace negotiation required several factors, among them: a commitment by each government to set up an educational task force similar to a security or economic task force; the support of education ministries for mandatory teacher training infused with the ideas of understanding and tolerance; and a periodic assessment of textbooks, which must continuously be revised.
Question and Answer Session
Responding to a question about involving children in the reconciliation process, Mr. Abdullah said that his Association's position was not to impose on children what they should do. Indeed, they had been given “ownership” of a musical programme in which both Palestinian refugees and Israeli children from a disadvantaged town had participated.
Ms. Shapiro added that the important thing was to focus on the needs of one’s own society and to seek examples from other societies to help resolve issues. It was important to look at the underprivileged and those who had experienced conflict.
Mr. Selim said it was very difficult for children who had not suffered to shift realities and understand the other side. The only way to achieve that was to tailor information in a child-friendly way.
Responding to a question about minimizing trauma, Mr. Abdullah said the Palestinians and Israelis dealt with trauma in order to minimize its effects and teach ways to avoid violence. That approach was used to motivate people towards non-violence and more cooperation and understanding of the needs and conditions of the other side.
Ms. Shapiro added that coping with trauma was part of the reality in the Middle East. Trauma was sometimes used by leaders, but the people themselves sometimes got “stuck inside a trauma” that was not addressed. Doing so occurred on two levels: restoring the framework and addressing the trauma by legitimizing it; and creating an emotionally safe environment in which to speak about it and then moving to the second stage about lessons learned in dealing with the trauma.
Referring to the implications of reconciliation, Mr. Ntoni-Nzinga said that truly putting an end to the past required some reparations, even if only as a symbolic gesture.
Responding to a question about education, Ms. Shapiro said it would be a dangerous precedent to outlaw any school. The question should be reframed to reflect how governments could influence education and ensure that schools were not promoting hate or violence.
Mr. Abdullah added that a prevailing political situation sometimes embarrassed a government and made it difficult to take a step towards peace education. For example, it was difficult for the Palestinian Authority to talk about peace education formally in the textbooks while killing, reoccupation and imprisonment were going on. In developing countries, those who designed textbooks and curricula were the same ones who carried and kept the keys to the prisons, he said.