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Educating toward peace: Two narratives for two peoples

After Oslo, Israel made an attempt to institutionalize education toward peace, but it drowned in bloodshed and violence. A look at the situation today.

By Gil Gertel

Illustrative photo of a parent bringing his child to school in Jaffa, Israel. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Illustrative photo of a parent bringing his child to school in Jaffa, Israel. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Not a single educator has made a single educational declaration regarding the current situation over the past month. Nothing. Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett keeps repeating that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “is the head of the serpent of incitement.”

In 1994, following Israel’s peace talks with the Palestinians and with Jordan, the school system, too, addressed the subject. It was called “education toward peace.” To quote the newsletter published by the Curriculum Department of the Ministry of Education:

As the peace process progresses, the educational process […] will require transitioning from attitudes of suspicion and rejection to those of cautious acceptance. Adequate preparation is required in the early stages in order to produce curricula and study materials.

Among other things, education toward peace was established as a major subject for the school system in 1995. A memo from the ministry’s director-general instructed teachers to:

[Present] peace between us and our neighbors… as a consensual national goal and to explain its vital importance and its contribution to our security, the very foundations and flourishing of the State of Israel. Still, one should present… the legitimate ongoing debate on the subject and the arguments made by both sides.

Indeed, internal debate inside Israel was lively, at times even violent, since peace was portrayed as a political position as opposed to a cherished value. The political right wing claimed that under the guise of peace studies, teachers were actually required to advocate the left-wing’s political solution. In the official text book and curriculum then published by the Education Ministry, titled “Toward Peace – Feeling the Pulse,” Tzvi Lam proposed “the teacher’s test” as a way of dissipating tensions between peace and politics. Namely: “the teacher’s unbiased ability to examine positions contrary to his/her own. And the ultimate test: his/her ability not to rule in favor of his own position and against a contrary one in class.”

In an essay that accompanies schools’ civics curricula to this day, Sarah Zamir supports the idea and suggests that “the ‘teacher’s test’ is also a test for education toward peace: such that presents to the student a spectrum of political views, education toward peace that is essentially political, cognitive and rational, and not political, sentiment-based and an attempt to proselytize.”

As positive as the “teacher’s test” sounds, I find it too good. I can hardly imagine teachers meeting such a lofty goal. Be that as it may, the debate around education toward peace has drowned in violence and bloodshed, and vanished.

In 2009, then-education minister Yuli Tamir hoped to introduce peace into the educational agenda again. She appointed a “public commission on education toward a shared life by Jews and Arabs in Israel,” headed by Prof. Gabi Solomon and Dr. Mohammad Issawi. The commission made its wise and positive recommendations, but I assume few others ever heard of them. Its recommendations, too, have evaporated in our violent reality.

The above-mentioned Prof. Solomon founded the Center for the Study of Education toward Peace at Haifa University. His research as well his students found that workshops and curricula do generate change in the participants’ basic views, but these dissipate with time. Therefore, in 2011 he claimed that “instilling positive tendencies of tolerance, empathy, nonviolence and the like are simply not enough. Educating toward peace must instill in society an atmosphere supportive of implementing positive principles and preventing surrender to competing motives.” Put more simply, the school system does not function in a vacuum, and as long as commonly held views do not support the change the education strives to achieve, it will not happen.

Acknowledging the existence of the other

Palestinian boys line up during a morning assembly at a UNRWA school in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, September 15, 2014. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Palestinian boys line up during a morning assembly at a UNRWA school in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, September 15, 2014. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

The above conclusion is rather depressing. Where does one begin? I found the answer in another paper by Solomon, from 2012, in which he summarizes educating for peace as follows: “The main idea, first of all, is to legitimize the other side of the controversy. This is not trivial. It does not mean agreeing with the other side, merely legitimizing it.” He also adds that this “should show we have no monopoly over victimhood, we have amply contributed to the conflict and continue to do so.”

That is no easy feat. The optimistic part is that Solomon speaks of a personality trait: empathy, which is related not only to national conflict. Hence, creating the infrastructure for education toward peace among young children does not require the Zionist narrative versus the Palestinian one, nor does it demand excessive expectations from teachers.

Empathy is indeed a lofty capacity, but it can be strengthened through simple exercises practiced among friends. For example, along with the excellent request to “explain in your own words” one might add the need to “explain in the other’s words.”

I believe that the commonly held view in Israel does not acknowledge the existence of the Palestinian narrative (even prior to discussing positions). When Abu Mazen is required to condemn terrorist attacks, or recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he is expected to adopt the Zionist stance. For me, his recognition of the existence of Zionism suffices.  When people like me are accused of being “Arab lovers – go to Gaza!” the accusers assume that acknowledging the existence of a Palestinian position means identifying with it. No, here I rely on the Palestinians to present their own position, and they do not need my agreement.

The bottom line, quoting Solomon again: “Education toward peace fights the narrative that claims a single clear-cut answer to everything, and that if you do not agree with that answer, you are no patriot.” Hallelujah. Why, then, has no educational voice been heard for the past month? Minister of Education Bennett is not there. After all, he has voiced his opinion precisely on that matter: “There are no two narratives, there is only one truth.” As long as this is his opinion, he will not be a leader of peace, certainly not an educator for peace.

Gil Gertel is a scholar of education and a blogger on Local Call where this article was first published in Hebrew. Read it here. Translated by Tal Haran.

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