Cultivating Peace in Palestine

In the days leading up to Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington,
Yisrael Beiteinu, the far-right party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor
Lieberman, announced that it would seek a bill in the Knesset banning
Palestinian citizens of Israel--now 20 percent of the population--from
commemorating the anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe), their way of
marking the founding of Israel, which involved the expulsion or flight
of some 750,000 Palestinians.

Thousands of Palestinians--in the occupied territories, in Israel and
in refugee camps all over the Arab world--ignored Yisrael Beiteinu's
bluster and turned out for Nakba Day rallies, insisting on the right of
refugees to return to their homes, a demand that is anathema to the
overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. In a speech in the stadium at
the northern Israeli city of Kafr Kana, Raed Salah, the chairman of the
northern branch of Israel's Islamic Movement, declared, "We are the
ones who will remain on our land; it is the occupation that will soon
disappear." Speaking of the occupation, former Foreign Minister Tzipi
Livni urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to seek a peace deal with the
Palestinians in the territories as soon as possible, as any delay would
bring about a binational state, which she called "a strategic threat,
no less menacing than any other threat."

The fact is that even aside from the occupation, Israel is already a
binational state--increasingly, a multicultural state--albeit one that
is dominated by one ethnic/religious group. What if, instead of talking
past one another, Jews and Palestinians were to take a step toward
admitting this reality by acknowledging the other's historical
narrative and trying to live together? It turns out that some are doing
this, and in very interesting ways. I recently attended the sixth
annual "Independence Day/Nakba Day" gathering near the northern city of
Haifa, a two-day workshop organized by Arabs and Jews "designed to
respect and commemorate the pain and loss on both sides." Sponsored
this year by Beyond Words,
a nonprofit organization that empowers Arab and Jewish women to work
for social change and peace, the event featured a history lecture,
recollections of the 1948 expulsion from Ramle by a Palestinian who
experienced it and of the Holocaust by a survivor, personal testimonies
of loss in a common grieving ritual, and breakout workshops, as well as
music, dance and prayer.

It may be hard for Americans to comprehend just how threatening such an
event is perceived in Israel--by both Jews and Palestinians. Many of
the former find it nearly treasonous that on two consecutive days
considered nearly sacred--the Day of the Fallen and Independence Day,
when throughout the country everything comes to a screeching halt for
two minutes as sirens sound--fellow Jews would go out of their way to
acknowledge those who consider the time of Jewish national liberation
to be a catastrophe. And just as many Palestinians are no less
irritated that their dispossessed brethren, who endure continuing
discrimination as second-class citizens, would commune with a people
who celebrate what is for Palestinians a time of defeat and expulsion.
But that's just the point: the participants don't presume to furnish a
"solution" to the conflict, nor do they expect to synthesize the two
vastly different national experiences into a unified whole. The idea,
rather, is that in a society where the two opposing narratives almost
completely negate the legitimacy of the other, simply to come together,
to listen to the other, to accept the other's narrative as at least
somewhat legitimate, is a crucial step in the healing process necessary
to ending the conflict.

Another bridging of the narratives is being carried out by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East
(PRIME), a nonprofit established in 1998 by Palestinian and Israeli
researchers whose "purpose is to pursue mutual coexistence and
peace-building through joint research and outreach activities." A
particularly noteworthy PRIME endeavor is the "Dual-Narrative History
Project." Co-directed by Professor Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University
and the late Professor Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University (Bar-On's
mantle was recently inherited by Ben-Gurion's Professor Shifra Sagy),
the goal is "to 'disarm' the teaching of Middle East history in Israeli
and Palestinian classrooms" by developing, with a group of Palestinian
and Israeli historians, textbooks that have parallel historical
narratives, Israeli on one side of the page and Palestinian on the
other, to be taught to high school students. There's a blank space in
the middle of each page for student comments.

The goal of the textbooks is to expose to each student population the
history of the conflict as seen through the eyes of, and as taught by,
the other. The project believed that at this stage of the conflict, the
sides are too polarized to be able to produce a single narrative. But
the hope is that in educating each side about the other's history, they
will "break down stereotypes and build more nuanced understandings." So
far three books have been produced, in Hebrew, Arabic and English,
covering key periods, including the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the
1948 war, the 1967 war, the first intifada and so on. The remarkable
thing about this cooperative venture is that it got started at the
height of the second intifada, a time of extreme violence when it was
difficult for the program directors just to meet, let alone produce a
textbook that highlighted fundamental differences. The books have been
used on both sides, exposing hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli high
school kids to a different narrative, although neither the Israeli nor
the Palestinian education ministries have given official approval to
the books.

A third attempt to bridge the gap between the two peoples is Hagar: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality.
Based in Beer-Sheva in Israel's southern Negev Desert, the Hagar
Association has established a bilingual preschool and kindergarten in
an attempt to overcome the extreme segregation of Jewish and Arab
communities in Israel. The people of Hagar believe that "creating such
a shared bilingual educational framework can promote knowledge and
understanding of the 'other's' heritage, religion and customs, and thus
help to bring about positive change in the region." The school has
equal numbers of Arabs and Jews, and every class has two teachers, who
give instruction in Arabic and Hebrew. This is almost unheard of in
Israel, where as a general rule Palestinian and Jewish kids attend
different schools. Until the founding of Hagar, there was not a single
school in the South where Jewish and Arab children could learn together
(25 percent of the Negev population is Arab). But Hagar's goals extend
well beyond that of bilingual, high-quality education for kids; the
community brings together parents and other members of the Beer-Sheva
community in a broader social network that includes picnics, adult
language instruction, and artistic and other cultural events. This
partly comes from an understanding that the education of children
should be a community-wide effort, but also from the recognition that
overcoming barriers of segregation and mistrust requires a multifaceted
approach that integrates all areas and ages of life, including work,
education and cultural and leisure activities. Hagar has had to
overcome many difficulties, not least the upsurge in mistrust stemming
from the recent Gaza military operation and Hamas rocket barrages,
which reached Beer-Sheva. One testament to Hagar's success is that the
bonds formed over the past two years were not broken by the bloodshed;
indeed, Hagar is now expanding its program for the 2009-10 school year
to include first grade.

Certainly none of these cooperative efforts can be a substitute for
peacemaking on the diplomatic level--a step made all the more difficult
by an obstructionist Israeli prime minister. In his first meeting with
President Obama, Netanyahu refused to support a two-state solution,
instead calling for limited Palestinian self-government, insisting that
Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and making no promises
to limit growth in settlements, let alone withdraw them. Resolution of
the conflict is impossible without addressing its root causes: a brutal
Israeli occupation and ongoing colonization now in its fourth decade in
the territories, and systemic, legally sanctioned discrimination in
Israel proper. But grassroots attempts to cultivate the seeds of
cooperation can help further the larger goal, and make the transition
to genuine peace more bearable.

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