Security Walls and Suicide Bombers

Article excerpt

In a hotbed of political and religious conflict, Israeli and Palestinian educators break down barriers and collaborate with the younger generation with hope for a peaceful future.

When teens at Democratic High School near Tel Aviv and at Talitha Kumi High School on the West Bank sit down for their history lesson, they-unlike many of their counterparts throughout the region-learn about Middle East history from two perspectives.

First, they learn about the Six-Day War, the Balfour Declaration, and the Oslo peace accords from the vantage point of their mother country. Then, they learn about it from the perspective of their Israeli or Palestinian counterparts.

On one level, this teaching approach-the project of two professors in Israel and Palestine-exposes youngsters from warring regions to one another's narrative in hopes that sowing seeds of tolerance might pay off in future political and social change. On another level, the project brings together educational leaders from Israel and Palestine in a collaboration that, while not always smooth, has already fostered a degree of communication and empathy.

"We are trying this under very difficult conditions-the violence is going on, the (Israeli) occupation is continuing, the suicide bombers are there," said Dan Bar-On, a social psychology professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel who helped create the project through the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, or PRIME. "When the reality is very harsh, no such effort can outweigh the reality. But students do become much more sensitive to each other."

In the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-one marked by lifelong biases, deep distrust, outright hatred, unspeakable acts of violence, an occupation that limits student movement and government policies that inhibit cross-border educational collaboration-it is a wonder that programs such as Bar-On's exist at all. But such efforts to open the lines of communication between Israeli and Palestinian educators, students and schools do exist, and they are a glimmer on an educational landscape often darkened by the strife within the region.

Operation Peace

Sometimes, these efforts operate virtually underground, with participants reluctant to publicize their efforts for fear of reprisals. At times, they take the form of a student's postgraduate work, as he or she breaks new ground on educational bridges between the divided regions. Or, the effort may not be in Israel or Palestine at all, but instead at institutions abroad as academics who travel and study the Middle East educate others about how the conflict has influenced higher education.

Israel and Palestine have two distinct systems of higher education.

Israel's is far more established, with the majority of institutions having been around at least six decades. When the state of Israel was created, there were only two institutions of higher education in the region-the Technion and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. An increase in population, as well as advancements in economic and social development, created a demand for higher education, which led to the opening of five new universities during the 1950s and 1960s.

The 1970s saw the establishment of teacher training colleges and the state-supported Open University, which offers undergraduate courses by means of long distance teaching. In the 1990s, there was a move toward diversification, with the opening of colleges devoted to technology and other specific professions or disciplines.

Today, the higher education system in Israel comprises eight universities, 24 academic institutes for teacher training, and several academic programs at regional colleges. Some are state supported and others charge tuition. The campuses reflect the influences of Western Europe, the student body is international, course offerings are healthy and post-graduate degrees are offered in a wide array of disciplines. …