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Rehumanizing the 'Enemy' and Confronting Ourselves: Challenges for Educators in an Era of Peace

This article was presented at the "Palestinians and Israelis: Educating about Each Other in the Era of Peace" seminar, cosponsored by the Konrad Adenaur Foundation, the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) and the Palestinian Peace Information Center, December 7-8, 1995, Notre Dame Center, Jerusalem.

The author, who is associated with the religious peace movement, Oz ve Shalom, is administrative director of OPEN HOUSE. 

During the Lebanon War in 1982, one of the soldiers who returned from the front to protest against the war opposite Prime Minister Begin's office was named Shuki. He told a story about his experience going into the Ein Al-Hilweh refugee camp outside Sidon, where his unit was ordered to clear the camp of PLO fighters. Shuki and his comrades fought their way into the camp, shooting as they went, taking care not to harm civilians. Suddenly two refugees came in their direction carrying an object and yelling at the soldiers. Shuki and his buddies screamed back at them, urging them to get out of the way. Since the two men were only about 20 yards distant, the soldiers could quickly make out that they were carrying a crate of Pepsi Cola and could decipher their screams as invitations to have a drink! Shuki later reflected: "If they had been 200 yards away, we would have shot at them and been glad to hit them" And he asked: How far away does a human being have to be before he becomes a target? How close must he be before we see he is human?" 

Shuki's question is addressed to all of us, but especially to educators within a conflict situation who wish to prepare the younger generation for a peaceful future. After decades of dehumanization, the challenge before parents and teachers today, in both Israel and Palestine, is to find ways to rehumanize the former enemy. We need to develop effective pedagogical methods of confronting the negative stereotypes that have developed because of the distance and estrangement between the two peoples. 


At the end of his Outline of History, H.G. Wells wrote: "Human history has become more and more a race between education and catastrophe." In light of this observation, it makes sense to ask: Have our educational systems helped to perpetuate the divisions between groups, thereby preparing the ground for future catastrophes? Is the focus on left-brain analytic thinking, at the expense of right-brain imagination and intuition as well as affect, a reductionistic approach that cripples our capacity for fresh ideas, for imagining the life-situation of our adversaries, for being in touch with our feelings and having empathy for the feelings of others? 

Peace-oriented education has to address three aspects of the human personality. The first is symbolic imagination, which crystallizes its "knowing" in the form of images, including self-images and images of the Other. The second is cognitive apprehension and comprehension, which crystallizes its truths into attitudes, even elaborate ideologies, often in a dualistic manner seeing competing realities as mutually exclusive (e.g., Israel/Palestine, or Judaism/Christianity/Islam). The last is the dimension of affect, where strong feelings can harden into conditioned emotional reflexes. This last is the most difficult challenge for educators to tackle, but we must confront it headon or no real healing of psychological wounds will take place. 


It is well known that all wars are prepared for and sustained by dehumanizing, even demonizing, the adversary: Palestinians become fanatic terrorists in Israeli eyes, while Israelis are seen by Palestinians as brutal soldiers or aggressive settlers. At the same time, of course, self-images tend to be reduced to that of victims threatened by the cruel enemy. Sam Keen's powerful TV documentary, Faces of the Enemy, aired on public television in the US some years ago, is the best audiovisual presentation I know of this universal problem. This video would be an excellent educational tool in both Israeli and Palestinian secondary schools. 

There really is no substitute for direct encounter with the former "enemy" in order to rehumanize that whole group or nation. But short of that (and it will take time for the two education ministries to sponsor student exchanges), film and video offer the potential of presenting the Other's reality in a nonthreatening way, at some distance. 

Another 65 half-hour programs of Sesame Street will be coproduced by Israeli and Palestinian teams - this is a great breakthrough, since the mass media, especially television, play such a decisive role in contemporary cultures everywhere. I think other technologies - computer games, CD-ROM programs - could and should be used to appeal to youth as they struggle to develop their own self-images and images of the Other. (I say this, knowing that Israeli homes and schools have more resources to invest in these technologies; but over time, Palestinian schools will have to incorporate them too.) Eventually these "safer" confrontations with the Other can be made more genuine through carefully planned and facilitated encounters with peers from the other side. There are many personal stories like Shuki's, demonstrating that one direct experience can alter one's projected negative image of the Other for good, replacing it with a multiplicity of images reflecting the human spectrum in any society. 

If we talk about informal education for adults, seminars could be organized to explore the consequences of holding on to the negative stereotypes of the Other side (with or without encounters with that dehumanized adversary). It may even be possible, with the proper guidance and support, for participants to attain the insight expressed at the beginning of this century by the Irish poet, George William Russell (pen name A.E.): "By intensity of hatred, nations create in themselves the characters they imagine in their enemies. Hence it is that all passionate conflicts result in the interchange of characteristics." 


In a conflict between two nations, each with a passionate loyalty to the same homeland and to its threatened identity, the cognitive dichotomy of Us vs. Them, perceiving the conflict as a zero-sum game, is a natural outcome. Nationalisms are, by nature, self-referencing and sell-glorifying; and in a clash between two different nationalisms, recognition of the relative justice on the enemy's side is exceedingly rare. If and when such a bifocal perception is witnessed to, the reaction of the majority is usually harsh, branding such views as disloyal and traitorous. Instead, "consensus ideologies" prevail as the intellectual rationales for the militant struggle: "Judaism is a blessed religion from God, whereas Zionism is a corruption of true Judaism and a curse for us Palestinians"; or "There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation; the Arabs of the Land of Israel are entitled to rights as individuals but not as a nation." What is evident to an outsider as two double standards of justice, are maintained by the warring parties with a fierce determination to reject any facts that may contradict these sell-justifying claims. For to truly listen to the other side's version of truth and justice, is felt to be threatening to the very core of one's own identity, as it has evolved over the course of the national struggle. 

To overcome these conditioned "ideological reflexes," simulation exercises and (in mixed encounters) role reversals can be helpful, if facilitated by trained, sensitive group leaders. Common ground between the adversaries can be defined and explored, and the level of empathy could even reach the point where participants on both sides can say, "If I were one of them, I would probably be fighting me, too." 


Affective education is something that most schools avoid like the plague: "We'll leave that for the home or the church/synagogue/mosque." A very high price is paid by this renunciation of responsibility, which derives from the Western rationalist paradigm underlying our educational system. Left-brain analytical thinking is rewarded, while artistic or emotional expressions of truth are generally not. The question is whether schools, or other educational institutions, can sponsor experiences that aim at a cathartic transformation of the emotional matrix at the core of the conflict, on the individual as well as collective level. How can we transform fear to trust, especially in a situation of ongoing insecurity? How do we help people work through their feelings of anger, even rage, to the point where they can forgive the other side and ask for forgiveness in return? How can people, crippled by grief, be helped to extend that emotional response to include compassion for the suffering on the other side, too? 

To me these are the essential challenges facing the parents and educators of today and tomorrow. Religious educators, artists, psychologists, and social workers can be enlisted to help with this therapeutic process on both sides, either within the framework of public schools or some parallel setting. Teenagers and adults could be encouraged to use different artistic media to convey their feelings about themselves, the "enemy," and the prospects for peace and reconciliation. Imaginary dialogues with the "enemy" could be structured in group settings, so that participants receive feedback as well as support for courageous, iconoclastic viewpoints. Within those simulated encounters, conducted on each side without the presence of the Other, participants can be helped to express confessional truth, not only about their own suffering at the hands of the other side, but also about the harm caused the other side by one's own people. Later, when the now-rehumanized adversary is encountered face to face, the emotional foundation for a respectful dialogue will have been laid. 


In general, once people can grasp and feel through both sides of the coin, discerning the best and the worst in both parties to the conflict rather than resorting to generalized stereotypes, then the rest of the educational task (filling in the gaps in historical and cultural knowledge) is made much easier, since the resistances to this broader, more inclusive, awareness are considerably reduced. What we all need is to balance the intensity of passion with a large dose of compassion. While the war is raging, this is an exceedingly difficult goal. But in an era of peace, we have the first opportunity to transform images, attitudes and feelings in the service of genuine coexistence. 

I would like to end with a statement from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist. What he says is relevant not only to Jews and Palestinians, but also to those caring individuals from outside the conflict who wish to help us transcend our tragic histories: 

To reconcile conflicting parties, we must have the ability to understand the suffering of both sides, if we take sides, it is impossible to do the work of reconciliation. And human beings want to take sides. That is why the situation gets worse and worse. Are there people who are still available to both sides? They need not do much. They need only do one thing: go to one side and tell all about the suffering endured by the other side, and go to the other side and tell all about the suffering endured by this side. That is our chance for peace. That can change the situation. But how many of us are able to do that?


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