The other day we took our educational staff on an inservice day, to visit the Center for Humanistic Education, associated with the Holocaust museum at Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot. In the context of some research on peace education a year ago, I learned about the center, and became fascinated by its approach, which seems to be unique here in Israel. This visit was an opportunity for me to go beyond my informal, anecdotal acquaintance with the place, and to place the idea it represents on the agenda of our internal deliberations at Makom ba-Galil.
Raya Kalisman, the director, was a history teacher in our local high school, who spent a sabbatical year in the Washington area in the early 90s. While there, she happened to get involved in a project at the National Holocaust Museum, developing educational programs for inner city Washington teens. The experience of teaching the Holocaust as a human event, as a window on the evil and the good in human behavior, on the victim-perpetrator-bystander relationship, was revelatory for her.
In Israel, the Holocaust is and has always been taught as a Jewish national possession, not as a universal human experience: the Holocaust is ours, and stands as a bulwark against all who would question the value of Zionism; the world hates the Jews, and even the most enlightened and universalistic society cannot guarantee our safety as a minority; our suffering in the Holocaust silences any objection anyone might have about the price we pay for our survival as a sovereign, self-reliant state. Failing to survive - at any cost - is handing Hitler a posthumous victory.
In Washington, Raya began to question her own commitment to this all-pervasive nationalistic take on the Holocaust in Israeli education. And when she returned, she established a center that understands and teaches the Holocaust differently. In particular, the center offers inservice training - and courses and workshops for students - that teach the Holocaust to the Palestinian Arabs of Israel, and that facilitate Jewish-Arab encounters based on Holocaust study and teaching. The center has ongoing programs with about twenty schools, all in the Galilee (the kibbutz is near Nahariya).
Our visit included a conversation with L. and S., two young Israeli Palestinian women working at the center for a year, between high school and college. They are veterans of three years of seminars, summer programs, etc. They told us of their experiences guiding Israeli Palestinian school groups in the museum, of being called traitors to their people, of their belief that by understanding and respecting the trauma experienced by the Jews not only can they understand Israel, but they can also understand and articulate their own national trauma. I found this conversation moving; I think these girls are heroes.
Prof. Gabi Solomon, director of the Center for Peace Education Research at Haifa University, identifies four desired outcomes of peace education: a) accepting as legitimate the others narrative and its specific implications; b) willingness to critically examine ones own groups actions toward the other group; c) willingness to experience and show empathy and trust toward the other; d) disposition to engage in non-violent activities.
Education toward these outcomes is pretty difficult to do or even to suggest in this region today. Almost no one is trying on either side. The Arabs do not want to listen to, much less accept, our narrative of exile, persecution, genocide, and redemption. For years, we insisted that the Palestinians didnt exist and therefore dont even have a narrative for us to reject; and even now, whenever they mention their suffering in 1948, we terminate the conversation. And as the noise level rises, the possibility of anyone listening to the other diminishes. That is why I find the modest, local work of the Center for Humanistic Education so interesting and so hope-inspiring. The visit there was a glimmer of light in a very dark time.