Educating for peace in times of war

It is quite unusual for nearly three thousands academics to gather in one place and reach a consensus about almost anything. It might be the influence of Havana’s tranquility, where this gathering took place, or maybe the topic itself – socially responsible education. The source of the agreement here is the idea that education systems have a responsibility to engage students, academics and the wider public in addressing social and political affairs which affect us all. However, encouraging proactive political and social participation in tackling the challenges we face globally is only one side of the story - constructively doing so, in way which is balanced and focuses on the complexity of the issues and their solutions, is another. Fear of apathy should not be replaced with over-zealous or half-thought through activism.

What prompted me to take part in this massive gathering was not only the beauty of this country or the wonderful hospitality of its people. It was an opportunity to highlight the need of peace education in times of conflict for the wider society, and not only for those in the education system. It begs the question as to whether societies that are immersed in war can also prepare for the peace beyond hostilities. Can there be any objectivity among societies in the way they perceive the motivations and actions of their enemies? And if the answer is yes, what educational programs can be devised in order to achieve this? Needless to say, the long and turbulent Arab-Israel conflict provides an almost perfect case study. A quick glance at the terminology used by the Israelis and the Palestinians in their school text books, in the media, and in public statements offers a clear and instant explanation regarding the level of distrust and fear on both sides. This level of distrust is exactly what makes a peace agreement near impossible.

Vitriolic language

To be sure, times of war and conflict are also times of heightened vitriolic language and hatred hurled at political enemies and opponents at home and abroad. In most cases the discourse in society, including the education system, is almost entirely engaged in mobilizing the society in support of government’s policies and actions. Part of this discourse contributes to the demonization and de-humanization of foes and rivals. Written and oral references to the enemy as inherently violent, terroristic, dishonest, savage, or even worse, are not uncommon. Inevitably, this distortion of reality legitimizes the committing of horrendous atrocities against combatants and civilians alike. In the name of national security the social discourse allows for policies which by international conventions are defined as war crimes or crimes against humanity. Societies are left badly scarred, physically and psychologically, and therefore unable to move to a peaceful dialogue.

The decades of bloody conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians enabled leadership to manipulate both the curriculum at schools and sections of the media, to promote the leaderships’ agenda. This left the public with very few tools to intelligently assess the magnitude and complexity of the conflict. For instance, it is incomprehensible that twenty years after signing the Oslo Accords, Israeli and Palestinians school text books are still ignoring the existence of the June 4, 1967 borders - the green line. The territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is illustrated in maps as either entirely Israeli or entirely Palestinian; ignoring that internationally, until there is a final peace agreement, these are the only borders recognized between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is bound to cast serious doubt among the people on both sides, as to whether the peace negotiations are merely a show to appease the international community.

Decades of bloody conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians have enabled leadership to manipulate the public

Yossi Mekelberg

Both sides also tend to portray each other as morally inferior. A former Israeli Prime Minister was infamously quoted once as saying that: "Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us." By saying this she justified the oppressive measures against the Palestinians, on the entirely unsubstantiated accusation that, unlike the Israelis, they lack basic natural parental instincts. It also took nearly four decades after the Six Day War until the word occupation became a term widely used in Israel in reference to the West Bank and Gaza. For the majority of Israelis these territories were, and for some still are, either liberated or administered and not occupied.

Media's role

Palestinian media, and media in other parts of the Arab World, have too often portrayed Israelis as bloodthirsty killers or in classical anti-Semitic terms. In addition, text books frequently reference the Israelis as colonialists and imperialists, which infers that they have no right to any of the land. Aspiring for an Islamic Khilafat, as the Hamas manifesto declares, suggests an end to the Jewish state even in parts of what used to be Mandatory Palestine. More generally there is a harmful, let alone morally repugnant, contribution by a substantial number of leading religious leaders from both sides, who pass religious rulings which permit the shedding of the blood of the other, because they perceive them as inferior human beings.

A more recent report by Israeli and Palestinian scientists, which scrutinized both sides’ text books, was less than complimentary regarding objectivity or balanced views in the way both sides portray each other. The researchers discovered that both sides are presenting "unilateral narratives" which portray the other side in a negative way while portraying themselves in very positive light, thus lacking a candid self-critical approach. This can only reinforce already existing perceptions of fear and distrust with an undesirable long term impact on peace and reconciliation between the protagonists. Education which portrays the enemy in monstrous and evil terms, will not only inevitably lead to atrocities and the prolonging of the conflict, but it is also counter-productive for the politicians themselves. It does not allow for a psychological transition from a state of war to the one of peace, and hence limits their own political room to maneuver.

One can understand, to an extent, the need of any leadership to indoctrinate its population to be resolute in time of war. However, it is equally important to mentally prepare them for the necessary compromises and concessions for peace. One of the tasks of modern and responsible education and dialogue in a society, is to engage the public in understanding the complexity of conflicts. Furthermore, it should highlight the diversity of explanations for the root causes of the conflict, as well as their possible solutions. Responsible education has a duty to prepare the ground for conflict resolution, post conflict coexistence and reconciliation. Unfortunately, this approach has rarely been taken by Israeli and Arab leaderships and consequently contributed to prolonging the conflict between them, and in many cases intensifying it.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:41 - GMT 06:41
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