Special Interview Correcting a Failure in Education

About a year ago, the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem conducted a survey of Israeli high school students which found that more than 50 percent of them would vote for Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach Party if they were of voting age.

Ron Werber attributed this to a failure of the Israeli educational system — a failure which his organization, the Golda Meir Association for Education (GMAE), is trying to correct by teaching and promoting democratic, pluralistic values in high schools throughout the country.

Werber, the educational director of the Association, visited the United States recently, in part to raise money for and to promote the organization. Werber told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that GMAE has expanded its program in size and scope during the past year.

GMAE holds 800 seminars a year, reaching some 20,000 high school students. In those seminars, facilitators who are usually university graduate or undergraduate students, use a variety of methods to confront the students with the complex problems of extremism, prejudices and intolerance.

PROVOCATIVE EDUCATIONAL METHODS

The provocative methods used to educate the students vary. Simulation games, role playing and discussions aimed at clarifying values help to induce an open exchange of ideas among the students. One of the most popular methods is the use of trigger films, short movies used to bring home a point. For example, a discussion of Kahane’s solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict might be followed immediately by a three-minute clip showing the Jews under Nazi rule in east Europe.

The facilitators may evoke a discussion by passing out cards laying out a clear dilemma of racism, discrimination or equal rights like this one:

“The government has declared a state of emergency due to rising confrontations on the borders. Some in Israel suggest that, for the sake of Israel’s security, all Israeli Arabs be placed in detention camps for the interim. You say that…” and the students fill in the blank.

“There’s a tremendous lack of knowledge and ignorance on the Jewish-Arab conflict,” Werber said. “The kids take a very emotional approach. Their natural instinct is to grab at simplistic solutions like ‘kick out all the Arabs’.”

The latest addition to the Association’s initial four to six week seminar is “Project Shalom” a follow up program for students who have completed the first seminar.

Project Shalom, a two-day retreat, provides a tool for the student to understand the complex politics behind the struggle for Middle East peace. “The peace process, or lack thereof, with all its implications, has been unduly ignored in the curriculum of Israeli high school students,” Werber said.

ROLE-PLAYING BY THE STUDENTS

During the two days of Project Shalom, Jewish and Arab students who gather at a camp or meeting spot all play the roles of would-be participants in a large-scale simulated international peace conference, the United States, Jordan, Israel and the international media.

The facilitators stress compromise, democratic solutions and mutual tolerance. And the results, Werber said, are often dramatic changes in attitudes from the beginning to the end of a seminar.

“At this crucial stage in its development–and in the midst of what may be termed an adolescent crisis–Israel must decide to put education for youth at the top of its priority list,” Werber said.

GMAE began in 1978 largely as a reaction to the rise of Kahane’s extremism. But Werber said Kahane is only a symptom of a wider social problem. “Kahane is probably one of the best things that happened to us. He opened our eyes and showed us what Israel could come to,” he said.

Werber defined extremists as those who adopt simplistic solutions to any problem, be it Arab-Israeli or religious-secular. The facilitators of GMAE attempt to show the students that no solution comes easily and that the basis of pluralism and democracy is compromise, he said.

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