The enemy, Sami Adwan believes, “is the person whose story you haven’t heard.” So, together with his American colleague, Robert Vogel, he has embarked on a mission to make sure Israeli and Palestinian school children hear each other’s stories. Adwan, a professor of education from Bethlehem University, and Vogel, from Philadelphia’s La Salle University, are convinced that hearing the stories will make for fewer enemies in the Holy Land.
The program, which Vogel and Adwan launched this year, requires no more than a pencil and a notebook. Seventh-graders from schools in the West Bank and in Israel are asked to write about themselves — their feelings, hopes and concerns. Somewhere down the road, the program will translate these stories and compile them into a book, and the result, Vogel believes, will make clear that both sides have more in common than some may think. “Getting Israelis and Palestinians to communicate with each other better at this age is a major goal,” Vogel said. “I’m sure they’ll understand how similar their lives are and how similar they are.”
“A kid is a kid, no matter if he is Israeli or Palestinian. He has dreams and aspirations,” added Adwan, who wondered whether, if the names of the students were erased from the journals, one would “be able to tell who is Israeli and who is Palestinian. Who is Jewish, and who is Muslim or Christian?”
The project is modeled after a successful program in the United States called Writers Matter. It has been in use since 2005 in the Philadelphia school system, where 950 students in grades six through eight participate in it each year. Writers Matter’s basic idea is to empower children to write about their feelings and to express their ideas through writing in a safe environment with the support of a professionally trained staff. Research conducted in recent years found the program to be effective in developing writing skills, supporting personal growth and helping young students understand others better.
Vogel presented the program in 2011 during a visit to Israel and the West Bank. Adwan, listening to the presentation in Bethlehem, was enthusiastic. “I became fascinated and impressed by the program,” he recalled.
The two began discussing the program, and a budget of $70,000 was raised from three foundations: the Moses Feldman Family Foundation, the Tyler Aaron Bookman Memorial Foundation Trust and the PTS Foundation.
The Middle East version of Writers Matter took off at the beginning of this school year. The pilot program began with 200 students from three groups: Palestinians from the West Bank, Jews from Israel and a group of Palestinian Israelis from an Arab town in Israel.
In beginning their journals, all the students start out by finishing one simple phrase: “I am from….” Later they move on to write about their families, their daily lives, challenges they face as young teens, and dreams and future aspirations. It is an empty canvas, and every student has the freedom to take these basic themes in any direction, as long as the focus remains personal. Teachers have been instructed not to censure or limit their students’ expression.
The program has two goals. It is aimed primarily at empowering adolescent students and improving their writing skills, but it also hopes to get Israelis and Palestinians closer at a young age, to make sure each hears the other’s story.
While students were not directed to write about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, many chose to do so. Palestinian students who reside near Gush Etzion, an Israeli settlement bloc of small towns, wrote about their hope to live without having roadblocks surrounding them. One West Bank student wrote about his fear from the noise made by the Israeli tanks moving at night in her town, and another girl wrote about her dreams of her father, who is in an Israeli prison.
“I discovered that kids are really aware of what is going on around them,” Adwan said.
But not all writing is focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the students were asked to write about their hopes for the future, one of them spoke of her love for beauty and of her wish to become a hairdresser. Another said she’d like to be a lawyer to help people in need, and a third wrote that he hopes his parents will understand him one day.
The program, its directors say, is now at a critical stage. If results continue to be satisfactory, a new phase could begin later in the spring. Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, and Palestinians would begin interacting, based on their writings. The idea is to collect and translate select works into a book that will be shared by all the students involved. Organizers also hope to put together a daylong meeting between Israeli and Palestinian participants to provide them with a chance to put a face behind the stories they’ve read. Getting Palestinian students into Israel or Israelis to the West Bank for such a meeting, however, could be hard to arrange.
But translating the success of Writers Matter into progress in Israeli-Palestinian co-existence is a daunting task that has already faced significant hurdles.
The Palestinian Authority, which is required to approve any program before it is implemented in classrooms, has made clear that it will not allow any joint Israeli-Palestinian educational program. Therefore the project was presented to the P.A. only as it relates to Palestinian schools, and no mention was made of the parallel work being carried out in Jewish and Arab schools in Israel. Organizers insist that this is not a significant setback, since the bulk of the program focuses on working with students within their own schools. “Our hope is that when someone in the Palestinian Authority sees the work these kids are doing, they’ll allow it,” Vogel said.
Adwan and Vogel have no expectations that a small-scale program such as theirs will change the face of the decades-long conflict between Arabs and Israelis. But they are confident that it can make a dent, and they believe it can help a younger generation of Palestinians and Israelis see the human face of the other side.
“I think it will motivate the kids to understand their responsibility for their own future,” Adwan concluded. “I hope they learn they shouldn’t take for granted what was passed on to them from the older generation.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.