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In Gaza’s shadow: an interview with School for Peace Director Ahmad Hijazi, M.A.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Last fall, you began a three-year term as Director of the School for Peace. Can you give us an update?

At this time (just after a ceasefire with Gaza), we can’t discuss anything about our work without thinking about the Gaza offensive, and the continuing consequences on people and the prospects for peace… Once again, we have witnessed the futility of violence and its terrible human cost. And "the war" is still not over: the intolerable siege on the people of Gaza continues, and the people of southern Israel are not secure either.

Meanwhile, although it is very hard right now to talk about programs and planning for the future, we know the long term importance of our activism-oriented encounter work. We cannot afford to sit and wait until things calm down.

I came to the SFP in October 2008, during one of its most difficult periods as an institution, lacking internal consensus about the shape of the work, the staffing, and so forth. Meanwhile, the world economic crisis has added a significant additional challenge from a fundraising standpoint. Regrouping internally and sustaining our funding base are both major tasks requiring an investment of time, thought and energy – but we don’t want to devote all our energy to putting out fires. We are looking ahead and planning our work for the remainder of this year and beyond.

In your judgment, what is new and exciting in this field today – and how will the SFP be addressing that?

We have identified changing trends in encounter work, offering new ways to approach our mission - new opportunities to train people to effect change. Two key examples are:

Moving beyond dialogue. Neither the facilitators nor the participants in encounter nowadays are satisfied with just dialogue. They want to go out into the field and act. Hence we have begun planning programs that transition into an activist component, either within the program time frame or afterwards. Our participants are encouraged to go out there together and make change happen – in projects either initiated by us, or on their own initiative. This work is proliferating rapidly among our course graduates. People don’t want encounter for encounter’s sake; they want to make a difference "out there." Our job is to give them good tools and then to stay in touch, assisting them in any way we can.

Involving the leadership levels. We are increasingly persuaded of the urgency of taking our work to the leadership level – both locally and nationally – although not necessarily to politicians in central government, who still decline to take part in such programs. Young leaders, outstanding professionals, and public figures – we will target every possible leadership sector in the coming months and years.

The things we already do, and do well, we will continue doing: the courses for university students, programs for women, facilitator training; equipping professionals as advocates for change at the workplace and beyond. At the same time, for the SFP to sustain its traditional niche as a leading organization in its field, we must invest the effort to stay a few steps ahead of the curve.

Tell us about the key objectives on the SFP agenda today.

During my tenure as director, beginning last fall, I have set myself four principal goals, along with the things we are already doing and will continue to do.

One - staff development. We want to have the best staff anywhere; this means returning to our traditional investment in professional development to support optimal staff learning and performance. We will invest the necessary thought, time, and resources, in cooperation with other groups and organizations. Such cooperation is challenging because often we do not agree - politically, professionally, ideologically, or strategically – but there is no alternative; the goals are too important.

Two – youth encounter. Encounter workshops for young people are our leading mass-participation program, and we must rededicate ourselves to investing in this area accordingly. Recent research on this type of work has shown how significantly the young people are influenced by these experiences when there is proper preparation and investment.

Having created such an outstanding model for youth, which has proven itself to be both successful and cost effective, we cannot permit ourselves to do less than the maximum possible each year. By my third year as director, in 2010-2011, I would like to be doing at least 10 youth encounters annually. That means 600 participants coming from 20 schools, for which the approximate cost is $200,000 - a reasonably modest $333 dollars per participant (and most of the youngsters pay $50 of that to participate).

When I came in as director last fall, I was surprised and impressed by the continuing willingness of schools to take part. This year, unfortunately, we do not have the means to accept all interested schools. Even though we began planning and recruiting very late (in the fall, instead of the previous spring), we still had to turn away some schools and cancel workshops with other schools due to lack of funding.

Three – our Peace Academy. We have dreamed about this for years – moving to the next level, both academically and with activism. We began working last year with the College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, via a committee of prestigious and well-known professors in the field, both Jewish and Palestinian. Two programs will emerge from this initiative. One is a certificate program, for people who want to become professionals in this field and to work with various populations. Without funding, we have already invested our own resources in developing a curriculum. We can begin to offer this program as soon as we have funding to cover it (about $70,000). The second is an M.A. program, which we have developed and submitted for authorization by the Council on Higher Education, whose wheels grind exceedingly slowly. We can anticipate a green light on this in about two years.

And finally – senior leadership. We intend to work on the leadership level, with the Arab community and the Jewish community within Israel, to improve relations. This becomes increasingly important and urgent, in light of the growing support for Lieberman et al. (read: fascism) in Israeli society.
An unusual opportunity arose with the publication in 2006 of the "Future Vision" initiative of Palestinian Arabs in Israel, developed by the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee. (As an aside, two members of the professional group that worked on this project are residents of the Village.) Publication of the "Future Vision" evoked a very emotional reaction from Israeli Jewish intellectuals and the Jewish community generally. Few seemed to understand the historic opportunity involved. This was the first time that such a broadly representative Arab leadership had come forward on its own initiative with a proposal to integrate the Palestinian citizens of Israel into Israeli society – as full and equal partners. The creativity was impressive, offering a new perspective on the relationship between Palestinians and Jews here: with both sides equally advantaged, with boundless opportunity for all.

The Palestinian citizens’ "Future Vision" project is an unprecedented historic turning point with dramatic potential for positive change… and with an obvious role for us: We are the only intentional Jewish-Arab community with experience in living the everyday reality of cooperation, across all the strands of life addressed in this document – social, educational, economic, political, ideological, resources, land, etc. Our community and our institutions are the most logical and best prepared to intervene productively with this process.

We have responded with a dynamic program to convene key shapers of public opinion - influential, prominent Arab and Jewish leaders – to study the initiative and chart a course toward a shared future in this State. The project is a joint effort with Tel Aviv University and the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee. Fundraising is underway and, with every day that passes, our sense of urgency about this mission only increases.

If you wish to know more about any of these programs, we have detailed proposals that can be sent on request.

Finally, I believe that with the support of WAS-NS and its wonderful people and institutions, and with the support of all our Friends and donors, the goals I have outlined above are very realistic and achievable.

Interview conducted by Deborah Reich

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