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Rethinking the work of the School for Peace

The introduction of post-colonialist literature

Thursday 10 January 2008

We have often pointed out that the nature of the encounter between Jews and Palestinians in our workshops reflects the social and political reality of Jewish – Palestinian relations at large. Every few years, as that social reality changes or stagnates, we detect signs of restlessness in the group that lead us to reexamine our understanding of our work and in some cases to refine some of the guiding principles behind the School for Peace (SFP) encounters.

For example, in the early years of the SFP we conducted encounter work based on inter-personal relations. We sought ways to break down stereotypes and to encourage participants to empathize and identify with the other. We soon realized that this psychological approach enabled participants to evade the social context in which the encounters take place. Workshops on the inter-personal level were capable of leaving issues of conflict outside of the discussion, contributing little to the participants’ insight into the broader nature of Jewish – Palestinian relations in Israeli society. While Jewish participants were often content with such an approach, the Palestinian participants tended to be less satisfied with the workshops.

We initially responded to this problem by introducing political discussion in the opening stages of the workshop. We wanted participants to use the opportunity to confront what we saw as the most difficult issues of the encounter. Through trial and error, we soon found that various schools of thought grounded in social psychology helped us to make the connection between group dynamics on the micro level and inter-group power relations on the macro level. We began to define our goals accordingly. We wanted participants to gain insight into majority – minority group power relations by identifying how they play out in processes within the group.

Cross-border work and its influence on the SFP model. Less than a year after the signing of the Oslo Accords, the SFP began to conduct dialogue work between Palestinians from the Occupied Territories and Israeli citizens. We began by applying the same approach that we used with Palestinians and Jews within Israel. Time passed, the occupation continued, the confiscation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlement increased even more intensively and we experienced an additional intifada. In dialogue groups between Palestinians from Palestine and Israeli Jews, we began to realize that the examination of majority – minority group power relations was not the issue. The Palestinians were not interested in social psychology. They wanted less empathy and more discussion about what must be done in order to move Israelis to end the occupation. These Palestinians did not fit the model of a minority group. They are a national group fighting for liberation. If dialogue was not clearly aimed at advancing political change, they had no use for it.

Interestingly it may have been our experience with Palestinians outside of Israel that made us question some of the premises that had been guiding our work within Israel between Palestinians and Jews. Recent discussions with Palestinian facilitators of the SFP led us to realize that despite the unique conditions and structure of equality created by the SFP, the Palestinian facilitators still do not necessarily feel that they can give full expression to their voice. We were at first surprised to hear that our facilitators could feel this way. In our encounters it appeared that the Palestinians from Israel made full use of the opportunity to make their voices heard assertively and effectively. We may have been deceiving ourselves as to what constitutes conditions of equality from the Palestinian perspective. The boundaries may be broader, but boundaries still exist and define the legitimacy of what may and may not be said.

It struck us that if our social psychological approach was problematic in dealing with the occupation, it may have its limits for work within Israel as well. Perhaps our approach would be sufficient in dealing with majority - minority group relations in societies based on principles of full equality between citizens. In our situation, however, a structural change is called for. We reached the conclusion that as long as the Palestinians in Israel are still engaged in a struggle to attain their rights within what some call an ethnic democracy, we must introduce into our work a clearly defined historical and cultural perspective.

Articulating the historical and cultural perspective. Literature on postcolonialist societies has been helping us to refine our analysis of Jewish–Palestinian relations within Israel. The patterns of Jewish–Palestinian relations are similar to those described in postcolonialist literature despite the fact that Zionism was not a classic colonialist movement. The Jews did not come to Palestine as citizens of a colonizing power, but as a persecuted minority with an historical connection to the land. Regardless of this difference, the relevance of postcolonialist literature is in its analysis of military and economic conquest and the cultural justification that comes with it. This analysis includes discussion about voices either marginalized or not heard at all, shedding light on the frustration expressed by our Palestinian facilitators even in an institutional framework where these voices are actively encouraged.

We learned from Edward Said that no people can control another without believing that it is morally justified. In taking control of another people’s land, the hegemonic group must believe that it is doing the subordinate group a favor. The colonized must be seen as people who are to be saved and educated. To this end, intellectuals, the media, religious leaders and the Ministry of Education are mobilized to provide moral legitimacy for oppressive State policies. In this light, racism must be fought not merely by “getting to know the other” but by gaining an understanding of its role as a tool necessary in order to rationalize discrimination and to protect the status quo.

Higher aims. Raising awareness of the nature of majority – minority group power relations remains an important aim of the SFP encounter work. At the same time, however, we have begun to regard this awareness as an elementary first stage on the path to higher aims that must be laid out more explicitly. After all, we cannot end our workshops satisfied merely to know that the Jewish participants have become more aware of the existence of discrimination and that the Palestinian participants have been made aware of just how extreme the mainstream Jewish positions in Israel are. The workshop must lead participants to an understanding of what it is that constructs the racist positions that we confront.

This is where critical literature on postcolonialism and culture is helpful. Through dialogue, participants can gain an understanding of the cultural construction of our image of the other and of ourselves. The political discussion is the tip of the iceberg; a superficial expression of deeper feelings of superiority and inferiority that must be placed squarely at the center of discussion. Another thing that must be made central to the discussion is history. In the past, we tended to shy away from what seemed like boring historical discussions that allowed participants to overwhelm the groups with historical facts and endless disputes about who was here first, etc. We had restricted discussion to “the here and now” in order to expose participants to ways in which power relations are reflected or expressed in their behavior, reactions and perspectives within the dialogue group. Now it seems that the historical discussion is vital, after all, to any real understanding of the roots of our conflict. Many claim that Jews and Palestinians will eventually agree about the future solution but that they will never agree about the past. We have concluded, meanwhile, that the attempt to conduct dialogue without reference to history is an attempt to take the context out of the encounter.

It has not been easy to reach this conclusion. For years we regarded the political discussion as the principle subject. We insisted on putting the most difficult issues on the table. We still insist on this. However it is the dialogue on fundamental feelings of superiority and inferiority behind the political positions that we now identify as the difficult issue to be addressed. In working towards liberation from oppression, each group confronts a different task. It is up to us to create a space in which Jewish participants can identify and struggle against the racism in their society and in themselves, while the Palestinian participants work towards making their voices heard.

Racism is a difficult subject to confront, especially when we define racism by tying it to power. There is plenty of racism of stronger groups towards weaker groups within Palestinian society; however in the Jewish – Palestinian context, our work must focus on racism in Jewish society. Postcolonialist literature teaches us that the work of the minority group is to make its presence known – or, in other words, to resist. Even within the relatively protected environment of the workshop, when Palestinians say what is on their mind they risk being accused of sabotaging the dialogue or of being labeled as extreme or violent. Naturally this accusation will come primarily from Jewish participants but sometimes they may even hear this kind of criticism from their Palestinian peers. How often does one want to deal with such attacks? Choosing to remain silent or to be “nice” is often the easier path. The very effort required of the Palestinians to make their voices heard exposes a painful level of internalized oppression against which they must struggle. As each group moves ahead on its own side of the struggle, they build the grounds for true dialogue and cooperation towards a more equal society.

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