Conference Explores Potential of Co-existence Education

“I am a part of it … I was born into the conflict.”

The emotional introduction to his talk came from Dr. David Holloway, who heads “Operation Ireland,” which is devoted to encouraging dialogue between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. He was one of several speakers from divided societies who addressed a trilingual, two-day conference on “Interethnic Co-existence: Educating for an Emerging Global Field,” held at the University in early November.

The event was sponsored by the Faculty of Education and The Abraham Fund of New York. The Fund’s co-founder and chairman, Alan Slifka, admitted that many were still wrestling with the term “co-existence,” but he saw a “paradigm shift to thinking of living cooperatively.” He saluted the University for holding this first international conference on the subject and for having embodied a culture of co-existence on campus.

Assoc. Prof. Rachel Hertz-Lazarowitz of the Faculty of Education, who chaired the conference, referred to it as a “continuation of a never-ending international dialogue.” Her talk focused on the multi-divided Israeli education system, which she termed “detrimental to interpersonal and intergroup relations to a degree that is threatening the nation’s democracy.” Although she finds the Israeli Education Ministry more ready now to re-examine its policy, she also warned that “co-existence was not only for Jews, it must be a partnership” with the Arab community.

To raise awareness in what he termed “a sick society practicing denial,” Holloway of Northern Ireland brings together Loyalists and IRA sympathizers for informed dialogue under the rubric that “those who fail to address issues will find it impossible to resolve them.”

“We talk about our stated positions and take risks to explore values and painful underlying experiences,” he said. The result: “Something strange happens when people share feelings and find they are shared. Then comes trust.”

The young co-existence activist doesn’t believe there will be a peace process in Northern Ireland in his day, but is encouraged that the warring parties at least “have agreed on a process of transformation for the first time in a thousand years.”

Prof. Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University, raised two questions that his institution, which was founded under Jewish auspices, is actively trying to answer. The first is, “Can human memory be transformed from conflict to a source of co-existence?” The second, “What is the relationship between human rights activism and conflict resolution?”

Echoing Holloway, the American university official and historian said that “history is sometimes a convenient scapegoat for abrogating responsibility for present circumstances.” He described an experimental program in “Intercommunal Coexistence,” engaging the entire Brandeis community, that was making these questions a part of the university’s everyday discussions and activities.

One challenge of the co-existence field, in his view, was “to understand when and how to undertake such inquiries [into history and memory] in order to help societies construct a future of mutual respect.” Another was to integrate concepts and methods from two seemingly different approaches to social change, human rights and conflict resolution. It fell to the universities “to absorb, sift, and disseminate” the results. First, though, they had to apply them on their own campuses.

Getting Serbs and Croats in Croatia to arrive at mutual reconciliation and forgiveness is no easy task, even when discussion groups between the two sides consist of mental health workers. Dr. Dinka Corkalo of the University of Zagreb told of three-day seminars she and colleagues have been holding around her war-riven country to encourage interracial harmony among such workers, who have a key role to play in promoting tolerance in their local communities, but who must first eliminate their own stereotypes. This must be done in a supportive manner, in small groups, with clearly set rules, she commented. The idea is to rely on former friendly ties among professionals as an anchor to build trust between the two communities.

Still other conference participants, from Israel, Turkey, England, Spain, the United States, discussed and described a variety of programs and projects that seemd to bear out one speaker’s contention that “co-existence can be taught.” One of the last speakers, however, put a fly in the ointment.

“There is no scholarly underpinning to the field of peace education,” declared Prof. Gavriel Salomon, of the Faculty of Education, who heads its Center for Peace Education. “There is little data or evidence as to how things ultimtely work,” he said, adding that most of the projects implemented—especially those involving contact between the two sides—were based on intuition. His review of the literature on some 400 project produced only 5 with objective results.

Education for co-existence, then, raised many questions that research had to find answers for if, as the educator pointed out, the objective was to change “people’s mind sets about the ‘other’ and—of no lesser importance—about themselves.”

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