Michelle Gawerc readily admits that she would have fit into the ‘60s scene. Not as a hippy flowerchild, but as a social activist out to improve the world, or at least some small corner of it.
“I want to do peace-building,” she says matter of factly, then adds with a little more emotion, “that’s my passion.”
Michelle is spending this year at the University as a Fulbright Fellow studying conflict resolution under the tutelage of Middle East historian Prof. Amazia Baram, head of the Jewish-Arab Center, and sociologist Prof. Sammy Smooha. The 23-year-old student is carrying on where she left off as a 1998 summa cum laude graduate of the University of Colorado, where she effectively constructed her own curriculum and wrote a 150-page undergraduate honor’s thesis on educating Israelis and Palestinians for peace.
It was her activist, positivist credo that led her to choose Haifa for her Fulbright. “I don’t want to be anti-prejudice, but pro multi-culturalism,” Michelle explained. “I didn’t want to focus on the negative, but on the positive things that are happening here. Jerusalem has more groups, a greater variety, but they’re not doing as much on dialogue.”
Education for this student means “learning what can make the world a better place.” Her quest, as she put it, is to find out what kind of change will be most effective toward that end. The activist in her states her goal: “I want to help direct that change.”
At this point, Michelle is getting the feel of different organizations and encounters between Jewish and Arab students both on campus and in the city. One way she does this is to observe the formal contacts that are held between 5th-grade pupils from the two communities and those between 12th-grade Jews and Arabs. “I try to judge what’s effective in helping the two sides to come closer together,” she says.
She is aware that these and other inter-cultural and peace education programs reach only small groups. Her objective is to derive a sense of what will reach larger populations. In part, she continues, this means ascertaining to the extent possible the ends of such activity—whether to instill democracy, to reduce prejudice, or to effect a recognition of the humanness of others.
The Philadephia-born, Denver-educated Fulbright winner brings with her a long resume of social action for someone her age. “I was more of an activist than a student,” she says, listing the range of her activities, from being principal founder of a “stop hate on campus” campaign to chairing a Holocaust awareness week to organizing a women’s art group to acting as an assistant project coordinator for an ADL prejudice awareness program. Throughout her college years, she also worked as a Hebrew school teacher in Boulder, CO.
But all this activity belies the fact that she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. It is little wonder that she laughingly remarks that she didn’t sleep for four years.
Summers she spent volunteering: teaching English in Mexican border towns, repairing houses on a Navajo reservation, serving as a teacher’s assistant in Israel’s Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam co-existence community. One summer she served as a UNESCO consultant on education for peace programs. The year before she came to Israel, she was an Avodah (Jewish Service Corps) Fellow, working as a community organizer for the Fifth Avenue Committee of Brooklyn.
At this point, Michelle is not sure where she fits in, whether with a grass roots organization or an international body. Academic life holds no interest for her. She needs to be with the people, she says, to do hands-on work. She is tempted by a one-year’s new Master’s program in International Peace and Social Justice at Notre Dame, to which she was accepted. It would continue her undergraduate major in Prejudice and Intercultural Communication, a curriculum not found in Colorado’s catalog, since she individually structured it—one of only four students allowed that privilege.
While in Israel, the young activist wants to be part of the Jewish-Arab dialog, both at the Jewish-Arab Center where she is based and elsewhere. She wants to create a map of what’s happening with Jewish-Arab relations. She is surprised, for instance, that half her Israeli Arab friends tend to identify with Israel more than with the Palestinians. The fact that “all my (Israeli) Arab friends think I’m nuts for not wanting to make money” seems to puzzle her only a little less.
Born too late to be part of the tumultuous ‘60s scene, she brings the same verve that motivated the best of that generation and led to changes in societal attitudes. One day Michelle Ilana Gawerc may well be in the forefront of leading attitude changes when it comes to peace and social justice in the 21st century.