At the end of the term last spring at the Friends Boys School in Ramallah, West Bank, headmaster Khalil Mahshi called some student leaders into his office. He had a radical idea about educational reforms and needed their opinions.
"I want to start a peace education program for Palestinian schoolchildren," he remembers telling the group. " 'What are your thoughts? Would you oppose it? Would you think it is feasible?' They said, 'We think it is a good idea and we will support it.' "
Bolstered, and after inviting student leaders to work with him, Mahshi has been spending the summer organizing and gathering materials to establish courses in peacemaking at the Ramallah Friends school, one of the West Bank's acclaimed centers for learning. Current school enrollment is 610 students, down from 1,200 since the December 1987 uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
While visiting and lecturing in the United States recently -- on a trip sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee -- Mahshi explained that creating a peace studies program in Palestine still faces a major obstacle: winning approval from Israeli authorities. "They have to sanction everything we teach in our schools. The only subjects they don't really mind are math, science or anything not controversial. We aren't allowed to teach our own Palestinian history. The few attempts to do that were banned."
That the Israeli government might forbid the study of peacemaking among Palestinian children is in keeping with past practices, even aside from the well-documented record of killing, beating and wounding hundreds of young Palestinians in the past 30 months. This is the government that systematically began closing schools after the uprising, and then harassing teachers who involved themselves in home or underground instruction.
If the Israeli government's ties to its original ideals were intact and it remembered the vision of its Martin Bubers, officials would be embracing the plans for peace education. Mahshi, as well as the Quakers he works for at the Friends school, have been advocating nonviolence. "The theory of nonviolent change is already being taught in our ethics class. But we want to become more directly geared to discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it peacefully."
In lucid and arresting prose in the November 1989 Harvard Education Review, Mahshi, a Catholic Palestinian who has a doctorate in education, co-wrote an essay on the possibilities of curriculum reform in the West Bank and Gaza. What's required is "the integration of school and community" and "education that is relevant to the current needs of the community."
If the systematic study of peace -- both in theories of nonviolence and in the daily applications -- isn't relevant to this roiled part of the Middle East, what is? Schoolchildren in the West Bank deserve to have the lessons of rock throwing replaced with the skills of nonviolence that have succeeded in Gandhi's India, Martin Luther King's United States and Lech Walesa's Poland. Gandhi's philosophy was to work from the conviction that it is better to bring adversaries to their senses than to their knees. Israel desperately needs that. Its own peace activists are aghast at the monstrous human rights violations inflicted on Palestinians in the name of controlling them.
Nonviolence is infinitely more difficult to practice than violence, a fact that is understood by Khalil Mahshi and explains his drive to establish it in his school. If Palestinian children don't study and learn the skills of peacemaking in the way they are exposed to the lessons of math, science and other disciplines, they can be expected to keep seeing all Israelis as enemies.
Last May, Mahshi was involved in a program that brought together Israeli and Palestinian students in a peace workshop. He recalls being told by his Friends students, " 'We didn't think there were such good people on the other side.' They knew about peace activities among Israelis, but they never believed they could actually talk with them and understand their position."
What happened that day, and what Mahshi is trying to expand in his classrooms, was described by Buber in "Hasidism and Modern Man," in a section on ending the cycle of violence: "By our contradiction, our lie, we foster conflict situations and give them power over us until they enslave us. From here, there is no way out but by the crucial realization: everything depends on myself and the crucial decisions: I will straighten myself out."
Some straightening is about to happen at the Friends School in Ramallah.