“If we are to reach real peace in this world,” Mahatma Gandhi said in 1931, “we shall have to begin with children.”
Given the venue for Gandhi’s comments—the Montessori Training College in London—his underlying point was clear: If we are to begin with the children, we shall have to begin with the schools.
Education plays a powerful role in shaping the values of the children around the world. In fact, 70 percent of people born between 1995 and 2001 credit teachers with influencing their values, according to the Varkey Foundation Global Citizenship Survey released in January 2017. Only parents and friends have a greater influence.
Schools are also where millions of children form their first impressions of those who are different from them. As such, they have the unique potential to promote social connectedness—or to perpetuate societal conflicts.
Consider the example of the Middle East, where the influence of education can be seen in both Israeli and Palestinian societies.
Largely segregated, Israeli and Palestinian schools help shape the way young people from both cultures perceive their own histories and each other. Most children attend schools—whether secular or religious, state-funded or private—where the people around them share the same religious and national identity. While they may learn about the other in textbooks, they rarely come to know them as peers or teachers.
“Students in each system have almost no contact with each other,” Moment Magazine reported earlier this month. “Thirty-five percent of Jewish students and 27 percent of Arabs said they have never interacted with peers from the other group. […] Forty-five percent of Jewish teens said they were not prepared to sit in the same classroom with Arab classmates, while 39 percent of Arab students said the same of their Jewish peers.”
As a result, education has become a weapon that people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict use to defend their preferred narratives and attack those with the potential to build more understanding and empathy. Each school is a front of battle.
In 2013, a study commissioned by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land and funded by the U.S. State Department found that textbooks in Israeli and Palestinian schools frequently portray the other in a negative light. The study also reported that schools in both societies tend to overlook the historical events through which their counterparts view their collective experience. And in many cases, the other side is quite literally erased—with a majority of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks alike containing maps that simply did not acknowledge the other’s presence.
Yet while schools may be fronts of battle, they can also be fronts of peace. Instead of perpetuating hostility and mistrust, they can challenge students to consider different narratives and new ways of thinking. And instead of isolating children from the “other,” they can foster an environment where people from different cultures truly learn to see their shared humanity.
For example, there are programs like Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, which has built integrated, bilingual schools where Israeli and Palestinian children learn together. Founded by an Israeli and a Palestinian in 1997, Hand in Hand now has schools in six cities, and more than 8,000 community members invested in building a shared society. As Tablet Magazine reported in 2013:
[E]galitarianism is the code of law at Hand in Hand. Kids have days off for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holidays and learn about them comparatively. On Israeli Independence Day—which celebrates the creation of Israel in 1948, and which Palestinians refer to as Nakba, or catastrophe, Day—students discuss their intertwined, and respectively fraught, national narratives, in both languages. They are not required to agree, only to listen.
This type of engagement is what breeds empathy. But it’s not always easy to do. A few years ago, Palestinian academic Mohammad Dajani Daoudi organized a trip for Palestinian students to visit Auschwitz while he was a professor at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. Dajani received death threats upon his return and eventually resigned from the university. Nonetheless, seeing the concentration camp “made a crack in the Palestinian wall of ignorance and indifference about the Holocaust,” one of the doctoral students on the trip, Zeina Barakat, reflected in an essay for The Atlantic. She went on to compare the experience to “oyakudachi,” a Japanese idea that translates to “walking in the shoes of the other.”
And, sometimes, learning another person’s language may be almost as powerful as walking in their shoes. The Israeli nonprofit The Abraham Fund, through its “Ya Salam” initiative, aims to increase coexistence by placing Jewish teachers in Palestinian schools to teach Hebrew and Palestinian teachers in Jewish schools to teach Arabic. As one Jewish student said in an evaluation of the program, “I learned that Arabs and Jews can live together and we are all equal human beings.”
Ultimately, that lesson—that we are all equal human beings—may be the most important thing our schools can teach. President Trump, who arrives in Israel on May 22, would be wise to keep that in mind as his administration begins to push for peace in the Middle East. Moreover, it is a lesson he should remember at a time when his words have contributed to the “otherization” of so many in the United States.
Both in places where conflicts run deep and in those where divisions are more subtle, education is indispensable tool. It should be used to build connectedness by reinforcing the message that there is no “other,” there is only all of us. It should encourage students to welcome difference, embrace diversity, and resist the calls for walls. And it should inspire young people—tomorrow’s global citizens—to heal the world they are inheriting.