Middle East Children Association - MECA

For a few years now, I have been a participant in a group of Israeli and Palestinian English teachers who see education as vitally important to encouraging and accompanying peace in our region. We meet, talk, argue, listen, learn and give support to each other as human beings caught up in this conflict. We get to know each other and, as professional educators, we try to plan English-teaching classroom activities that may encourage pupils on both sides of the conflict not to de-humanize the other.

Jack Pillemer

 Below is a more detailed description written by Ora Shnabel , the English group facilitator. There are also some photos from a uni-natinal meeting.

          Let's Try and Make  a Difference

Would you like to meet Palestinian teachers of English and together prepare teaching materials for use in class?

Would you like to be involved in promoting tolerance and mutual understanding by devising lesson plans and units using literary texts for use in the classroom?

Would you like to engage in professional dialogue as Israeli English teachers with Palestinian English teachers from Ramallah, Jenin and East Jerusalem, to better understand one another and promote bett understanding within our educational frameworks?

This is what we have been doing in The Middle East Children Associationfor several years, even during the last three years of the Intifadah.  The Middle East Children Association is a partnership between Israeli and Palestinian (from the PA) educators involved in professional dialogue and joint projects.  There are 15 bi-national groups, including a group of English teachers.

I, Ora Shnabel, a veteran teacher and trainer of English teachers, have been facilitating a group of eight Israeli teachers with Kowlah Othman  from Beit Zafaffa. My co-facilitator has a similar number of teachers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  We have succeeded in holding three bi-national meetings in the last academic year and hope to continue to hold bi-national meetings whenever there is an opportunity.

Each side holds uni-national meetings once a month. This enables us to become a cohesive group which acts as a support group, but also works on development and trial of materials, with feedback on what works and why.

We are committed to helping our students create a better, more tolerant and peaceful future, especially during such difficult times filled with uncertainty about the present and future. 

We are resuming our activities now for the new school year, and would very much like to have more committed teachers with us.

If you are interested in joining us contact Ora Shnabel 09-9570162, 058-817452

E-mail - oshnabel@netvision.net.il


 WHO:  Middle East Children Association  is a bi-national organization of educators working on professional dialogue and joint projects in various directions.  Middle East Children Association  is a partnership between Israeli and Palestinian (from the PA) educators committed to a better future for their students.  There are 15 bi-national groups to date:  English, History and Literature, Human Rights, Non-Violence, Civics, Pre-school, Principals and Students, for example.  The work is conducted within uni-national groups with bi-national meetings held according to opportunities.

WHAT:  The English teachers group is comprised of committed English teachers who meet once a month in a uni-national format.  Last year this group succeeded in holding three bi-national meetings to work on joint materials based on literary texts promoting tolerance.  The English teachers' project is to develop lesson plans and units based on literary texts, promoting tolerance and mutual understanding, for all levels of English instruction.  These materials will then be implemented into classrooms with feedback on the applications.

WHERE:  The Israeli English teachers meet monthly mostly in Jerusalem. Bi-national meetings take place usually in East Jerusalem, and sometimes overseas due to technical difficulties of arranging local bi-national meetings.  Our goal is to meet both uni- and bi-nationally in Jerusalem whenever possible.

WHY:  As Educators, the way in which we can contribute to change, is within our classrooms.  We are committed to helping our students develop skills to critically think, to better listen to one another, to examine and cope with differences, and to cope with levels of uncertainty.  We hope to thus promote greater tolerance and mutual understanding that can be the basis of a better, more peaceful future.

HOW:  Ora Schnabel is the Israeli facilitator of this group.  She is a veteran teacher, trainer and facilitator who has been working with Middle East Children Association from its inception of 1996.  Together with her co-facilitator Kowlah Othman  from Beit Zafaffa, they coordinate regularly both the uni- and bi-national objectives and work outline.  If you are interested in joining us contact Ora Shnabel 09-9570162, 058-817452 or by e-mail -  oshnabel@netvision.net.il.

This is an article form the Jerusalem Post written on 6/8/2000 . It is outdated but still interesting. I have no idea how accurate the details are.

Lessons in listening to the other side
Front Page Feature By Eetta Prince-Gibson

(August 6) - The Camp David talks ended in failure, but unlike the official negotiators, the co-directors of the Middle East Children's Association simply won't consider failure as an option.

MECA, founded in 1996, brings together Israeli and Palestinian teachers to create mutually acceptable educational programs that the teachers will take back to their schools and colleagues.

"On the one hand, the summit failure makes me feel like I'm swimming upstream, against the odds," says Adina Shapiro, one of the directors. "But on the other hand, it makes me want to work even harder, so that the cooperation and progress that MECA has already made can continue."

"It's not easy to keep going," agrees Ghassan Abdullah, her co-director, "but hope is the only medicine for the illnesses of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and education is the only way to create real peace between our two peoples. Maybe the leaders can afford to fail, but we can't."

In a particularly heated meeting last spring, Palestinian teachers described experiences of humiliation and shame at the hands of IDF soldiers. The Israeli teachers responded defensively, accusing the Palestinians of exaggeration and emotional manipulation. The rhetoric deteriorated rapidly into yelling and mutual recriminations.

Watching and listening was Yehuda Wachsman, co-leader of the working group dealing with human rights. He has introduced himself to the group as a retired physics teacher, but Israelis and Palestinians alike know that he is the father of Nachshon Wachsman, who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in 1994. Since his son's death, Wachsman has become active in Israeli-Palestinian grassroots peace efforts.

"Don't you Israelis know how many Palestinians have died under your occupation?" shouts an angry Palestinian from Bethlehem. "You are responsible for Palestinian suffering!"

Then Wachsman speaks up, his broad, bearded face sad and resolute.

"Haven't we all suffered enough?" he challenges. "Haven't enough people died on both sides? Will blaming each other for the past make a better future?"

The teachers are silent for a few moments. Suddenly they begin to discuss how to teach human rights to their students.

The ensuing discussion doesn't ignore the occupation or terrorism, but stays clear of blame and history.

An hour later, they are all enjoying a coffee break, joking with Wachsman and each other. Amnah, a 27-year-old teacher from Ramallah, stands aside.

"I admire Yehuda so much," she says. "He doesn't blame us for his son's death, so how can I blame all Israelis for the Palestinians' suffering? He could be bitter, but instead he helps us to teach about peace. He is a courageous Israeli."

Although MECA is the only organization that focuses exclusively on Palestinian and Israeli education, it is part of a larger grassroots peace-education movement that includes organizations such as Seeds of Peace, the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University, and new centers being established at Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, and al-Quds University.

Last year, under MECA's auspices, more than 200 teachers participated in working groups that focused on topics such as human rights, conflict resolution and coping with violence, geography, history, the teaching of math and science, and music. They come from different school systems, religious and secular, Christians, Moslems and Jewish, throughout Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Meeting as professionals, they discuss the similarities and differences in their experiences as teachers and peace educators.

The working groups meet every two weeks. Teachers and leaders are required to submit written reports on the groups' progress. The teachers receive a minimum stipend as well as travel expenses for their efforts, but Shapiro notes that a large number of the teachers actually return the money to the organization as a contribution.

The Palestinian Authority lends tacit support, as does the Israeli Ministry of Education, although MECA guards its independence carefully. Operating on a tight budget of less than $500,000, MECA is supported primarily by donations and philanthropic organizations, especially by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

MECA's leadership is committed to complete equality among the Palestinians and Israelis, but creating equality among the participants is often difficult.

"The occupation is always present, it always intrudes," says Abdullah. "Sometimes, some of the teachers can't get a permit to come into Israel, and other times they are detained and humiliated at the checkpoints. We try to meet as equals, but we know that we don't live as equals."

Each working group is carefully composed of equal numbers from both sides and facilitated by both a Palestinian and an Israeli. All printed materials are carefully translated into Arabic and Hebrew. Meetings are conducted through simultaneous translation, so that no one will be at a disadvantage because of language. Most meetings take place at Tantur, a Christian institution between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, dedicated to ecumenical understanding.

But nothing is simple. Even seemingly small issues, such as where a brochure should be printed or where MECA's offices should be located, can be fraught with conflicting symbolisms. Shapiro and Abdullah model the differences and the commitment to their resolution. Both are deeply rooted in the mainstreams of their communities and seem an unlikely pair of co-directors.

Shapiro, born in Jerusalem 25 years ago, attended the prestigious Horev religious high school and graduated from the Hebrew University Faculty of Law. While in college, she volunteered to teach Hebrew to Palestinian children, leading her to create MECA. Shapiro, who is modern Orthodox, also teaches high school in Jerusalem.

Abdullah, 45, holds a Ph.D in educational development from Newport State University in California. His family owned extensive property in the Beisan (now Beit She'an) area, but fled to Ramallah in 1948. During the intifada, Abdullah was a leader of the "popular education campaign," that provided underground education to Palestinian children while official schools were closed. He was jailed briefly for political activity.

Neither Shapiro nor Abdullah, who often work 50-hour weeks, accept payment for their efforts.

Both insist on emphasizing, rather than blurring, their identities. Shapiro begins each public session with commentary from Jewish sources, while Abdullah often comments on the political situation. Shapiro insists that kosher food be served at all meetings, though she knows that even most of the Jewish participants do not care if the food is kosher.

"I am a religious Jew, and I will not convene a meeting that doesn't provide kosher food," she states emphatically.

Their initial meetings were difficult, Abdullah acknowledges.

"Adina is the first religious Jew I have ever met who isn't a settler," he explains.

"I thought that she was insisting on the religious aspects for political reasons. Now, I've learned to respect her, and to understand that her religious observance is a genuine part of her identity."

Shapiro and Abdullah often disagree over both administrative and pedagogical issues, and their meetings are sometimes tense, occasionally angry, and frequently frustrating.

"We try to model the way the teachers should relate to each other, too," says Shapiro. "We're not perfect, and everything isn't sweet. But we can talk about it, and we can continue to meet."

Yet not every difference between them can be resolved. Last winter, a teacher who lives in Kiryat Arba wanted to join one of the working groups. The Palestinians refused to accept him.

"As Palestinians, we have learned to distinguish between Israelis who want peace and justice, and those who do not," says Abdullah. " A settler is part of the occupation - the occupation that deprives me of my rights, confiscates my land, imprisons me, and even deprives me of water to drink. No, we cannot meet with settlers."

Over the summer, Shapiro and Abdullah are busy planning next year's program. The teachers and leaders have all agreed to return, and new topics are being added. They are struggling to raise money, but determined to continue despite the political, emotional, professional, and financial difficulties.

Yet, despite their commitment to meet, no matter what the political climate, Palestinian officials admit that it is becoming increasingly difficult to support these grassroots activities.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior official in the Palestinian Ministry of Education comments: "These peace-education organizations create an illusion that peace is here, and that the relations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel are normal. But peace isn't here, and the relations aren't normal, and the Palestinian public is becoming very angry. So on the one hand, we want to encourage peace activities, but on the other hand, we don't want to pretend that everything is OK."

Abdullah disagrees. "The Palestinians and the Israelis have tried bloodshed and occupation for more than half a century, and it didn't work. It's time to try education."

This article, written by the co-directors of MECA,  appears in the UN Online Cronicle Edition


Education as a Matter of Policy
By Ghassan Abdullah and Adina Shapiro

Ghassan Abdullah and Adina Shapiro are co-Directors of the Middle East Children's Association (MECA)

Dr. Abdullah, a lecturer at Al Quds University, has been involved in Palestinian-Israeli dialogue since the mid-1980s and spent many years as Director of the Center for Applied Research in Education, a Palestinian organization that develops curricula for Palestinian schools.

Ms. Shapiro has served as Acting Director of the Institute for State Attorneys and Legal Advisors at the Israeli Ministry of Justice. She began working on the Israeli-Palestinian education eight years ago when she started teaching Hebrew at the first school in the Palestinian Authority that offered it as a mandatory class. Her experience there eventually led to the founding of MECA. She is currently finishing her law degree.


From the political point of view, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was jump-started with the signing of the Oslo Accords. A famous handshake between two enemies raised hopes for a peaceful future, close at hand. Since then, it has become clear that such diplomatic efforts alone are insufficient to bring peace to the Israeli and Palestinian communities who have been adversaries for so many years.

Political leaders may attempt, and occasionally succeed, to conclude agreements about borders, water and security, but their efforts, vital as they are, are conducted in the rarefied atmosphere of high-level international diplomacy. They do not directly advance reconciliation between peoples. In order to create a just and stable peace between Israelis and Palestinians, individuals, communities and civil institutions must join hands with diplomats to facilitate deep changes in attitudes, by way of participating, designing and implementing creative educational curricula that challenge existing stereotypes and perishing aspects of hatred.

Even the most honest, good faith implementation of political agreements cannot repair the chiasmatic psychological, emotional and educational fault lines opened after years of conflict. If left unattended, these "black holes" can swallow up years of hard diplomatic efforts. Our painful experience has taught us that we have no choice but to recognize the educational system as playing a strategic role in the political process.

This is important for two main reasons:
The educational systems can only be used as a means for dissemination of peace if their legitimacy as shapers of attitudes is restored and recognized by political leaders. Addressing these issues on the strategic level shows to the peoples on both sides that, ultimately, it is their commitment to peace and reconciliation that will assure the outcome of the political process. In our area, if the political leaders fail to recognize the role of educational institutions in the process and in future stability, how can we expect the next generation to put their faith in that same system? Already we witness the daily violations of human rights on both sides, the domination of violence, and the strong negative effects of the mass media, as the issue of incitement is raised as a tool for each side to delegitimize the other. If we do not recognize educational institutions as vehicles to create and affect society, we leave a vacuum for others—proponents of hate and conflict—to fill.

In trying to create stability in a region so wounded and affected by violence and war, the educational institutions must be seen as central partners in the rehabilitative process.

One of the fundamental building blocks of a stable reality is an educational system that: enhances the capacities, values and responsibilities of citizens; guarantees the involvement and participation of the communities; acknowledges multi-cultural approaches; and is open to explore new initiatives. This is not a question of how a child learns to perceive his or her former enemy; it is a larger question of how a child becomes capable and confident to provide for his or her future. Peace and security cannot be guaranteed by security measures alone, which as necessary as they are can often antagonize and divide. Such security measures will serve their purpose if they are enforced in the context of a civil society, which can exist and flourish only if supported by an effective and exciting educational system. Thus, politicians and diplomats will find their efforts frustrated if they do not work strategically to assure an accommodating educational environment.

What do we mean when we speak of education on the strategic level? Clearly this does not imply that the political negotiators should begin to design textbooks or argue over relevant curricula. It also does not mean that lip service should be paid to the need for including values of understanding and peace within the educational curricula. We agree that these are issues that need to be developed on the professional level, much as any other strategic area of negotiations. Creating a strategic place for the educational systems would mean that just as the negotiators on all levels consult military, economic and diplomatic experts, and sometimes health and media experts as well, there should be an educational track to be consulted. Once this role is recognized, then there is a legitimate role to be taken in the implementation as well. A negotiating and follow-up educational committee should be created alongside all other such committees.

The content of the educational component of a peace agreement would need to address the following issues:

  • How to ensure that schools will be accessible and safe environments for all children aged 3 to 18;

  • How to provide adequate support, including compensation, for teachers to contend with the dynamic changes in the reality and the suffering and trauma of themselves and their students;

  • How to address issues of a core unified curriculum and to what extent is such a curriculum advisable in creating a stable, confident and open-minded society;

  • How to address the role of communications (mainly television, radio and the Internet) as existing competitors (with a negative impact) to the formal educational system;

  • What should be the role of the educational system in reaching out to the communities—mainly parents and by informal education—and working to change the difficult reality?

  • What shall be the criteria for renewing textbooks; who is in charge of monitoring them and at what frequency?

    Any peace process, even if just at the stage of a ceasefire, must recognize the role of those who stand at the forefront of society day in and day out: the educators. The questions outlined above require strategic discussion as well as policy decisions. These cannot be taken at the grass-roots level only. If we demand that the educational system work for the implementation of a peace agreement, including a detoxification of society from hate and animosity and enhancing skills for non-violent conflict resolution, it is necessary to provide the leaders of that system with the mandate to do so.

    The Middle East Children's Association (MECA), a joint Palestinian-Israeli educational organization, has decided not to wait for the political leaders to start implementing this educational track. MECA has been working for the past six years, including during the last two years of violence, with over 400 teachers throughout Israel and the Palestinian Authority in subject matters such as math, history, pre-school education, etc. In each of these areas, the teachers work together to infuse concepts of responsibility, understanding and tolerance while adapting these ideas to the specific needs of their communities. We have worked in full recognition of the critical role of teachers and schools. Serious educational initiatives such as these should be motivated, in order to enable and help both communities to overcome daily challenges and difficulties. The many teachers who in times like these must overcome physical and educational barriers are living proof of the willingness and capacity that exists within the educational community. This potential, however, can only be fully realized if enhanced and encouraged, as a matter of policy, by all members of the international community and local governments who are interested in changing the current miserable reality and lead our region towards stability and prosperity.

    Click here for the poem "The man he killed" by Thomas Hardy.

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