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Building Bridges : Executive Summary

The recognition, implementation and enforcement of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness codified in the U.S. Constitution are necessary but not sufficient for coexistence. Despite all the work that has been done, and is being done to resolve conflicts in the United States, tensions, intolerance and violence persist.

It is possible to resolve disputes, sometimes before they escalate into violence, sometimes only after hostilities, but the ideal is to create a tolerant society where conflict does not exist, or at least does not intensify to the point of violence. This should remain our goal and our dream, but, realistically, the next best solution is a community where everyone coexists. The Abraham Fund notes that “Coexistence is the minimal, least demanding way for people to relate to one another positively. It is not the same thing as love. It may not even be the same thing as friendship. To the contrary, it is an expression of distance, and an acknowledgment that boundaries will remain, that the possibilities of misunderstanding will never completely disappear.”

Israel has no magic solutions for eliminating conflict; however, Israelis have their own long, painful experience with similar problems and have developed innovative approaches to promote coexistence. Most of the projects focus on relations between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel; however, similar approaches have also been applied to relations between secular and “religious” Jews and immigrants and veteran Israelis. In addition, several organizations have already adapted their programs to address conflicts in places such as Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia. The Israeli programs offer potential models for Americans interested in promoting coexistence.

Coexistence is not just an ideal pursued by utopian organizations; it is a public policy goal advanced by the government. The Ministry of Education has a division with the specific purpose of promoting education for democracy, tolerance and coexistence that could share its experience with the U.S. Department of Education through a Memorandum of Understanding in education.

Israeli programs reflect three different philosophies for promoting coexistence. One school of thought, the “encounter approach,” holds that the key to understanding is bringing Arabs and Jews together for relatively short, intense encounters and forcing them to confront their prejudices and the issues at the root of the conflict. Five such programs are described in the study. A competing philosophy is the “experiential approach,” which holds that you can't talk about coexistence, you have to practice it. This school's approach is to bring Jews and Arabs together over a long period of time and to concentrate on joint activities of mutual interest. The study includes 12 experiential programs. The third philosophy emphasizes the importance of teaching the principles of democracy as a means of fostering tolerance. Two such programs are described here.

The three approaches are used with Israelis and Arabs of all ages, but are applied in a variety of settings. Programs detailed in the study include:

  • Programs where people participate in activities of mutual interest like archaeology, photography, language and culture (Ein Dor Museum of Archaeology, Leo Baeck Education Center, Beit Shmuel, Beit Hagefen, Centre for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage).
  • In-school programs and curricula to teach coexistence and democracy (Givat Haviva, Pelech, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, Adam Institute, Hebrew University, International YMCA).
  • Projects to build a sense of community through joint activities (SHEMESH, Beit Hagefen, Leo Baeck Education Center).
  • Community service projects (Re'ut Sadaka, Interns for Peace).
  • Leadership development programs (International YMCA, Beit Hagefen).
  • After school programs (Beit Hagefen, Re'ut Sadaka, Friendship's Way).
  • Adult programs (Beit Shmuel, Beit Hagefen, SHEMESH).
  • A summer camp (Leo Baeck Education Center).
  • A program for at-risk youth (Friendship's Way).
  • Training programs for teachers and mental health professionals (David Yellin Teachers College, Carmel Institute, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam).
  • Programs to reduce intolerance of newcomers and ease immigrant absorption (Joint Distribution Committee).

Lessons Learned

  • The importance of recognizing language differences.
  • Coexistence can be an unstated goal.
  • Programs should be held at neutral sites.
  • Teachers and administrators must support projects run in their schools.
  • Preparation is needed prior to interactions.
  • Parents should be involved.
  • Promoting coexistence is facilitated by government support.
  • Careful student selection enhances prospects for success.
  • It is important for projects to be consistent and ongoing.
  • Internships can contribute to individual and community coexistence.

Americans can learn lessons from all three Israeli approaches. The techniques developed in Israeli “encounters” could easily be adapted for use in the United States. Similarly, the “experiential” programs could be applied by copying the Israeli models or using them as examples of creative ways to bring groups in conflict together for relatively long periods of joint activities. Americans, who often take democratic principles for granted, can also learn from Israel's approach to teaching these principles, especially to immigrants who come from undemocratic nations.

Much of what Israel has to offer is training for teachers who are interested in learning proven techniques and strategies for promoting coexistence and preventing, resolving, or, at least, minimizing conflict. The programs documented in the report are applicable to conflicts between any groups and are aimed at promoting tolerance among all.