Life & Culture

A new Middle East peace plan - playtime and pickles

A project in Israel is encouraging Jewish and Palestinian schoolchildren to break down prejudices.


‘We must teach the children to live in peace,” says Muhammed, “and we must start when they are young children at school.”

Muhammed — who lives in an Arab village in the Jerusalem hills — is speaking from experience. When his three grown-up children were still at school he took the brave step of enrolling them in a ground-breaking scheme encouraging contact with Jewish children.

The scheme, set up in 1991 and now in its 19th year, is run by the Jerusalem-based Centre for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage (CCECH). It aims to bring together Arab and Jewish primary schoolchildren, along with their parents, grandparents and teachers. Over a two-year period participants meet and get to know each other by exploring their own and each others’ folklore.

“By folklore, I mean what goes on at home; family tradition, home culture,” explains Dr Simon Lichman. “It’s clear that curiosity engendered in their own heritage is then transferred to other people’s heritage. They start asking: ‘I wonder what they’re like?’’’

Lichman, a former Londoner and JFS pupil, runs the centre, while his partner, Rivanna Miller, assesses the effectiveness of the programme. They are currently in Britain raising awareness of the centre’s work.

They forget they are Arabs and Jews, and forget they are in conflict

His long grey hair and casual look give the impression of a chilled hippy but being responsible for a project that employs a group of five full-time staff and a large pool of volunteers ensures that there is not too much time for chilling.

This academic year five schools are participating in the programme, with approximately 500 children involved, aged between nine and 12. Part of the project focuses on games and play — children are asked to talk to their grandparents and parents about the games they played during their childhoods. They then present what they have found out to their class and, in discussion, discover that similar games are played by Jews and Arabs. According to Miller, the task enables them to “look at the other culture that’s supposed to be different from them, and say: ‘But they play the same way as we do’.”

The children regularly visit their counterparts in their respective schools and take part in joint activities. Parents and grandparents are also present at these events. After formal introductions, the serious business of playing together begins. “The moment they get together in the playground, they are playing games: skipping, football etc, and trying to do it properly, not thinking about who they are doing it with. They forget they are Arabs, and Jews and forget they are in conflict,” says Lichman.

Teachers on both sides of the divide feel the programme is very effective. “The children don’t know the human side of each other,” says Ahmed, who works at a school in east Jerusalem, “so play is central.” It is often the first time that his Arab pupils meet Jewish boys and they have the chance to see that their negative perceptions of them are wrong.

“Every child looks at the project differently depending on the home they are from,” says Yael, another teacher, who has been involved with the project for many years in a school in west Jerusalem. “They get to know Arab kids, their villages and schools. It wouldn’t happen otherwise.”

Deborah, a British-born mother of three whose middle child is currently in the scheme, says the children “all say how good it is to play together and how you never see this kind of interaction on the news”. The youngsters, she adds, realise that they share the same interests and have some of the same things — mobile phones and iPods for example.

However, some teachers and students can be apprehensive. According to Deborah: “My oldest daughter had a friend who would miss school on the days of these meetings.”

The children echo the prejudices and fears they hear at home, explains Yael, but usually anxieties can be overcome through discussion.

During the Israeli incursion into Gaza last year, the joint activities had to be suspended, but classroom work continued. The children made videos and took photographs of themselves which were then shared with their Muslim or Jewish counterparts.

Another problem is language. The children do pick up a smattering of Hebrew or Arabic but, according to Deborah, “The kids can barely talk to each other, which is OK in the first year of the programme, but by the second year can limit relationships.”

The programme’s structure allows for continuity — each family usually has several children who participate in the project. But, to date, a lack of funding has meant that the meetings have to end when the children move on to senior school.

But despite the obstacles, the centre seems to be successfully breaking down barriers. “These children will be the future,” says Muhammed, who stresses that they must be told to live together and understand each other — they will, after all, be the soldiers, voters and peacemakers of tomorrow.

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