How International Educators Can Contribute to Peace in the Middle East

A synopsis of the paper is also available

I. Said’s Call

We begin our paper by presenting a challenge that was first formulated by Edward Said in The Question of Palestine (1): The state of Israel is a political reality; it will not go away.  The Diaspora of uprooted and dispossessed Palestinians is also a reality; the world can no longer ignore the fact that many Palestinians of today are descendants of people who were forcibly evicted from their homes and villages in 1948.  The history of displaced Palestinians starts with the Naqba—the carefully planned and meticulously executed campaign of ethnic cleansing of Palestine (2).  When the Naqba was taking place, the world was just beginning to come to terms with the scale of the genocide of European Jews in the 1930s and 40s.  The Holocaust – the systematic persecution and extinction of Jewish people in The Third Reich – shattered the moral conscience of people in the west, providing them with ultimate justification for the creation of the state of Israel.

Although the Holocaust and the Naqba are defining events in the histories of two peoples, they play this role in narratives that exclude each other.  Just as there is no place for the Naqba in the popular Israeli view of its past, Palestinians have no use for the Holocaust in reconstructing their own historical trajectory.  This is not surprising.  If it takes the expulsion of one group to successfully create a new state for another, the victorious group is in the position to cut out shame and embarrassment from the history they write for themselves and their children.  On the other hand, Palestinians simply played no part in the Holocaust and the events that led up to it; nineteenth century anti-Semitism and the Nazi death camps were strictly European affairs.  If there is clearly an asymmetrical relationship between the two historical narratives, there is nothing asymmetrical about the solution to the problem of what Said calls the “two communities of detached and uncommunicatingly separate suffering” (3).   There can be no lasting peace in the Middle East, he says, if Israelis and Palestinians do not recognize each others’ history and the pain and suffering that are so much a part of it.  Said’s observations articulate a daunting challenge in the form of a project with objectives we believe are within the reach of international education.  Before trying to make our case, let us first define what we mean by international education.

II. The Promise of International Education

The mission of an international education is to prepare students for citizenship of the global world.  It does so by means of a curriculum, especially in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, that transcends the parameters of what is offered in national schools.  This does not mean that students are not being taught the literary canon of a particular nation. Instruction in national literature, however, presupposes the larger goal of becoming familiar with universal themes as expressed in writing throughout the world—in international schools, the emphasis is on WORLD Literature.  Immersion into local, national and regional history serves limited purpose if students do not learn to see the larger historical and international picture—the emphasis is on WORLD history.  Similarly, knowledge about local place is incorporated into the larger goal of learning about the global village—the emphasis is on WORLD geography.   If the scope and context of many subjects are international, the range of subjects that is offered is also expansive.  The goal is the holistic development and education of the child through as many disciplines as possible—music, art, performing arts, physical education, etc.  The curriculum is delivered by certified teachers who have been trained to teach across cultures.  Although some may be locally trained, teachers in the core subject areas are foreigners. The language of instruction is English because this happens to be the lingua franca at this time.  So why should international schools pay heed and respond to Said’s call?  Why are they well-positioned in this endeavor?  For clarity’s sake, let us state once more the challenge that we believe lies ahead:

There can be no peace in the Middle East if Palestinians and Israelis do not recognize each others’ pain.  Israelis acknowledge that their state was created at the expense of a terrible injustice committed against Palestinians.  Palestinians were driven from their homes, and their villages demolished and wiped out.   Palestinians recognize that the people who usurped their lands and destroyed their villages are people with a tragic history.  Jewish persecution throughout centuries culminated in the Nazi crimes of genocide called the Holocaust.

It will be clear that successful completion of this project depends on a willingness and ability of both peoples to empathize with each other.  Placing yourself in someone else’s shoes is not easy, and the capacity to do so is the outcome of a long learning process.  The ability to identify with others and show compassion is acquired only in one of the later stages of development of the personality.  For instance, a complex novel like To Kill A Mockingbird which elaborates on the theme of empathy, is taught in the U.S.A. not in elementary or middle school, but to students in high school. Parents teach their children to be considerate of others, yet schools provide the social and pedagogical environment in which empathy is taught through a variety of mutually reinforcing activities so that eventually, the skill becomes second nature. 

Once you have acquired the ability to empathize, the potential recipient of your compassion may not receive it for many different reasons.  A humanist psychologist such as Maslow considers the empathic act as a form of self-actualization, which he ranks at the top of a hierarchy of human needs (4).  One can only begin the self-actualization process after the other more basic needs of subsistence, safety, belonging, and esteem have been successfully met.  In some cases, the number of unmet needs poses a formidable barrier.  For instance, how could inhabitants of  the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza—undernourished, jobless, homeless, isolated from family and the world, and threatened in their safety—even want to begin to identify with people on the other side of the Green Line if, moreover, they hold Israel directly responsible for their living conditions?

Comparing the obstacles for Palestinian refugees to the ones that stand in the way of most Israelis, it would seem that the chances for success in Said’s project are much higher on the Israeli than on the Gazan side.  For one thing, the activities of some Israeli citizens, consistently underreported in the mainstream media, already demonstrate sympathy for the Palestinian cause.  They are united in groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, B’Tselem, Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, Gush Shalom, and others.  For another, in the past decades the popular Israeli representation of its past has been contested by a group of revisionist Israeli historians (5).  In their publications the highly romanticized version of the founding of Israel makes way for a more accurate portrayal of the historical facts, including the acknowledgement of the Naqba.  When will these insights be embraced by larger numbers of Israeli citizens and enter the history books in Israeli schools?  At this point, however, our concern is not so much with the answer to this question as with the plausibility of our assumption that international educators have a valuable role to play in the teaching of empathy.  As mentioned, we consider the ability and willingness to place yourself in someone else’s shoes to be indispensable for Said’s project.   In the previous pages we have been trying to make the case for the teach-ability of empathy in schools.  But why, one may ask, through international teachers?  Why could the project not move forward with the help of dedicated local teachers from national schools?

The society in which a person grows up determines to a large extent the expectations for his or her social behavior.  Social expectations are manifold and derive from areas such as politics, economics, religion, and history.  In particular, a society’s political history can be a burden on its members; if there is a lot of violence, it puts a premium on aggression in people’s responses to problems.  Consider in this respect the history teacher at the local school and his colleague across the road who teaches at the international school.  Whereas the first, both in the choice and delivery of the subject matter, is bound by the norms and values of his faith, family, and other social groups, the international school teacher faces no such restrictions.  He is free to teach that violence may not always be the most effective response to an injustice, and refer to Ghandi and Martin Luther King to substantiate his point, without running the risk of being branded a coward or a traitor.

At this point we want to emphasize that we do not mean to say that empathy is beyond the reach of local teachers.  Of course it is not.  However, the ability to teach largely unaffected by the scrutinizing eye of local social convention gives the foreign teacher an advantage.  Not only does he teach a curriculum of which the scope is international rather than national, but he has more opportunity to do so by drawing freely on the liberating and dignifying perspectives of humanism and multiculturalism.

III. Humanism and Multiculturalism

Humanism means different things to different people (6).   Our definition of the term underscores the idea that it is incumbent on educated people to look for ways to advance humanity, and do so by human effort using logic, reason, and the freedom of scientific discovery.  Not opposed to religion, humanists consider faith a private matter and have no need to resort to it in their attempts to improve the human condition. They are optimistic about their endeavors, but believe it is hard work requiring people to live up to their potential.  Humanism was one of the defining characteristics of Renaissance Europe, producing writers and philosophers such as Erasmus, Thomas More, and Petrarch; as a scholarly movement, it can be traced back to its ancient Greek roots through the Islamic Golden Age.

In the modern era, the humanist ideal of building a more just and fair society was promoted by the American philosopher William James (7).  James argued that this goal could be achieved best in “plural societies” that were made up of immigrant cultures that would contribute unique and valuable aspects to the society as a whole.  James’s concept of cultural pluralism was a pragmatic response to the massive influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans into the United States, and became known as the American Melting Pot ideal.  It provided an intellectual foundation, also outside the United States, for the development of policy instruments to build and organize the multicultural nation-state.

A hundred years later, the challenges of the multicultural nation-state compete for our attention with global problems of a different nature.  Global warming, poverty and social inequality, deforestation and epidemic diseases do not stop at state borders, yet affect cultures all over the world in different degrees.  Can we say that multiculturalism as a global concept is on the way out (8)?  In some areas, we see how erosion of cultural distinctiveness paves the way for trends and developments towards sameness – but not in political culture!  In politics, multiculturalism remains a force to reckon with, supported by the universal moral agreements of human rights and international law.  In The Question of Palestine, Said calls attention to the Palestinian Arabs as citizens with human rights.  Rejecting the Zionist historiography of Israel that discusses Israel as if it concerns Jews only, Said reminds us of the multicultural reality of “the Palestinian that has borne the brunt of Zionism’s extraordinary human cost (9).”

An important corollary to the humanist imperative that we listen to each other, converse with each other, and learn from each other, is that our students know how to navigate a multicultural world.  Before we send them on their way, they need to know what this world looks like.  We have to teach them.  To us, success in this endeavor constitutes one of the crowning achievements in the international teaching career.

IV. Prelude to Gaza

We work at an American international school in Saudi Arabia that is associated with eight other international schools in the Middle East in an umbrella organization founded in 1990 by a Lebanese-American educator.  The owner’s humanist principles and goals for his schools are illustrated by the organization’s mission statement (10).  The schools prepare their graduates for college or university admission through an American, British, or International Baccalaureate curriculum.  The student population is a mix of children from expatriate and local families. Although a significant number of students come from western countries, expatriate students from the Middle East together with host national students make up a large, Arab portion of the student population.  In the organization’s short history, thousands of students have graduated from its schools.  Since the organization’s educational standards aim both at excellence and uniformity, a growing number of successful Arabs in the Middle East have in common that they graduated from one of its schools.  For this reason, a prominent Arab political commentator once remarked, without much exaggeration, that the owner “has done more for unity among Arabs than the Arab League (11).”

In January 2005, the owner approached us asking if we were up for an adventure.  Would we be interested in working the following year at the international school he manages in Gaza - Marga as English teacher, and I as Director.  We thought about it long and hard, observed the political and economic turn for the better in Gaza upon Mahmoud Abbas’s rise to power, and said “yes.”  Little did we know what lay ahead of us.

At that time, the school in Gaza was in its fifth year, and had operated with minimal interruption throughout the Second Intifada with a core group of western teachers and principal.  The student body was nearly a hundred percent Palestinian with most students from the upper stratum of the local population, but a growing number of students on scholarships from the refugee camps.

When we joined the school and students in August 2005, Gaza was part of the Israeli Occupied Territories with Jewish settlements dispersed throughout the densely populated strip of land.  It was difficult to both enter and exit Gaza.  When we left Gaza 10 months later for the last time, the Israeli settlers were gone, and Gaza had turned into a hotbed of political turmoil, hermetically sealed off from the outside world by the Israelis (12).  We were among the last westerners to live and work in Gaza, and would not return after the summer.  Our mission had come to an end as a result of the unending siege compounded by unchecked internecine violence. Although the school continued to operate, it would do so through the heroic efforts of local staff and teachers alone.

The next part of our presentation highlights some aspects of the Siege, and how they impacted our life and work during that year.  Looking back upon it now, the overall feeling about our time in Gaza is complicated. We are still chagrinned about being unable to accomplish our goals and complete the contract:  we just do not like being forced to give up.  On leaving Gaza, the place and its people could have gradually faded from our thoughts and conversations, but this is not what happened.  The injustice of Gaza’s predicament—Gazans not being given a voice; their concerns being dismissed—got under our skin.   Our thoughts occasionally go back to our Gazan friends, and we keep in touch with some of them.  And, yes, there are the scars – loud bangs, the sight of masked men – which continue to startle us and trigger unhappy memories of a rough journey through a dangerous land.  The snapshots we took along the way and want to share with you through Marga's narratives may help illustrate why this is the case.

V. Narrative: Through Gaza’s Streets

The other teachers and I gather in front of the Hanadi Building where the bus soon will come to pick us up and take us to school.  As I wait, my gaze wanders out across the street, falling on the Palestinian soldiers dressed in black pants, black tee shirts and flak jackets.  Some sport black berets, others baseball caps; all carry rifles in the manner of businessmen toting a briefcase.  They sit down in grey plastic chairs disorderly assembled next to a dilapidated grey brick enclosure, the size of a bus shelter.  Exchanging banter and drinking coffee from white Styrofoam cups, they settle in for the day, resting the rifles across their laps.

Two skinny boys in short pants, probably 4 or 5 years old, emerge from around a corner, the taller one struggling with a heavy bucket.  They make their way to the center of the empty intersection, stopping to inspect a crushed cardboard box. The older child lowers his bucket onto the flattened box, and the younger one takes hold of a frayed rope attached to the cardboard.  He hands the rope to the bigger boy who straps it over his shoulder and grasping the end, carefully pulls the box with the heavy bucket on it—sled-like—down the road.  His companion skips along beside the sled, keeping an eye on the bucket and its contents.  Pretty ingenious five-year old, I say to myself.

The bus arrives and with the other teachers I climb aboard.  The twenty minute bus ride provides me with an opportunity to see Gaza’s streets and people from the vantage point of an onlooker.  The images of Gaza are like none I have witnessed:  sheep and goats grazing along the street nibbling on mounds of rubbish; dumpsters overflowing, some smoldering; enormous stylized portraits of suicide martyrs gazing ethereally upon Gaza, their guns accompanying them to paradise; eight-year old kids pointing at the bus, one spitting—these images startle me.

A barefoot little girl lugs a baby on her thin, bony hip; laundry hangs listlessly from lines high above dusty alleyways between grey cement block structures.  These images sadden me.  Shoeless boys tying discarded plastic bags around their necks—cape style—playing at being superman, or kicking around a deflated soccer ball in an empty lot; throngs of kids from UN operated schools in blue wearing “Makkah-Cola” backpacks; a crumbling wall embellished with a painting of a white dove, carrying in its beak Arabic graffiti and the peace symbol—these images make me smile.

After the bus leaves Hanadi, it traverses Gaza City, chugs past the “Martyr Rachel Corrie Preschool” signpost, which points to the narrow street where the school for children operates in honor of the young peace activist from Washington State killed by an Israeli-driven bulldozer in Rafah on March, 16, 2004.  The bus winds its way through Al Shati refugee camp, passing UNRWA centers where bags of grains and a few people await distribution.  It speeds north along the coastal road passing crudely constructed beach camps sheltering families.  Farther north on the road, and ostentatiously out of place stand a handful of partially constructed estate homes comprised mostly of cinderblock and mortar walls, with vast spaces left open for vistas onto the Mediterranean Sea.  And beyond the incomplete or hastily built structures, out to the salty sea itself, wiry young men move with agility and grace in narrow fishing boats, working the morning catch.

Finally the bus turns east in Beit Lahiya where the school is situated.  Shortly after the turnoff is the road on the left leading to the demolished Israeli settlement of Dugit, from which Jewish settlers departed, as part of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan.

One day after school, a group of us accompanied by security guards, visit the place.  The van parks at the end of the dirt road and we walk northeast a quarter of a kilometer.  In the distance I see mountainous shapes which make no earthly sense to me, and as I approach on foot, my mind hesitates to absorb the view before me.  Everything, every damn thing has been destroyed and the settlement is now piles of rubble.  Even the paved surface of walkways and a basketball court have been reduced to rubble.  Trees  once green, that lined a once-sidewalk leading from a once-home stand now shriveled and leafless. A donkey hitched up to a flat cart stands patiently while two Palestinians, a man and a young boy wade through the mess, picking at various objects, occasionally tossing into the cart a scrap of corrugated metal, a piece of rebar.

Jubilant celebration erupted on Gaza’s streets after the Israelis abandoned these settlements, but I see very little to be ecstatic about.  What I see is hatred and cruelty in the form of piles of trash, broken glass, rocks and slabs of concrete, tangled wires, pulverized plaster, steel rods bent and twisted, and made useless.  What I see is Israeli scorched earth tactics and a lot more rubble that adds to the mountains already occupying the Gaza Strip.

Planted on top of the bulldozed remains of Israeli homes, patios and garages, Palestinian flags flutter in the balmy sea breeze.  The weather is lovely, and as we traverse the field back to the parked van, a handful of Palestinians, teens and twenty-some year olds, join us for talk and questions.  Ahmed shows us the bullet wound in his leg put there by IDF gunfire.  Another thin, young man proceeds to explain—all the while displaying no reservations about me being a westerner—that he is surveying the distance between the ruined settlement and the Israeli border up ahead in order to launch Qassam rockets.

Is he speaking the truth?  I wouldn’t have believed him except that I recall an incident earlier in the week.   The school secretary is taking me grocery shopping, and suddenly cars, pedestrians, donkey carts, and our taxi are forced to pull over to give several trucks road space as they blaze their way through the streets.  From loudspeakers attached to the pick-up trucks, urgent announcements in Arabic fill the dusty afternoon air.   The beds of the trucks swell with young men clinging to each other for balance with one hand, and brandishing their Kalashnikovs with the other.  I slide down in the backseat, but also, I am curious.  “Don’t worry,” remarks the taxi driver.  “They are just Al Aqsa Brigade going up to the destroyed settlement to shoot off some rockets.  Nothing to worry about.”

Across from the school stands a makeshift shack inhabited by an ancient Palestinian woman.  From the bus I catch a glimpse of this gnarled, line-faced woman only once.  I wonder who she is and how she lives.  Beyond her dwelling stretch fields of strawberries. Unlike those in John Lennon’s song, however, these strawberry fields are not forever.  A few months into the school year, while teaching from our classrooms, we watch Israeli shells explode above the fields, littering the rows of plants with shrapnel.  Later Israeli bombs and IDF bulldozers would turn the field into a buffer zone between Gaza and the Israeli border.  At school, we are right on the edge.

On the return trip from school to the Hanadi building, as the bus emerges from Al Shati refugee camp towards Gaza City, I see the man sitting in the plastic chair placed at the side of the road.  The bus drives by and the man’s face contorts into a grin; he waves enthusiastically.  He is always there.  I wonder who he is, so I ask Osama, our security officer.  The man’s name is Mr. Nasrallah.  His youngest and only surviving son was shot by Israelis a couple of years ago, Osama says, and it shook his mind.  So Mr. Nasrallah sits now in a chair along the road and hails the passing traffic.

The bus ride to and from school does not always ease the mind, but every day I learn something about Gaza as it slips past my window.

In the months leading up to our departure for Gaza, we had followed the news about Ariel Sharon’s intention to pull the Israeli settlers out.   More startling were reports towards the end of the summer that foreigners in Gaza had become targets for kidnapping by Palestinian groups.   Somewhat apprehensive, we went ahead with our travel plans, and crossed the border at Erez in mid-August.  Gaza’s prison-like condition hit us immediately after walking through the 200 meter long corridor of cement blocks, plastic roof, and barbed wire.  Before we even settled in, I had to consult with the Board about the security situation.  For the protection of all foreign teachers we decided to limit their movements, and require that they use a trusted local taxi company if they had to run errands.   All foreign staff were housed in a thirteen-story apartment complex in Gaza City, a twenty minute drive to school.

A number of weeks into our stay we were getting used to what it was like to live in the Occupied Territories:  Palestinian youth shooting home-made rockets into Israel, and the Israeli Defense Force responding with targeted fire—artillery, or missiles from a drone, helicopter, or F16 fighter jet.  Unsettling in the beginning, news about Palestinians being killed, followed by demonstrations in the streets of Gaza, were becoming part of our daily lives.  After the Israeli settlers were pulled out, however, the IDF added yet another retaliatory measure to their repertoire of responses.  With the settlers out, they could punish Palestinians alone by sending low-flying jets over Gaza that broke the sound barrier causing sonic booms.  It was called collective punishment, and every person in Gaza was subjected to these thunderous booms.  Daily school activities were hard to maintain as Marga recorded with the following impressions.

VI. Narrative: Open The Windows

The school day ends. Students have emptied out of the building, and the banging of lockers has ceased. I collect Grade 7 essays along with my plan book and stuff them into my bag to take home when a voice comes across the PA system.  It isn’t the principal’s reminding me of a faculty meeting, nor is it the vice principal’s announcing a parent meeting regarding a wayward student.  The voice that comes quietly across the speaker is that of Osama’s, the school’s head of security. “Please,” he begins dolefully, “before leaving tonight, make sure you open the windows in your classrooms.  Thank you.”

He does not give a reason for teachers to leave the windows open, but we all understand.

This school is not in L.A. or Chicago or New York because the request would have been the opposite:  make sure you shut all of your windows before leaving.  Our school is in the Gaza Strip. Teachers are reminded to open the windows to minimize the damage inflicted on the building by Israeli fighter jets that break the sound barrier while flying low overhead.

I never fully appreciated what a sonic boom meant until I was shocked out of my sleep at 3:00 am by the deafening blast overhead. The night sky seems to burst as if clawed apart.  Windows and my teeth rattle. My heart pounds; my stomach tightens. Surely we are being assaulted by bombs and we will all die. Images of burning Vietnamese children fleeing napalm flash through my disoriented brain. Here I am, in the midst of the ancient holy land, and I wonder if the apocalypse has arrived.

At 5:00 am another blast cracks open the pre-dawn sky.  A flock of doves flutters past my kitchen window in frenzied terror, screeching pitifully.  A roar of jets soaring above the gray Mediterranean, gives me an image of pilots smirking as they strut their stuff in the sky. At 7:00 am the bus collects teachers for the ride to school, and once again crashing booms rob what little normalcy remains of our morning.  My Palestinian colleague describes a fretful morning consoling her 2 year-old son, Adam.  She explains to the frightened child that the loud noises are airplanes farting.  Adam goes back to sleep, she says, but only fitfully.  In the morning, Adam clings to his mother, not wanting to be separated from her as she leaves him in the care of her own mother during the day.

The school building shows signs of violence. Inside, tiles and pebbled grout lie haphazardly on the floor like dirty laundry in a teen’s bedroom. Cracks cut into the library’s cement walls. Metal frames along ceilings are bent like broken shoulders, and steel doors have exploded off their hinges, as if Cyclops himself popped them out of place. It’s a disheartening sight.

Teachers are coping, but anxiety rides in their eyes. School begins, students arrive and classes start. As do the sonic booms. In my ESL class, the noise startles all three of the children as well as me. I want to curse and pound my fist. Two of the boys laugh nervously, a third with gusto. He’s the one who says he is not afraid, that if Israelis send bombs, he will kill them. The other two children agree that Israel sends bombs and booms to Gaza because Islamic Jihad sends rockets into Israel.  Retaliation and retribution.

For a few hours, peace reigns at the school. Boys play soccer in the mellow sunshine during recess. Kindergarten girls sit on seesaws, clapping their hands together in Arabic rhymes that resonate with American or French children’s verses. First and second grade boys hang upside-down on monkey bars or play their version of capture the flag or just wrestle each other to the grassy ground.  Four hundred meters to the west the Mediterranean sparkles, deep and blue.

At 10:30 am my Grade 7 English class makes its way down to the computer lab to re-write a story. We enter, and the blast that accosts my ears and head is so brutally deafening, so close, that I’m sure the impact has shattered the windows.  Twelve year old Omar describes the white light accompanying the boom and checks the curtained windows. Unlike my nerves, they are intact.  Our computer teacher Mahmoud restores calm and instructs the students to stay away from the windows.  His reassuring voice helps me too, and we get the kids back to their stories using American English idioms.  Yet I wonder, whose eyes could have been blinded, whose adolescent face disfigured by shards of glass cannoning into our classroom?

The school day ends early for Ramadan. Again the halls are quiet of student clamor. Teachers huddle, talking in subdued voices. Before we leave the building, we remember to open the windows.

The sonic booms eventually ceased, giving way to a period of relative calm until December 21, the final day before the winter break.  Early in the morning of that day, while driving to school in the Honda Civic, my vice principal and I were kidnapped by a group of masked gunmen.  We were freed eight hours later, but classes did not resume until after Hamas won the elections, and the Board arranged for extra Naval Police protection for teachers. The school reopened its doors on February 4, welcoming back all students and teachers.

On March 14, mobs of angry men gathered on the streets of Gaza and went on to vandalize and destroy the offices of the British Council, the French Cultural Center, and the AmidEast building.  Their violent behavior was caused by the decision of American and British military to discontinue the supervision of the detention of a number of Palestinian inmates of the Jericho Jail.  One of them was PFLP leader Ahmed Saadat, whose impending release was halted by the Israeli military moving in with tanks to surround the jail, making sure Saadat would not escape.  A few hours later in Gaza, groups of armed masked men overpowered the school guards and invaded the school hunting for western teachers.  They captured two of us.  Pandemonium reigned, but eventually we were rescued by government forces and evacuated, with the two released teachers, first to Israel, then to Cairo in Egypt. On April 8, thirteen of us boarded a bus to trek through the Sinai back into Gaza to resume teaching.  Along the way, I received a phone call from the Chair of the Board that the Israeli military had started using missiles that explode into sharp pieces of metal before hitting the ground.  Caught in the danger zone, the school grounds were littered with shrapnel, making it impossible to hold classes at school.  The Chairman said the Board had decided to relocate the school to our residence, the Hanadi building. Support staff was already moving school equipment into the apartments of teachers who were not returning, and school could resume in two days.  Marga reflects on this move:

VII.  Narrative: A New Meaning to the Concept of Home Schooling

During a conspicuous lull in the bombing one afternoon, I went with Alia our librarian, Veronica our music teacher, and Susan, ESL Coordinator,  to the school to retrieve some curriculum materials.  Because we were living under a curfew, and there were no longer daily bus trips to school and back, I was eager to see the streets of Gaza.  I wondered if Mr. Nasrallah was still in his chair on the corner.  Darwish the bus driver took the wheel, and we were accompanied by two robust Kalashnikov-toting Palestinian security guards, one aft and one forward.  The bus turned in the school’s gate and parked between the playground and back entrance, at the spot where I stood when the school was invaded by masked, armed gunmen a few short weeks ago. Fearful emotions stirred within me.  The empty school looked hollow and abandoned.  The silence of the hallways was suddenly interrupted with Alia’s resounding command:  TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES.  WE HAVE TO BE BACK HERE AT THE BUS IN 25 MINUTES.  YALLA!

I took the steps up to my classroom two at a time, opened the door, stood still and stared at the wide blue expanse of the Mediterranean Sea framed by the windowed west wall.  I walked over to the windows, looked down upon the soccer field where students had so recently been kicking the ball around, and thought:  This is the last time I will be in this classroom.   Slowly I turned to my desk, filled my bags with school supplies and with one last look, walked out and shut the door.  At the bottom of the stairs, I met up with Ihsan, a security guard still posted at the school.  A few days earlier, one of my Grade 7 students had given me a piece of shrapnel from an Israeli missile that had hit the ground in the vicinity of his house.  I asked Ihsan if he found any around the school.  “Come with me,” he instructed politely.  I followed him to his kiosk where he firmly gripped the top of a thick trash bag, and lugged it out into the sunlight.  It was heavy.  The bag was filled with bits and pieces of shrapnel in all shapes and sizes which he had collected over the past several days.  Everyday, he told me, he gathers more pieces.  I asked him to stow the bag on the bus.

Back at the school in Hanadi, the bag of shrapnel sat on the floor of Hendrik’s office until a few days later, when it occurred to him to use it to create a piece of art.  His idea was to commission a Palestinian artist to design a peace dove using the shrapnel.  It was a good idea, but when the project remained uncompleted, Hendrik wondered why.  The artist, he discovered, began work on the dove, but soon his hands and arms broke out with painful blisters and sores, forcing him to abandon the project.  The shrapnel, said the doctor, contained hazardous toxins.

The school at our home in Hanadi required not only physical readjustments, but also behavioral and psychological ones.  Students had to learn early about the civilities of sharing space. Families other than ours resided in some of the building’s apartments as well.  This required staff to remind students to be considerate when arriving, leaving, and using the stairwell.  It was no small feat to organize lessons, lunches, recess, and solidarity assemblies for more than 200 students from K – 12 in a thirteen-story apartment building.  Yet, the staff maintained academic standards as well as discipline.  And because we had only to descend a few flights of stairs to be in school, teachers had no excuses for missing faculty meetings.

The transformation of apartments into classrooms meant that city life often commingled with the teaching of lessons.  Thus, a cadre of Palestinian army recruits jogging in formation on the streets below, easily distracted eleventh grade boys from the literature of American realism.  On another occasion, I struggled with the significance of carrying on a discussion of a Stephen Crane Civil War story after Mohammed told me in a subdued voice that his neighbor’s house had been targeted by Israeli army missiles last night, and that his neighbor’s father had been killed.  “Miss,” Mohammed said, “I was just talking to him yesterday.”  For these students, realism is composed of survival stories they live with every day and every night.

During this time, the shelling of Gaza continued.  The thunder and booming usually intensified at night, and from my window on floor 9, I often saw the lightning effect of exploding shells.  My journal shows several anxiety dreams recorded at this time, and notes of waking up frequently during the night.  As an adult, I can reason and in some way allay my fear and anxiety.  Additionally, I could count the days until I would leave all this behind.   But this is not so for children whose emotions shatter with each explosion; or for the Gazans who have no exit from this besieged strip of land.

Nevertheless, Hendrik’s right hand man, Vice Principal Ribhi Salem, recognized the difficulty with which we westerners were coping—the curfews, restrictions on movement, the incessant bombings; and despite their own hardships, Ribhi and other local staff organized an outing for us.  Under security, the buses collected all staff, western and local alike, and transported us the short distance to the beach adjacent to the presidential palace.  Under a pale blue sky and a beckoning placid sea, teachers, aides, and all school employees shook off the tensions of confinement and made their way into the Mediterranean.  Bus drivers and maintenance workers who I ordinarily saw only in responsible roles providing service transformed into young boys, splashing and jumping like dolphins in the water, playing keep-away with someone’s old tee-shirt.  Hesham, the school facilitator, whose help to staff and administration was indispensable in so many ways, put on the chef’s hat and barbecued an ample supply of chicken and meat kebobs.

On this beach, a man with a 60 year-old face and 30 year-old physique served as lifeguard.  He took his job seriously, blowing his whistle to remind stray swimmers to avoid the currents.  His intricate hand signals interested me, but what fascinated me more was the 1948 map of Palestine tattooed on his back right shoulder. We swam, we ate, we told stories.  We walked around inside the conference center next to the Presidential palace with one of the security officers.  He told us President Clinton along with Hillary and Chelsea had come to this very spot six years earlier.  There had been talk of re-opening the airport.  It was a time of hope.   Refreshed, exhausted and appreciative, we rode with smiling faces back to our home that was also our school.

Halfway through May we began to believe that we would make it to the end of the year.  Students in KG and elementary grades were immersed in language development and reading. Grade 9 students read Romeo and Juliet and mastered algebraic equations; Grade 12 interpreted British poetry, read Swift’s A Modest Proposal, and grappled with physics.  Under the firm guidance of their social studies teacher, seniors completed application procedures for universities.  Did we dare talk about a graduation ceremony?  Administration, staff and students knew each of us contributed a vital part to make this “home school” experiment work.

And succeed it did.  School days marched on unimpeded, though under the darkening cloud of impending civil war, until the last day of school on June 10.   The school community joined AISG’s nine seniors to celebrate their graduation in style with an afternoon of tributes and speeches in the courtyard of the Al Dirah hotel behind which the mighty Mediterranean filled the horizon with its vast and changeable presence.

VII. Conclusion

So we managed to finish the school year and graduate our seniors, and although the entire staff was happy about this achievement, none of the foreigners would return the following year.  In June 2006, Israel went to war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and internal strife in Gaza worsened, until Hamas seized power in January 2007.  Although Hamas quickly restored order in Gaza, our umbrella organization could not send teachers back to a place boycotted by the west for being run by “terrorists.”  Even if the official western view of Hamas had been more favorable, it would have been impossible for western staff to join the school.  After the coup by Hamas, Israel tightened its grip on Gaza, turning the occupation into an act of strangulation.

The intensification of the suffering of the Gazan people in the past years has been striking, at times unimaginable.  The mainstream media persist in refusing to make the point that Gaza’s losses are nobody’s gain. Who wins if an entire population is being deprived of food, medication, and electrical power?  Who benefits if a student receives a scholarship to study abroad, but is not permitted to leave?  A country that is occupied cannot properly educate its children, but education in a country that is under siege will only produce hatred.

In this presentation we have tried to argue that there is a role for international education in the efforts to bring about peace in the Middle East.  It can do so through the international scope of its curriculum in the humanities, a broad range of subjects, and the efforts of teachers who have been educated in the traditions of humanism and multiculturalism.  Social change does not happen overnight, and resistance to change is formidable, especially when it comes to the entrenched, exclusive claims of the Israeli and Palestinian points of view.  More than twenty years after first pointing out the impasse, Said continued to be angered by this facet of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict:

We were dispossessed and uprooted in 1948, they think they won independence. We recall that the land we left and the territories we are trying to liberate from military occupation are all part of our national patrimony; they think it is theirs by biblical fiat and diasporic affiliation. Today by any conceivable standards we are the victims of the violence; they think they are (13).

One way to try and chip away at this framework of oppositional thinking is through efforts that creatively draw upon the human need to communicate with one another.  Said himself did exactly that when he decided, with pianist Daniel Barenboim and violinist Yo-Yo Ma, to organize and conduct master classes for young Arab and Israeli musicians (14).  In a similar vein, we imagine a time when it is possible that Palestinian and Israeli students come together to write a common history, and build a common future.  That time lies far ahead; indeed, it may never come.  Some may think our image is unrealistic, to which we reply: “What is the alternative?”  What else is there for us—teachers in the Middle East—to aspire for and work towards?

Our immediate goal is to join the growing chorus demanding that Israel lift the siege of Gaza and end the occupation of the Palestinian Territories.  Innocent children should not be made to suffer from lack of food, medical help, and sonic booms; they should not have to abandon their school because it is in the target zones of Israeli missiles.  We ask that our colleagues, all over the world, join us in delivering the message to the Israeli and United States governments to lift the siege and end the occupation.  We ask that by this measure, Israel give ordinary Palestinians a chance to live a decent life and create a future for themselves and their children. This is the moral and humane thing to do for Mr. Nasrallah in Gaza City.  This is the moral and humane thing to do for Adam so that he can grow up feeling safe.  This is the moral and humane thing to do for our former student Mohammed so that he need not grieve friends who die in Israeli missile strikes.  If Israel takes this step, its people along the border with Gaza will live in peace because responsible Palestinian leaders can, and will, effectively make the case against extremists that violence does not work.  A peaceful future lies in our capacity to recognize and identify with the human being in one another.

Marga Kapka, Hendrik Taatgen
Al Khobar, September 18, 2008

Notes

  1. Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Books, 1992: 51-55).
  2. Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006).
  3. Quoted in Neil Berry, Remembering Edward Said, (Arab News, August 2008).
  4. Dr. C. George Boeree, Abraham Maslow 1098 – 1970, (http://wwwwebspace.ship.edu/cgboer/maslow.html).
  5. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007: 19).
  6. Humanism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism).
  7. Multiculturalism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiculturalism).
  8. In the United States, multiculturalism lost some of its appeal when recognition of cultural pluralism gave way to the promotion of ethnic identity politics. In other countries, it has been criticized for undermining, rather than promoting social cohesion of the nation-state. See Multiculturalism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiculturalism).
  9. Edward Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Books, 1992: 54).
  10. Graduates of [the organization’s] schools possess all the tools of success in an increasingly integrating world. As humanity’s collective body of knowledge continues to grow at an exponential rate, [the organization] gives its students the skills they need to solve the problems of the future. As clear and critical thinkers with a working knowledge of technology, [the organization’s] graduates are certain to succeed in their future careers. More importantly, they are well-rounded, honorable, and responsible human beings who contribute positively to their societies. (http://www.esolonline.com).
  11. Eyad El Sarraj, personal communication, Cairo, Sheraton Hotel, February 2005.
  12. In early 2008, the Israeli army did not even allow Gazans to import pipes and cement to repair their disintegrating sewage system, causing some Gazans to drown in their own sewage. Johan Hari, Sixty-Year-Old Secret That Israel Must Face, (Arab News, April 30, 2008).
  13. Quoted in Edward W. Said, From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap, London, Bloomsbury, 2005, p. 24.
  14. Edward W. Said and David Barsamian, Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said, London, Pluto Press, 2003, p. 26.