Learning to Live Together, Jaffa Style

A new class exchange program in Israel may be the key to more peaceful future

Posted Dec 08, 2014

Considering the political tensions and violent outbreaks throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories,  it is hardly surprising that relations between Israelis and Palestinians is at an all-time low.  Surveys show that Israeli-Jews regard Israeli-Palestinians (who are often referred to as "Arabs") with suspicion and 40 percent feel that they should be stripped of their right to vote.  Even from a young age,  Israeli and Palestinian youths have negative steretypes that fuel the political situation by representing the other side as treacherous and untrustworthy. 

As one of the few mixed cities in Israel today, the port of Jaffa on the outskirts of Tel Aviv is a perfect example of political uncertainty with its 20,000 Arab and 35,000 Jewish residents. With growing tension threatening to shatter the  peaceful co-existance in Jaffa, creating new programs to encourage greater understanding of both sides has become more important than ever. One of these new initiatives is the Arab-Jewish Class Exchange Program (CEP).  According to its Facebook page, the recently-founded program involves "helping Arab and Jewish youngsters in Israel learn together to promote mutual understanding, respect and friendship through joint classes in arts, music and drama at the unique Arab-Jewish Center in Jaffa."

The program was first developed by Rony Berger, a clinical psychologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Tel Aviv University.   Based on the ERASE-Stress Prosocial (ESPS) program used to teach resilience to youths living in dangerous regions, the Class Exchange Program involves reducing prejudice by encouraging greater contact between Israeli-Jewish and Israeli-Palestinian children.  Meeting in Jaffa''s Arab-Jewish Community Center, participating students are divided into mixed groups of 20 Israeli-Jewish and 20 Israeli-Palestinian children each.  Through six four-hour monthly meetings, the children were introduced to the following CEP themes:

  • Getting started - children were presented the ground rules of the program.  Each student gave a self-presentation focusing on how similar they were to the others.  Through social exercises, the children were encouraged to overcome ethnic and religious differences and think of all forty participants as a single group.
  • Me and myself -  students were encouraged to explore their strengths and weaknesses and learn to accept themselves. 
  • Me and my peers - students describe their friends and "foes" to the other children in the group to examine their similarities and differences.  They then explore how attitudes and stereotypes are formed and learn to challenge their prejudices
  • Me and my school --  students are encouraged to focus on the differences between their schools and examine why hostile competition is so common as well as how to develop greater cooperation between the schools
  • Me and my family - students describe their families and focus on the similarities and differences in family traditions across other cultures.  They are taught to develop respect for human diversity and cultural differnces.
  • Me and my community - students address the differences between their communities and try to explore how they can live together in a common society.  The program ends with musical and drama performances to celebrate their cultural diversity.   Each student was then provided with a memory booklet to commemorate the experience in the program.

The bulk of each meeting involved three one-hour art activity sessions, including visual art, music, and drama, allowing all the students to mix together with a half-hour break.  The groups also received a half-hour preparatory session designed to promote greater cultural diversity. All the Class Exchange activities involved face-to-face interactions among the students with both languages being used interchangeably.  

But how effective is the Class Exchange Program as a way of countering the mutual hostility of the students?  A new research study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology presents some evidence for the program's effectiveness.  Written by Rony Berger and his colleagues at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa, the study focuses on how the Class Exchange Program can be used to break down stereotypes and help reverse the prejudices between Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli children.  The 262 students used in the study were fourth-graders recruited from two Arab and two Jewish elementary schools in Jaffa. These students were then randomly assigned to either the full Class Excange Program or a "control" group doing artwork.   

The children who received the full Class Exchange Program were independently rated by three graduate students to fine-tune the program and avoid any problems developing. The children in the control group met for three 90-minute meetings each month over the same six-month period as the CEP group.   There was no mixing between the Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli children as with the experimental program though they still took part in classrom activities designed to promote tolerance.  For all participating children, psychometric testing was used to measure readiness for social contact with the other children, preudicial attitudes, and tendency to discriminate. As a further test of discrimination, children were also presented pictures of Ethiopian children to determine whether the CEP reduced prejudice against all minorities or specifically the ethnic groups participating in the program.

What Berger and his colleagues found was that children attending the CEP program became readier to have contact with members of the other ethnic group and were more likely to have positive attitudes about interacting with them. There didn't appear to be any difference in terms of gender or ethnic background. As for tendency to discriminate, the results were a little more complicated.  While Israeli-Palestinian children attending the CEP were less likely to discriminate against Israeli-Jewish children, there didn't appear to be the same result for Israeli-Jewish children. Still, many of the children who participated, regardless of ethnic background, felt that the program led to significant changes in their attitudes.  Personal interviews with the teachers of these children also turned up evidence that the children had become more open and accepting due to their experience in the CEP.  This experience didn't appear to generalize to other ethnic groups however as many children found their attitudes towards Ethiopian children to be unchanged.

So, what do these results mean?   Berger and his co-authors suggest that the success of the CEP stems from the greater opportunities it provides for social contact between different ethnic groups to help prevent the kind of prejudice that can lead to violence. Though programs such as this one are probably not enough by themselves to break down the barriers that have been in place for so long, they show enormous promise for the future. 

Young people living in areas affected by war, ethnic tensions, and political conflicts have always been especially vulnerable to being recruited by extremist groups.  Using school programs like the CEP  to reduce stereotypes and discrimination may be the best approach to ensure that students are better able to avoid the kind of propaganda that can make unthinkable acts of violence possible..