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S. Watt: Overcoming Conflict through Education and Conciliation

Presentation to a conference on “Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace and Development”
Jerusalem, Israel - May 14, 2014

I bring you greetings from Vienna, Austria, where I live. I was not born there. My family has roots in Asia, Africa, and now in Europe.  I have a British passport and an Austrian residence permit. In that sense, I consider myself luckier than many others who long for a place called “home.” Millions of people have moved around the globe like me in the 20th century and more recently. Sometimes people are expelled from their country of birth, sometimes pulled towards another country, in search of a place where they can live in peace and security, raise and educate their children and lead a fulfilling life.  Jewish people know this situation very well as many of them have now found their home here in Israel.

Most people in the world want to live in harmony and peace. Stable peace requires a broad social basis, one where women and men from civil society of both sides in a conflict are involved. In a study from Uppsala University, Desiree Nilsson looked at 83 peace agreements and found that such agreements are 60 percent less likely to fail when NGOs and political parties also have participated in the peace negotiations.[1] Therefore, a strong case has to be made for including all sectors of society, and particularly women, who are in many ways natural peacemakers, having learned that role in their own families.

Women tend to cross religious and cultural boundaries more easily than men do and find a unique connectivity in such exchanges. Yet not often are women placed in positions where they can bring their strengths to bear on a political conflict situation. As Valerie Hudson put it: “The treatment of women in a society is a real barometer of the degree to which a society is capable of peace.” [2]

There is a plethora of peace projects in both Israel and Palestine, involving local and international actors. Nevertheless, after six wars, there is still no stable peace in the region. Yesterday morning, at the Ziv hospital, Safed city, we saw how the hospital staff and the surrounding community have responded to the incoming victims of violence from neighboring Syria. The international staff explained the suffering and the trauma of children, who were brought in, mostly during the night, from Syria. One female victim said, “I know that I am in the enemy country, but I know that I will be cared for here in safety.”  The faces of enemies have now become those who care and are compassionate. Yet these victims have no home to return to.

The last century and this one have seen wars and political violence at many levels of intensity in many parts of the world. More than a billion people live in societies recently or currently affected by war and more than 50 million of them are internally or externally displaced – more than at any time since the Second World War. In most cases, due to the internal wars, the communities have become polarized and people feel very insecure. In particular, the lives of women and children are deeply affected. In the wake of conflict, family life and community relations become difficult at many levels. For the family, economic instability produces stress when finding a source of income becomes a daily struggle. Women’s experiences and perceptions of insecurity are often different than those of men. For women, security is more than the end of fighting. It is about ending physical, sexual and emotional violence. The fear of it lingers on long after a cease-fire. To produce stability, they want to strengthen their family and community relations.

The vision expressed in the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 from October 2000 focuses specifically on women’s role in peace and security. Since the year 2000, only 43 countries (figure for 2011) have developed National Action Plans (NAP) to fulfill the promise of this Resolution and advance women’s inclusion in the process of security-related decisions. That means that more than 150 states have not yet taken that crucial step towards the implementation of this mandatory resolution.

We are aware that the victors write history, in most cases. There is an African saying in Kenya, which goes like this:” Until such time that the lions can tell their story, the hunters will always have their own tales to tell.” The victor’s history is never the full story. Over time, when people feel that their human dignity is violated again and again on regular basis, the reflex is to strike back and restore the status quo ante. However, for instance, in the form of a creation myth about the birth of a nation, the victor’s history makes it into schoolbooks and serves as justification for cementing the new status quo. Yet, these days many losers in conflicts also have their textbooks and they talk about the same events in history in a very different way. Over the years, the two histories go separate ways and become narratives that often serve to perpetuate conflicts over generations. As we well know, hate-filled narratives are fuel to the fire that contributes to bloodshed.

In order to move from conflict to conciliation, we therefore need to start at both the interpersonal and the community level. We also need to look at the integration of educational curricula, and explore how we can change these from two one-sided accounts into a common human story, one that allows us to build bridges between those peoples who have come into conflict over land and historical rights. We have to see that our textbooks contain evidence-based historical facts and not political propaganda myths.  Education at its best teaches young people to think critically and creatively for themselves, allowing them to question traditional myths and see things, based on research and evaluation, in a new and different light. Instead of having our history and the other side having their history, these two histories need to be re-combined, until myths and propaganda are kept out of schoolbooks and replaced by a common truth.

Often the origins of some myths are based on prejudice, which finds its expression in hate speech and stereotypes that are perpetuated without revisiting the historical evidence. It is said, “Wars begin in the minds of men.” If that is true, armed conflicts can also be brought to an end in those minds. Yet for that to happen, we need to bring out the best in the minds of the younger generation, based on education towards critical thinking. The Middle East is full of conspiracy theories that are often far removed from the truth. All these conspiracy theories have to be up-held against the light of empirical research and compared with the factual evidence that exists, so that lies can be thrown into the dustbin of false histories.

This is not to deny that there are no conspiracies in the world. However, these are far fewer than propaganda makes us believe. We live in a world where access to information is greater than ever. Collecting information, checking information, rejecting and re-evaluating such information must be an on-going process and become a critical skill that educators must teach to children early on. 

Education can become a key to conciliation but for that to happen, we need educators, who themselves are not propagandists but people, who dare to think for themselves and also dare to teach uncomfortable truths.

At the family level, home truths are made available by both parents; however, more often than not it is the mother who communicates the meaning and experiences of “true” and “false”, “right” or “wrong”.  Examples of how family members negotiate differences and settle arguments can be utilised for opening up a wider discussion and initiating dialogue. While none of us is in possession of eternal truths, we can get closer to reality by asking searching questions, weighing carefully the evidence that speaks for or against a given hypothesis. We must constantly test our assumptions to avoid that they become empty shells like so many conspiracy theories that have become vehicles for demagogic propaganda.

In order for peace to come to this part of the world, a much greater investment in solid, ideology-free education is required. Too many people are caught in a web of lies and half-truths that create mistrust and hostility. While broader and better education may not be the only key to peace in the Middle East, it is a prerequisite for it.

The economic and emotional costs of conflict at individual, family, community and national level are enormous. As mothers, wives and sisters we do not want to lose our beloved brothers and children in any battle. Women pay a high price in war despite the fact that, in most cases, they are more peaceful than men are. Women educators should be encouraged to pass on their unique vision of peace to the younger generation in more forceful terms. This should not only happen in the classroom.

Women can also utilize other forums to bring their message across, for instance, in the form of documentary movies. Some of you might have seen the powerful documentary “Within the Eye of the Storm” by Shelly Hermon. It deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on an inter-personal level. The Austrian section of the UPF and the Women's Federation for World Peace invited the film’s director to Vienna to discuss the message of this movie about Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

Recently, our section of the WFWP also held two capacity-building sessions on education in the 21st century. We brought together educators and project workers to reflect on what future-oriented education should encompass. With such activities, we hope to increase awareness, parental and care-giver involvement and inclusive dialogue at all levels in education. The goal is to create a momentum, both nationally and internationally, towards peace education and towards responsible global citizenship.

Women are talented in problem solving at every level and possess a great sense of balance, tolerance and justice as well as the ability to be inclusive. Perhaps this particular aspect has often been lacking in male-dominated peace negotiations.  Former US President Jimmy Carter has said that women’s inequality is the most widespread human rights violation on earth. It makes sense that when women become equal in political decision-making processes, they would, hopefully, focus more on conflict resolution. However, this does not necessarily mean the end of conflict. During the times of powerful women leaders in the 20th century, like Golda Mayer, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, their countries were involved in conflict and war.

Let me conclude with suggesting a modest proposal for reviving the stalled peace process between Israelis and Palestinians: have a strong parallel track-two negotiation path, a track where Israeli and Palestinian women get together and try to succeed. The women selected for alternative peace talks should have personal experiences at the grass-roots level and bring their visions into the negotiation process in the hope of finding more common ground for making peace. Such a track-two peace process by women from both sides may have a bumpy start, but needs to be given a chance. The gap between “us” and “them” between Israelis and Palestinians, might be made smaller if all that are “us” are women. Once such “women only” peace talks gain momentum, a conciliation process may manifest itself that has so far been largely elusive.

Such a process should draw on the collective strength of women from both sides – women who wish to see an end to violence and build safer communities for their families. Narratives that come from the hearts of women who know what caring and sacrifice means should inform such a track-two negotiation process. I believe that women’s greater awareness of the “us” vs. “them” gap enables them to be better bridge-builders. Hence my call to you: give women a greater chance to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Such an all-female effort has few political costs but can have huge potential gains.

[1] ], Desireé Nilsson - Uppsala universitet; based on

[2] Valerie Hudson, 2013.