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Middle East Peace Begins in the Classroom

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I recently wrote in these pages about the need for Israel to stop settlement construction in the West Bank, and for the Arab world to take real responsibility in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While immensely important, additional measures by all parties need to be undertaken as well. This second article of a four part series will highlight some of the other issues that peace requires, beginning in the classroom.

A classic example of how a misguided education can fuel a conflict is the historic tensions between Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church.

My predecessor as President of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann, negotiated the great papal encyclical "Nostra Aetate" with Pope John XXIII. As important as that document was in starting on the path of reconciliation, it didn't really change things on the ground. That's why the International Catholic Jewish Liaison Committee, an organization consisting of Jewish and Catholic communal leaders, was created: to improve interfaith relations, tangibly and from the relationship's core.

Among its other missions, the committee met regularly and took on the issue of what textbooks used in the classrooms said about the other faith. I was there at some of those meetings, and as difficult as it was in some instances, progress was always made. There are few complaints now as to what we say about each other. Jewish-Catholic relations have undergone a renaissance since the mid-20th century, furthering peace and reconciliation around the world.

Based on these lessons learned, and if there is to be real peace in the Middle East, there will have to be a review of what is being taught in the schools on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hamas' recent rejection of a UN initiative to teach the Holocaust in the schools of Gaza says everything about the power of education, and the extremists' need to traffic in fear and lies.

For this very reason, moderates on both sides must create a methodology of meeting regularly and pointing out what is being taught, on the ground, to young people about their neighbors.

We have to remember that while Catholic hatred of Jews had been a tragic staple for two thousand years, the tension between Muslims and Jews is much more recent and not as entrenched. As Princeton Professor Bernard Lewis and others have argued, during all those centuries of homelessness, the condition of the Jewish people under Muslim rule was much better than under Christian domination.

With the beginning of the Zionist project in the late-19th century - with its legitimate historical, territorial, and religious aspirations - Jew and Arab have been at each other's throats for most of the past 100 years.

At the present moment and into the future, what's fundamental is that the Israelis are in the Middle East to stay. The Palestinians will have to acknowledge this fact and transmit it to their children if they have any hope of creating a satisfactory state of their own.

In the words of Jewish philosopher and educator Rabbi David Hartman, "We Jews have come home."

Arab rejection of this basic reality from the moment Israel was created has done nothing but increase bloodshed, on all sides.

Arab youth are taught to wonder, since the Holocaust was a European affair, why are the Palestinians being forced to pay for the creation of Israel?

However, it's crucial to understand that Zionism predates the depravities of Nazi Germany. In fact, the search for a Jewish national home came about due to centuries of anti-Semitic pogroms, expulsions, discrimination and hate. The Holocaust was simply the evil culmination of all that came before it.

In addition, more than half of modern Israeli Jewish society is itself refugees - in this case, not from European concentration camps, but from Middle Eastern states like Morocco, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and many others, who evicted their Jews, penniless.

The Arab world needs to appreciate that legitimate historical claims and modern necessities are what make Israel the homeland of the Jewish people. Arab acknowledgment of that fact is necessary before a genuine peace can be attained.

For Israel's part, it needs to teach its children about the real potential for co-existence with the Arab world. Due to historical circumstances, Palestinians have been dealt a difficult hand. Many are still refugees and have paid dearly for decades of political upheaval. As Israeli leaders have repeatedly said, Israel needs to live up to its own liberal Jewish values and high moral standards that have been developed over centuries of rich tradition. This begins with teaching Israeli children that Palestinian children are their neighbors, with real histories and dreams.

In other words, there has to be a willingness to forget past hatreds on both sides of the divide, and look to a better future. As a necessary step, a group of Jewish and Arab leaders needs to be put together to look at what the textbooks say about the former enemy, and agree to move forward honestly, without distortion. If Catholics and Jews can today come together regularly for talks after so many tears and so much blood have been shed, than Jews and Arabs must be able to do the same.