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Editorial Board

Adnan Abdelrazek

Danny Rubinstein

Sam'an Khoury

Daniel Bar-Tal

Walid Salem

Galia Golan

Gershon Baskin

Hind Khoury

Edy Kaufman

Ata Qaymari

Benjamin Pogrund

Nafez Nazzal

Dan Jacobson

Jumana Jaouni

Moshe Maoz

Munther Dajani

Khuloud Khayyat Dajani

Izhak Schnell

Lucy Nusseibah

Meir Margalit

Menachem Klein

Ali Abu Shahla

Ilan Baruch

Hanna Siniora

Yehudit Oppenheimer

Mossi Raz

Susie Becher

Frances Raday

Vol.8 No.3 2001 / Post-Oslo: Impasse and Options


The Dilemmas of Peace Education in Intractable Conflicts

It is necessary to view the other‘s collective narrative as legitimate.

     by Gavriel Salomon and Baruch Nevo

Peace is too grave a matter to be left solely to politicians. With the possibility of a rapprochement between adversaries, in the absence of reconciliation processes, mutual understanding and tolerance are likely to be precarious. Reconciliation may need the support and facilitation of educational interventions, both school-based and out-of-school, community and media-based activities. For these reasons, peace education programs have been carried out in a great variety of formats all over the world for at least 30 years (e.g., Burns and Aspeslagh, 1996). The importance of such programs has recently been amplified by UNESCO’s call for the development of a worldwide “Culture of Peace” (Adams, 2000). With the growing interest in peace education, the development of the scholarly aspects of this enterprise, to inform and to be informed by practice, is becoming an urgent matter.

Obstacles on the Road to Peace Education Scholarship

This urgent task is facing two major obstacles.
The first concerns conceptual ambiguity; it emanates from the many profoundly different kinds of activities and the divergent array of goals, all of which are grouped under the same label of “peace education.” One would face difficulties finding a common core for educational programs on school-based violence prevention, multicultural education (Banks, 1993), and the promotion of mutual understanding between real enemies as in Kosovo or Israel. Indeed, can programs designed to cultivate skill in classroom-based cooperation or schoolyard interpersonal conflict (e.g., Deutsch, 1993) be grouped together with programs designed to cultivate mutual tolerance between whites and Latinos in Los Angeles schools or between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast?
In this paper we argue that, basically, peace education programs are designed to educate for peace with a real ethnic, racial or national adversary. Such programs face mutually exclusive collective narratives, anchored in painful historical memories that are accompanied by grave inequalities (Azar, cited in Fisher, 1997). We thus offer below a conception of peace education in such intergroup contexts, defined as “intractable conflicts” (Rouhana and Bar-Tal, 1998), a conception that sees peace education as affecting one’s way of treating the “other’s” collective narrative as a legitimate one, which, in turn, appears to facilitate a relatively optimistic view of future reconciliation and a willingness to act toward it (Bar-Tal, in press).
The second obstacle concerns the paucity of research and evaluation of peace education as an educational challenge. This is to be distinguished from research on either basic social psychological processes or research on programs which, as we see it, are only tangentially related to genuine peace education. We distinguish between, on the one hand, research that pertains to programs designed to change a student’s way of relating to another individual, as is the case with most conflict resolution and mediation programs (e.g., Johnson and Johnson, 1996), and, on the other hand, between programs designed to change one’s way of relating to another collective — racial, ethnic, national or religious group, as is the case with peace education in contexts of intergroup conflict (e.g., Fisher, 1997). Thus, would research on peer mediation in New York schools enlighten peace educators in Belfast? Our search through the relevant literature reveals that scholarship pertaining to the latter kind of programs lags far behind practice (Harris, 1992).
In this paper we try to address the two difficulties mentioned above. First, we offer a conception of peace education in contexts of intractable conflict and then raise a sample of research questions that emanate from that conception. We suggest that empirical answers to such questions might well advance the field and improve its practices.

The Essential Nature of Peace Education — Basic Distinctions

Peace education programs differ from each other in a variety of ways: the location of programs, students’ ages, program duration, specific content and foci, and the like (Nevo and Brem, in press). However, perhaps the most important and influential dimension distinguishing between different classes of peace education programs is the sociopolitical context in which peace education takes place. It makes a profound difference in terms of the goals, practices and success criteria whether peace education programs take place in regions of intractable conflict, such as Northern Ireland or Cyprus; in regions of racial or ethnic tension, such as the United States; or regions of tranquility and perceived harmony, such as Sweden. Whereas peace education in the two former contexts aims at changing ways of perceiving and relating to a real collective adversary or discriminated minority, the latter faces no real target for peace. It is more education about peace than education for peace with somebody else. In this sense, it makes a large difference whether the Culture of Peace, currently promoted by UNESCO, is to be cultivated in Rwanda, between the Hutus and the Tutsis; in Norway; in Chicago, between blacks and whites, or in New Zealand.
Peace education as designed and practiced in contexts of intractable conflict, inter-ethnic tension, or racial friction, can be seen as the prototypical, all-encompassing, superordinate case of peace education for at least two reasons. First, peace education in such regions faces the most difficult challenges, such as collectively held narratives, shared painful memories, grave inequalities, and common national or ethnic views of self versus the “other.” Other programs, such as multicultural education, conflict resolution or education for democracy, are based on rationales and employ intervention designs, which in many cases are variants of those used in peace education programs in regions of intractable conflict. In other words, conflict resolution, violence prevention and multicultural education seem to be subsets of peace education in both rationale and practice. Second, research on peace education in contexts of intractable conflict may be more informative for program designs in less severe contexts than the other way around. For example, high-school educators facing tensions between the Jocks and the Goths can learn from research on peace education between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Three Challenges

Unlike many other programs such as school-based conflict resolution training, peace education programs in contexts of conflict and inter-group tension do not deal primarily with interpersonal conflicts; they deal with conflicts based on “ethnic [racial, national or religious] hostilities crossed with developmental inequities that have a long history and a bleak future” (Fisher, 1997). Such a conception highlights three major challenges that peace education in regions of intractable conflict uniquely faces and has to deal with.
Conflicting collective narratives: First, peace education faces a conflict between opposing collective narratives. These narratives describe the conflict from each side’s point of view, provide the backbone of a group’s sense of identity (e.g., “our” superior qualities versus “theirs”) (Tajfel, 1978), and entail a number of shared beliefs such as “We are just,” “We are only victims,” “Our actions are based on a moral imperative,” and the like (Bar-Tal, 2000). Such narratives “generate intense animosity that becomes integrated into the socialization processes in each society and through which conflict-related emotions and cognitions are transmitted to new generations” (Rouhana and Bar-Tal, 1998, p. 762).
Collective historical memories: Not only does peace education face conflicting narratives, but so does multicultural education. However, unlike multicultural education, peace education also faces the challenge of overcoming collective historical memories of groups in conflict. Indeed, it is this historical dimension of a group’s narrative, the shared traumatic memories of pain, humiliation, conquest, slavery, discrimination and the like, that fuel the mistrust, animosity and conflict with another group. As so succinctly pointed out by Ignatieff (1996): The problem with the collective memory of the past is that “it is not past at all.” The case of black collective memories of slavery, the Jewish memories of the Holocaust, or those of the Catholics in Northern Ireland are pertinent examples. Textbooks, the media and school curricula play an important role in cultivating a group’s narrative and its historical underpinnings (e.g., Liebes, 1992). By and large, multicultural education, conflict resolution programs and democratic education do not face the kind of challenge that peace education faces in regions of intractable conflict or inter-ethnic tension.
Grave inequalities: The third challenge facing peace education is the inequality built into the conflict situation, typically characterizing the relative statuses of, and relations between, the groups in conflict. Such is the case of the status differences between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, between blacks and whites in South Africa, or between Palestinians and Jews in Israel. The importance of this challenge for peace education is that, in the face of grave inequalities, the collective agendas of the groups involved are often at odds: whereas the weaker, discriminated, poorer, or otherwise disenfranchised group expects peace education to lead primarily to equality with the dominating group — peace, quiet and the maintenance of the status quo are of prime importance to the group of higher or stronger status (Maoz, 2000). Moreover, as research on encounter groups involving members of parties in conflict shows, equality both within the encounter (Who is leading the discussion? Whose narrative is taken seriously?) and outside it (Who is the dominant force in society?) is essential for anything positive to come of it (Pettigrew, 1998). In the absence of a sense of equality, encounter groups are often headed for failure (Tal-Or, Boninger and Gleicher, in press).
Not only peace education faces challenges of the kind mentioned above. However, only peace education in contexts of conflict faces all three challenges together, as a package, implying that the main target of peace education ought to be these challenges. Collective narratives, traumatic memories and inequalities thus turn out to play a major role in justifying and sustaining the conflicts and tensions between groups. Also, attitudinal changes, familiarity with the “other’s” culture, or reduced stereotypes are likely to be temporary, even ineffective, as long as the “other’s” collective narrative, aspirations and pains are not perceived as legitimate (Ahonen, 1999).

The Other Narrative

Hence, it appears that the major target for peace education ought to be the way such narratives, histories and inequalities are perceived and related to. New ways of perceiving the “other’s” narrative imply their acceptance as legitimate — that is, a readiness to see the conditional “truth” in each narrative and the way it is a social construal rather than a (one-sided) absolutism and all that this implies. Peace education in contexts of intractable conflicts and inter-ethnic tensions would thus aim primarily to change individuals’ dispositions and actions towards the collective narrative of the “other” and consequently change the perception of self in relation to that “other.” It is important to note that whether explicitly stated or only implied, many peace education programs in regions of conflict aim at precisely such an overall goal (Bjerstedt, 1992).
Three more specific and interrelated goals for peace education emanate from the above conception of peace education as the acceptance of the “other’s” collective narrative and its specific implications as legitimate. These are (a) to facilitate learners’ disposition to critically examine their own group’s contribution to the “other’s” collective narrative, including the conduct toward the other group; (b) to cultivate empathy and trust toward the collective “other”; and (c) to cultivate a disposition to prefer non-violent solutions of the conflict with the other group. The three goals pertain respectively to cognitive, affective and behavioral aspects of the desired change.
There are a number of issues to be noticed about the goals of peace education as presented here. First, the idea of accepting the “other’s” collective narrative as legitimate does not imply agreeing with it. It entails one’s ability and willingness to see the conflict and its implications from the other’s point of view. In a sense, it is a matter of (cognitive) perspective-taking (Hakvoort and Oppenheimer, 1999): A Cincinnati police officer would be expected to see the “police culture” from a black youngster’s vantage point; a Serb youngster would be able and willing to see ethnic cleansing from the perspective of a Bosnian Muslim; and a Jewish student in Israel would come to see the conflict with the Palestinians from the latter’s perspective. It might well be that having each side come to actively construct the collective narrative of the “other” (“forced compliance”; Aronson, 1988) would serve the attainment of this goal. To an extent, the goal of legitimizing the other’s collective narrative entails more than a modicum of relativism, for it might imply that both narratives can be partly “right,” thus that Rashomon is not just a Japanese movie but a social reality.
Second, becoming able and willing to examine the contribution of one’s own collective memory to the conflict, particularly the pain one’s own group may have inflicted on the other, is probably the most challenging goal for peace education. Changing one’s belief in the righteousness of one’s group (“Aren’t we the victims?”), emotional as it is, would make the attainment of this goal most difficult but necessary. The very process of acknowledging the adverse role one’s own group plays in the conflict may be quite threatening to students’ monolithic belief in the righteousness of their group. Societal legitimization of such soul-searching in support of peace education programs would appear to be crucial. The television series Roots may have served this goal well in the U.S., scaffolding the public’s growing acknowledgment of the injustices of slavery. Similarly, the relative success of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa may well be attributed to the societal status bestowed upon it (Soudien, in press). Both cases can be taken as prime examples of out-of-school peace education.
Third, the cultivation of trust and empathy, or “vicarious introspection” as Cohler and Galatzer-Levy (1992) have called it, is another affective complement of the more cognitive legitimization of the other group’s collective narrative: One comes to feel the agony, the suffering or the dreams of the other side. In a sense, attaining this goal may be more difficult than attaining the more rational goal of legitimizing the other’s narrative; it may require overcoming collectively held feelings of dislike, avoidance, superiority, and fear. Whether face-to-face meetings are the vehicle of choice for the attainment of this goal is still an open question.

Peace Education for the Strong and the Weak

The attainment of peace education goals of the kind presented above is no minor matter. As Gordon Allport has pointedly stated in The Nature of Prejudice (1954), “It is easier to smash atoms than prejudices.” There is no paucity of research on some of the more basic principles underlying intergroup relations, such as the well-known contact hypothesis (e.g., Pettigrew, 1998), or the relationships between individual and collective identities. However, much of this research was carried out in well-controlled laboratory settings, far removed from the composite, multivariate nature of real-life peace education programs. Indeed, the composite processes that jointly constitute peace education are rarely studied as composites; more often than not, research is addressed at discrete components, such as attitude change, the reduction of prejudice, ways of interpersonal conflict resolution, negotiation, or intergroup encounters. Most importantly, much of the relevant research does not address peace education in contexts of intractable conflict but in much tamer and more moderate contexts.
This situation, then, leaves a number of crucial questions unanswered, awaiting the study of peace education in contexts of intractable conflict and inter-ethnic tension. The following is a sample of what may be considered the most pertinent questions.
The main argument so far has been that peace education should aim at cultivating the acceptance of the “other’s” collective narrative as legitimate, empathy toward that collective’s sufferings, self-examination of one’s own wrongdoing toward the other, and the preference of peaceful solutions to the conflict. But in the face of grave inequalities between the sides, where there is a racial majority and minority, conqueror and conquered, rich and poor, what should peace education be for the weaker side? Are the desired changes of perspective, empathy, trust and action equally applicable to the majority and to the minority, to the conqueror and to the conquered, the victim and the perpetrator? The weak partner, the victim of humiliation or discrimination, can neither be expected to come to feel much empathy toward the stronger, discriminating side, nor accept as legitimate the latter’s narrative, which justifies the humiliation or discrimination.
It may well be that the goals of peace education for the strong and the weak partners should not be the same. We would want the participants of the strong side to empathize with the pain and suffering of the weak, and reflect back on the ways in which its own contribution added to that suffering. But what would be the goals for peace education designed for the weak side? The conception of peace education in regions of conflict, as suggested here, highlights this question. Once peace education goals are conceptualized in the way suggested here, this question becomes unavoidable. The same applies to situations where only mild attitude changes are expected. Does one expect the weaker side to treat its oppressor more positively? To the best of our knowledge, this question has neither been addressed conceptually, nor studied empirically.

From General to Specific Beliefs

Does acquiring general beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions about peace become applied to a particular adversary, disliked minority or fear-arousing “others”? Intuition would suggest a positive answer. When individuals learn to believe in peace in general, would they not apply that general belief to specific cases even when strong emotions and questions of identity are involved? But according to research, the relationship is anything but simple: General beliefs and attitudes do not always translate into specific actions and behaviors (e.g., Schraw, 2000). One can entertain a general disposition toward peace and non-violent conflict resolution, yet hold rather belligerent views about a particular adversary.
The question for research on this aspect of peace education concerns not just the principled, universal relations between general and specific beliefs, but the educational conditions under which the cultivation of general beliefs could become translated into particular ways of treating a real, concrete adversary. For example, under what conditions would teaching about war and its horrors have students in peaceful regions cease to be passive and unconcerned bystanders in the face of some bloody conflict elsewhere (Staub, 1999)? Similarly, would learning about another, distal conflict and the roles that collective narratives play in it soften the ethnocentric way learners tend to view the more proximal conflict they themselves are involved in? For example, would studying the narratives involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make Northern Irish students come to view differently the narratives involved in their local conflict?
Based on the contact hypothesis originally formulated by Allport (1954), peace education programs are often based on face-to-face contacts between the two sides of the conflict: students from one side meet students from the other side during specially arranged weekend workshops, church-initiated seminars, summer camps, or school-based joint research or artistic projects. Often, personal relations between students of the two sides start generating genuine friendships. Is there reason to believe that these personal friendships develop into a new, generalized perception of other members of the other group?
Past research addressing this issue suggests that under favorable conditions such generalization from the individual to the collective is possible (see review by Pettigrew, 1998). However, most of the research addressing this issue was carried out with members of non-adversarial groups. What if members of two groups involved in an intractable conflict befriend each other? Would this generalize to other members of their respective groups or would a process of differentiation take place (“Some of my best friends are…”)?
Also, our conception of peace education implies a differentiation between generalizing from personal friendship to viewing the other group’s members, and transferring from that friendship to a different perception of the other group’s collective narrative. Are the two connected? Research so far has not addressed these issues in the context of a truly intractable conflict.

From Changes during Peace Education to More Lasting Effects Following It

Salomon, Perkins and Globerson (1991) have suggested a distinction between learning effects with a technology and effects of it. The former are effects obtained while working with computers (better essays with word processors), whereas the latter are more lasting effects that develop as a consequence of that experience (better writing ability). This distinction between these two kinds of effects pertains to all kinds of educational intervention, but it is often overlooked; it is of importance also in the present context. Changed perceptions or attitudes toward another group during intergroup encounters, do not ensure any changes that remain as the contact’s lasting residue. For example, as Tal-Or, Boninger, and Gleicher (in press) point out, relating to an adversary as an individual (Bob, Jack, Rachel) rather than as a member of another group (black, Mexican) may be effective during planned contacts between adversary groups, but leads to no changed perceptions later on as a consequence of that contact.
This issue has been dealt with experimentally within the context of intergroup contact (e.g., Wilder, 1984). But, again, when it comes to studying peace education in contexts of intractable conflict or intergroup tension, the situation may be either more complex or entirely different. Let us assume that a peace education program is indeed sufficiently effective to lead to the acceptance of the “other’s” collective narrative as legitimate and to the participants’ willingness to reflect on the ways each side to the conflict contributes to it. These are changes attained while students participate in the program. But what remains of these changes at the end of the day, once the participants return to their homes or neighborhoods, or once the program reaches its end? Having come to acquire a new way of perceiving the adversary, a way that most likely runs counter to the prevailing collective narrative, the program’s graduates must experience a mismatch between their newly acquired lenses and the old ones. The issue is not just cognitive or emotional, but social: changes obtained during a program take place in a socially supportive context. But once out of the program, the question of maintaining the changed perspectives in the face of the old, well-established narrative, collectively held by one’s social milieu, becomes paramount. What would a peace education program need to entail, to ensure that positive changes obtained during its implementation be maintained also later in the face of a less-than-welcoming social environment?


The field of peace education, rich in activities as it is all over the world, seems to mean many and different things, thus making it difficult to accumulate experiences and lessons learned that can be applied in new places and with new students. Like all scholarly fields, this one, too, can lead to the formulation of specific research questions. These need to emanate from an overall conception of peace education as a composite, multivariate field, as contrasted with lab-based research on discrete elements.
The conception offered here is that the prototypical peace education program is the one that needs to be carried out in contexts of intractable conflict, and that it faces a trio of challenges: conflicting collective narratives, embedded in collective historical memories and entailing grave inequalities. It follows that the overall goal of peace education is to change people’s way of relating to the “other’s” collective narrative — that is, coming to perceive it as legitimate. Self-examination, empathy and a disposition for peaceful resolution of the conflict would follow.
The research questions mentioned above do not necessarily emanate from the conception of peace education in contexts of intractable conflict and inter-group tension as presented here. Such questions pertain to peace education regardless of its underlying rationale or actual execution. However, they are of particular interest and importance when peace education is aimed at the legitimization of an adversary’s collective narrative and all that this implies. For, in light of this conception, the traditional issues of interpersonal friendships, general beliefs in peace, attitude change or changed stereotypes come to assume a secondary role. Such changes, important as they are, can take place even without the legitimization of the other’s narrative, but are likely to be quite superficial and temporary as long as the other’s collective narrative is seen as less than legitimate.


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