Twenty Years of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Education: A Research Retrospective

This August marked 20 years for me in the Israeli-Palestinian peace-building field. Straight out of college in August 1995, I served as a bunk counselor for a group of Israeli and Palestinian teenaged delegates at the third summer of Seeds of Peace (SOP) International Camp in Maine, USA. Inspired by the dialogue I witnessed that summer — and sobered by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in the fall — I moved to Jerusalem, where I spent eight years working with Israeli and Palestinian SOP alumni to expand what began as an American summer camp into a year-round, cross-conflict youth program on the ground in the Middle East. In 2004, I left to write my doctoral dissertation, a long-term study of peace activism among the first 10 groups of Israeli and Palestinian SOP graduates. I have since moved on to conduct evaluations of many other Middle East peace-building initiatives.

Will Seeds of Peace Ever Bloom?

Over 20 years of practice and research, I have been part of countless conversations on SOP specifically and Israeli-Palestinian peace-building in general. No matter the audience, every discussion evokes the inevitable question of impact, the mother of all FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions). Journalist Matthew Kalman may have asked it best in his September 2014 Ha’aretz column: “Will Seeds of Peace Ever Bloom?”

The question was well warranted at the time, following 50 days of fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants in Gaza that claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians and 71 Israelis — and it remains valid as violence escalates in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and inside Israel today. Many graduates of SOP and other peace education programs are adults in their twenties and thirties. As regional order disintegrates and the peace process recedes further into history, one cannot help but wonder: Where are they now?

This is a critical question, but all too often the conversation stops there without reference to the numerous peace education graduates who are activists today, or to any of the empirical research that has been conducted in recent years. In 2015, the question of impact need not remain shrouded in mystery. There are numerous systematic studies of long-term impact focused on graduates of different programs. There is data to cite, there are people to quote — there are answers.

Peace Education Programs Create Lasting Ripples in Civil Society

In his article, Kalman states that he is hard-pressed to find a single people-to-people (P2P) participant who has gone on to become a peace activist. To find such a person, however, he would have needed to look no farther than his own employer’s July 2014 Ha’aretz Israel Conference on Peace, where there were five adult Seeds of Peace graduates in attendance — two of them currently leading SOP programs in Israel, the others in leading roles with MEET (Middle East Education through Technology), Peace Now’s Settlement Watch and the Israeli-Palestinian Peace NGO Forum, respectively.

P2P veterans with speaking roles at the conference included the youngest member of Israel’s Knesset, Labor’s Stav Shaffir — renowned for her role in the 2011 social protest movement, who is also an alumna of the Olive Tree Israeli-Palestinian scholarship program at City University London. Shaffir’s Labor colleague MK Hilik Bar, now the leader of the two-state solution caucus in the Knesset, was previously co-founder and leader of the Young Israeli Forum for Cooperation (YIFC), an NGO which engaged university students from around the Middle East in dialogue. Bar co-founded the YIFC with Ofer Zalzberg and Nimrod Goren, both prominent peace researchers today, with the International Crisis Group and the Mitvim foreign policy think tank, respectively.

Kalman might have noted other prominent graduates of youth peace education programs such as the indefatigable Gershon Baskin, founder of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), known for his role mediating Israel’s 2011 prisoner exchange with Hamas; or Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli religious leader who is routinely arrested in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for trying to protect Palestinian human rights, and who was recently in the news when he was attacked by a settler while trying to protect Palestinian farmers. Both began their long activist careers before the first intifada with Interns for Peace, an organization that previously brought young Jews to live and learn in Arab towns in Israel, while engaging in community organizing with Palestinian counterparts. Farhat Agbaria, the co-founder of Interns for Peace, has subsequently dedicated his life’s work to facilitating dialogue for Seeds of Peace and for Givat Haviva — where Mohammad Darawshe began his career in the 1980s — and today serves as director of Shared Society programs. And beyond these “usual suspects” with lifelong careers in the field, one might note Michael Sfard, the prominent human rights lawyer and director of Yesh Din, who drew inspiration to embark on his human rights advocacy from dialogue experiences at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam. These are the more prominent examples among hundreds of former peace education participants. There are many dozens more who went on to engage in peace activism in adulthood, even as political opinion among their generational peers has skewed sharply to the right.

In my doctoral research on SOP, for example, I studied whether the first 10 groups of Israeli and Palestinian SOP participants remained engaged in joint peace-building activities in the years after first attending a SOP camp. I found a clear three-stage pattern over time. First, more than half of all 824 participants remained actively engaged for the remainder of high school, two to three years after camp. From ages 18 to 21, the enlistment of most Israeli alumni for compulsory IDF service, and a subsequent sense of betrayal among many Palestinian counterparts, led to sharp declines, with 62% of alumni largely or entirely disengaged. However, after age 21, a substantial minority went on to work professionally for different peace-building initiatives: a total of 144 graduates, or 17.5% of all Israeli and Palestinian SOP alumni from the program’s first decade of operation (1993-2002).

Many of these alumni were active in peace-building for more than 10 years — and multiple wars — after their initial encounter experiences as teenagers. Note that this figure only includes alumni working explicitly in joint peace-building initiatives; it does not include other alumni who have gone on to engage in social change activism of diverse kinds. Moreover, in interviews, the vast majority of active alumni traced the motivation for their adult activism directly to youthful experiences in the program. A Palestinian graduate, writing after his 2011 arrest by the Israel Defense Force while recording footage of anti-occupation demonstrations in Hebron, described SOP as “the beginning of peace activism,” a sentiment echoed by dozens of his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts.

My doctoral research is only one of several empirical studies of Seeds of Peace. Hammack (2006, 2011) finds an erosion of peace-building impact among adolescent graduates as they approach age 18; Maddy-Weitzman (2005, 2007), by contrast, describes graduates remaining actively engaged through the trials of the second intifada; Risen & Schroeder (2014) find positive attitudinal shifts among Israeli and Palestinian SOP participants over a three-year longitudinal study, and emphasize inter-group friendship as the key factor in predicting the long-term resilience of such attitudinal shifts.

SOP is, of course, only one of many youth dialogue and peace education programs past and present. On that note, Karen Ross has reached similar findings regarding significant long-term impact in studies of adult graduates of Peace Child Israel and Sadaka Reut (Ross 2013). Multiple studies have emerged in the last decade from Gavriel Salomon’s Center for Research on Peace Education at the University of Haifa (See Salomon 2004, 2006, CERPE 2010).1 Taken together, these accounts of diverse programs describe a clear three-stage pattern. First, effectively structured youth dialogue and peace education interventions often lead to significant short-term shifts in perceptions of self/in-group, other/out-group, and peace/conflict. Second, the return to intractable conflict eventually leads to a “re-entry problem” or “erosion effect,” diminishing the scope of initial attitudinal changes. Yet this need not be the end of the story, because effective follow-up programs frequently provide what Salomon calls a “restoration effect” for alumni, renewing attitudinal changes and providing motivation for long-term peacebuilding engagement.

Do Peace-Building Initiatives Address Power Differentials?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, important critiques of inter-group encounter methodology emerged. These emphasized the stark asymmetries of power and differing motivations between Israeli Jewish and Palestinian encounter participants (Abu-Nimer 1999; Maoz 2000; Halabi and Sonnenschein 2004), and the dissonance between the ability of dialogue to effect profound psychological-relational change at the micro level, and its inability to translate that into immediate political or social-structural change at the macro level – a “peacebuilder’s paradox” (Lederach 2005; Abu-Nimer and Lazarus 2007).

Yet rather than invalidating dialogue altogether, as anti-normalization advocates would have it — many joint organizations have revised their methodologies and internal governance in order to address these issues. Indeed, Michelle Gawerc (2011) and Karen Ross (2013) have found that the joint organizations that have most successfully navigated the second intifada and its aftermath are those that acted to explicitly address issues of asymmetry in their methodology and organizational structure. In my own research on SOP, I found that Israeli and Palestinian graduates pushed the organization to adopt programmatic and organizational changes that acknowledged asymmetric context and sought to address each group’s different goals and motivations. My findings indicated that such efforts likely were effective, as there were not significant differences between Israeli Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians from the Occupied Territories in terms of alumni engagement in long-term peace-building activity.2

Ultimately, the empirical record clearly indicates the potential for effective inter-group youth programs to inspire many, if not all, individual participants toward years or even lifetimes of activism and cross-conflict engagement. These “peace camps,” few and far between as they are, have served a crucial leadership training role for the embattled Israeli and Palestinian “peace camps” — what Joel Braunold of the Alliance for Middle East Peace calls building “human capital” for the field. My own research has found SOP graduates working, as adults, in more than 40 different cross-conflict peace-building initiatives of diverse methodologies and political orientations.

Moreover, peace education programs for youth are only one model within a diverse peace-building field. Since the 1990s, dozens of organizations have integrated peace-building with agriculture, environmental protection, economic development, medicine, media, research, sport and technology alongside the classic approaches of advocacy, dialogue, education and nonviolence. Their work is present in every hidden corner of the country where Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews strive to assert humanity and interdependence, to acknowledge the pain and learn the perspectives of the other side, to reject racism and violence, to confront the separate and unequal realities generated by decades of mutual hostility and violence, Israeli state policies of occupation, and discrimination. These activists have built knowledge and networks steadily over time, revised methods in the face of critical feedback and harsh experience and adapted strategies to abrupt shifts in context. They have innovated and persevered.

The Problem Is Not Peace Programs, but That There Are Too Few

I have only scratched the surface here of all that Israeli and Palestinian citizens have done in the past two decades in pursuit of what, for lack of a better word, some still call “peace.” Of course, the aggregate impacts of these profound and sustained efforts fall tragically short of their larger goal. What these individuals and organizations have not yet achieved is what none of us has succeeded in doing — not human rights advocates or protest movements, not intifadas or military operations or diplomatic initiatives, not U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry or President Barack Obama or reporters who have dedicated thousands of columns to exposing the iniquities of the occupation. None of this work has been sufficient to undo the effects of 48 years of military rule, lethal violence, pervasive hostility, failed negotiations, brutal conflict in the surrounding region, and the constellation of powerful political forces opposed to resolution of the conflict — nor would it be at all realistic to expect such outcomes.

If we have learned anything from these 20 painful years, it is that conflict transformation among Israelis and Palestinians is a complex, longterm, multi-dimensional struggle that demands of activists a capacity for critical reflection and a high level of motivation in order to persist. From the breadth of research cited here, we also know that these qualities are precisely what have been inspired by effective peace education programs in many of their Israeli and Palestinian graduates. The problem, then, is not with the models or the programs or the graduates — but that there are still far too few of them.

Works Cited

Abu-Nimer, M. (1999). Dialogue, conflict resolution, and Change: Arab-Jewish encounters in Israel. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Gawerc, M. (2012). Prefiguring peace: Israel-Palestinian peacebuilding partnerships. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Hammack, P.L. (2006). Identity, conflict, and coexistence: Life stories of Israeli and Palestinian adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 21(4), 323-369.
Hammack, P.L. (2011). Narrative and the politics of identity: The cultural psychology of Israeli and Palestinian youth. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
Kalman, M. (2014, September 15). Will seeds of peace ever bloom? Haaretz. Available at: (last accessed 15 October 2015).
Lazarus, N. (2011). Evaluating peace education in the Oslo-Intifada generation: A long-term impact study of Seeds of Peace 1993-2010 (Doctoral dissertation).
Lazarus, N. (2015a). Intractable peacebuilding: Case studies of innovation and perseverance from the Israeli-Palestinian context (Working Paper 28 (2)). Arlington, VA: School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.
Lederach, J.P. (2005). The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Maddy-Weitzman, E. (2005). Waging peace in the holy land: A qualitative study of Seeds of Peace, 1993-2004 (Doctoral dissertation).
Maoz, I. (2011). Does contact work in protracted asymmetrical conflict? Appraising 20 years of reconciliation-aimed encounters between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Journal of Peace Research, 48(1), 115-125.
Ross, K. (2013). Sowing seeds of change? Education for partnership between Jews and Palestinians in Israel (Doctoral dissertation).
Salomon, G. (2006). Does peace education really make a difference? Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 12(1), 37-48.
Schroeder, J. & Risen, J.L. (2014). Befriending the enemy: Outgroup friendship longitudinally predicts intergroup attitudes in a coexistence program for Israelis and Palestinians. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.

1 Additionally, the Hand-in-Hand integrated bilingual school network in Israel provides a different model of cross-conflict “encounter” as full-time educational paradigm rather than extracurricular intervention — which has been studied extensively by Tzvi Bekerman, Inas Deeb and others. 2 This finding applies to the period when the research was conducted, i.e., 2004-2010. It is possible that a divergence may have emerged in subsequent years, due to the further deterioration of the peace process, the entrenchment of occupation and the unique pressure of anti-normalization on the Palestinian side. In terms of public peace-building advocacy, Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel seem to figure more prominently than Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories at the moment — nonetheless, Palestinian SOP alumni have led several different joint peace-building initiatives in recent years.