A few months ago, I was asked to teach a session about my new book The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, A View from Jerusalem at an adult education program in Jerusalem entitled “Pop-up Limmud” (affiliated with the international organization known as Limmud based in the UK). At the same time that I was teaching, there was another session entitled ” What is a nice Jewish girl from Ein Karem doing visiting the Pope?”. The title intrigued me. It was given by a former journalist named Lisa Talesnick, who has become a committed peacebuilder through her formal and informal educational work with Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem.
Since I could not attend her session, I arranged to have coffee with her the following week, to get the scoop on her story. How did she get to meet the Pope recently? What was the background that led up to her visit?
After a stint with the Boston Globe as a journalist in Jerusalem, Talesnick went back to Canada to study Sufism. Several years ago, she returned to Israel to become a teacher. Since 2011, she has been teaching Judaism to Palestinian children, mostly Muslims, at the Jerusalem School in Bet Hanina, a Palestinian neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. The Jerusalem School was established in 1987 by Ross Byars, a Christian from Georgia, USA, who came to this region at that time and has since established 3 schools–one in Jerusalem, one in Gaza, and one in Bet Jalla (next to Bethlehem, in the West Bank). Mr. Byars is now superintendent of these schools. Originally established to meet the needs of American children whose parents were living in Israel for various reasons, the Jerusalem school is a Christian, American, private, co-educational K-12 institution, which is licensed with both the Palestinian and Israeli ministries of education.
In recent years, these schools have established a “Peace Academy”. On the uniform of every student one can find a slogan: Peace begins with me. Every student in the school studies a peace curriculum, beginning in grade 5. In 10th grade, they all study a full year of the peace curriculum, where they learn about non-violent resistance in many places in the world. The new curriculum, which they call The Peace Heroes Curriculum, has been developed in these Jerusalem schools and is now also being piloted in at least one Israeli school, The Gymnasia Ivrit in Herzliya, led by an innovative educator named Ze’ev Degani, as well as in schools in other countries, such as Kenya, South Africa, Burundi, and Northern Iraq/Kurdistan. On a new website that they have set up (www.paxology.org/your-story/), their vision is clearly enunciated: to educate for peace by transforming lives and inspiring people to be peacemakers in a broken world.
As a peacebuilder in a Palestinian school, Talesnick and some of her students were invited to attend a conference held at the Truman Institute for Peace of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in July of last summer. The conference was organized by a group known as Scholas Occurentes an initiative aimed at young people in the world that has its origin in the city of Buenos Aires during the period that Pope Francis was the archbishop there. It brings young people from public and private schools of all religions together in order to educate young people to be committed to act for the common good of all human beings.
At the conference in Jerusalem last summer, Palestinian students from both the Jerusalem School in Bet Hanina and the Gymnasia HaIvrit in Herzliya, met with their counterparts from countries in South and Central America and Africa. In total, about 100 high school youth participated in this program. The Scholas organization hired dynamic young artists to run the 5-day encounter. These excellent and experienced informal educators helped the students get in touch with their emotions through arts in a program that focused on peacebuilding through culture and dialogue.
Since Pope Francis had given his blessing to this conference, Talesnick –along with 1 Palestinian Arab student from her school and 1 Jewish Israeli student from Tel Aviv–was invited, along with 20 other youth from around the world, to meet the Pope in the Vatican a few months later, to share their experiences with him. According to Talesnick, “the Pope sat for three hours, listening to the kids open up their hearts. They could feel the Pope’s sincere commitment to peace.”
Talesnick was personally moved by this experience of meeting the Pope at the Vatican, and as a result, she is committed to continuing and expanding her work in peacebuilding in Israel and Palestine. Accordingly, she is developing new ideas–with Jewish and Palestinian colleagues –to learn about and implement peacebuilding programs through the arts, since she finds this an effective method for youth in conflict.
So, who says that there is no education for peace in Israel or Palestine? While it is new, and just developing, it does exist and is even expanding, despite all the obstacles. This peacebuilding initiative is special in that it has the imprimatur of Pope Francis, who is genuinely committed to increasing and expanding peace education around the world, including in Israel and Palestine.
I can only express my hope that this will be the beginning of many more such educational efforts which have the potential of changing the hearts and minds of young people to be more aware of the possibilities and benefits of peaceful coexistence in our region and in other troubled parts of the world.
This is the second in a series about Peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine.
Over the years, in my lectures and panel discussions in Israel and around the world, I have often been surprised to discover that very little is known about the work for peace that is going on in Israel and Palestine that is done by many organizations and a wide variety of people. Therefore, I have decided to write this series about peacebuilders from my country and region in the weeks ahead. Peacebuilders are people who bring other people together to learn about the possibilities and benefits of peaceful coexistence, as opposed to “peacemakers” who are politicians who engage in the political “peace process”, (which unfortunately has virtually ceased in Israel and Palestine in recent years).