Jewish and Arab-Palestinian teachers in Beersheba build social capital

by Mike Prashker
20 November 2012
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Ramle – Two weeks ago – before the current explosion of violence – I travelled down to Beersheba, the largest town in Southern Israel, to speak with a group of Jewish Israeli and Palestinian Israeli teachers about educational strategies that can help improve inter-group relations between young Jewish and Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel. These young people, even in the best of times, live in the long shadow of the on-going regional conflict.

The teachers, drawn primarily from local Jewish and Arab Bedouin communities, were participating in a "conflict-mitigation" workshop organised by the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development.

I had come to introduce the shared citizenship educational model developed by MERCHAVIM, an organisation promoting shared citizenship in Israel. When talking to the teachers, I stressed the critical importance of building a program that can help their students transcend their mutual fears and deep disagreements through the identification of overlapping identities, shared values and common interests. I also spoke about the inherent deficit of trust that makes this task so very difficult.

During a break, I began to speak with a young teacher. Hassan told me he'd moved from a small Arab town in central Israel to teach. I asked the town's name and Hassan assured me that as a Jewish Israeli I'd never know it.

It turned out to be the town of Zemer and thanks to many years work in shared citizenship education, I have a close colleague and friend who lives there. Muayed is a respected educator who I was quite confident the young teacher would know – and he did. I telephoned Muayed and handed over the phone to Hassan, telling Muayed I'd run into someone he knew. I went to have coffee and when I returned they were still talking. After the call, Hassan agreed I could share this episode with the group.

I began by telling the group that if I were to lose my wallet and need some cash to return home, Hassan would be the first person I'd ask for a loan. In Israel, as in all conflicted societies, the working assumption was that as a Jewish Israeli, I would turn to "one of my own" for help.

The episode provided an opportunity to illustrate important aspects of what the American sociologist Robert Putnam calls "social capital", especially in diverse and divided societies.

Simply stated "social capital" is about the accumulation of trust. Crucially Putnam distinguishes between "bonding" capital and "bridging" capital. Bonding capital refers to trust accumulated with people of one's own background. “Bridging” capital refers to trust accumulated between people who look, speak, pray, eat and generally think differently.

While bonding capital is important for creating a strong sense of in-group identity, bridging capital is equally important, never more so than in diverse and divided societies. Indeed, Putnam argues, a healthy balance between both is essential for harmony, stability and continuity in such settings.

In Israel, there is a dangerous deficit of bridging capital. In this light, central findings from public-opinion research conducted by MERCHAVIM are to be expected: intergroup relations in Israel are characterised by low levels of familiarity and high levels of inter-group misconceptions and fear.

Addressing this imbalance by encouraging additional learning opportunities about "other" citizens as well as developing a healthy sense of self is therefore critical. This balance can be encouraged through any of the well-known "bridging" strategies; encounters like the one in Beersheba, non-stereotypical inclusion of "others" in Hebrew and Arabic-language curricula and encouraging increased representation of diversity among teachers, to name but three.

Having presented the ideas of bonding and bridging capital, it was simple for the group to understand why, against all expectations Hassan was my obvious first choice to go to for a significant favour. Despite having just met, he and I clearly enjoyed a healthy accumulation of bridging capital – of trust – brokered by our long mutual acquaintance and regard for Muayed, and, just as importantly, Muayed's regard for and trust of us (hence the phone call).

This trust is then sustained and reinforced by these same relations. In the real world, the "price" for me not paying back Hassan – risking losing Muayed's respect and friendship – was obviously much higher than not paying back any other "anonymous" members of the group. On the flip-side, Hassan, would surely reach similar risk-benefit conclusions when deciding whether to risk the loan, so asking him made sense from my perspective.
I didn’t lose my wallet and didn’t need the loan. But beyond any reasonable doubt, I knew that the group now understood why Hassan was my obvious emergency "go-to" person.

In a diverse and divided place like Israel, that was nice for all of us to discover, and will be invaluable as all people of goodwill begin to rebuild a better shared future after the guns fall silent.

###

* Mike Prashker is Founder and Director of MERCHAVIM – The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel, and initiator of the Kulanana initiative. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 20 November 2012, www.commongroundnews.org
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