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Buberian Learning Groups: A Response to the Challenge of Education of Peace in the Mideast

by Haim Gordon - 1980

Results of this study indicate that two-thirds of the participants who completed a year in a Jewish-Arab Buberian Learning Group had diminished existential mistrust of members of the other ethnic group. (Source: ERIC)

The Lord will give strength unto His people

The Lord will bless His people with peace.

—Psalms 29:11.


President Anwar Sadat's peace initiative and the subsequent signing of a peace treaty have confronted Israelis and Egyptians with the novel challenge of educating for peace. The challenge is apt: Many persons in both countries are sick and tired of war. The challenge is exciting and difficult: One must break new ground—an entire generation in Egypt and in Israel (my generation) grew up and matured under the shadow of continual war; we have no memories of peaceful relations between the Jewish State and its Arab neighbors. Furthermore, the geopolitical background is hardly conducive to education for peace. The relations between Israel and its other Arab neighbors are still volatile; the resurgence of Islam as a radical force in world politics has had at least a ripple effect on the entire area; and the unsolved Palestinian predicament continually haunts any sincere dialogue between Jews and Arabs.

In addition, quite a few educational problems confront any person who wishes to educate for peace. One conspicuous problem is ignorance. Israelis and Egyptians know quite a few facts about each other, but for the most part these facts are abstract, not based on experience. For instance, I knew that Cairo was a city of eight to ten million inhabitants through which the Nile flowed. I had read that in Cairo ancient and modern culture intermingle and degrading poverty and unrestrained affluence live side by side. Still, on my first visit to Egypt, Cairo overwhelmed me. I suddenly realized that all my life I had been living a few hundred miles from a fascinating and an intriguing metropolis without sensing what I had been missing. I believe that many an Egyptian will undergo an analogous experience when he visits Jerusalem.

Ignorance is also a prominent feature of the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Despite our being neighbors we have seldom reached a deep understanding of each other. Many Jews have only a spattering knowledge of Arab customs, Arab history, or Arabic as a written or spoken language; and although many Israeli Arabs know Hebrew and are acquainted with Jewish history, their knowledge has only infrequently led to understanding. Yet underlying this ignorance is a much more perturbing malady that characterizes our interpersonal and national relations. I call this malady existential mistrust.

Existential mistrust is a relationship that arises between two persons (or two nations) when one of the persons (or one of the nations) believes that the other person (or nation) denies his right to exist and to realize his potential in that portion of the world to which he is attached. The relationship is expressed by the attitude: If I want to exist I must not trust you! Unfortunately, existential mistrust can grow cancerously to dominate a person's entire existence. Such a person relates to the other as an adversary who is cunningly trying to annihilate him; he will not hesitate to suppress the other or even to destroy him. His evil deeds lead to deeper suspicions and, at times, a person can become bewitched with existential mistrust—think of Macbeth! A moving description of the proliferation of existential mistrust within a society can be found in the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union.

The growth of existential mistrust between Jews and Arabs is understandable. For many European Jews the Holocaust is a painful personal memory during which a third of our people were annihilated while they trusted others; in addition, Jews who emigrated to Israel from Islamic countries often remember being persecuted by the Arab majority in that country. What is more, many Jews have personally suffered from the repeated attacks on the small Jewish State by Arab armies. Before and during these wars our enemies declared that we Jews would soon be thrown into the sea, and between wars we have been bombed and terrorized in our homes, buses, markets, and schools. No wonder that many Jews mistrust Arabs.

Viewing the conflict from the other side one finds that since the establishment of the State of Israel its Arabs have been second-class citizens. They are limited in the job market, some of them claim to have been harassed by the Israeli secret service because of the views they expressed, and Arab communities have often not received the social benefits received by Jewish communities. (This state of affairs is especially evident in education.) Hence, many Arabs distrust Jews. The Palestinian Arabs in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank have been living under Israeli military rule for thirteen years. Israel has repeatedly appropriated land in these areas in order to settle Jews. As a result, Palestinian mistrust of Jews has thrived. And many Egyptians are still under the impression of thirty years of hostilities. In short, the continual conflict has been fertile ground on which existential mistrust grew. Consequently, a crucial challenge facing the educator for peace is the diminishing of existential mistrust between Arabs and Jews and the preparation of the ground for trust to take root. This is no simple challenge, and we must constantly evade the lure of seeking simple manners of coping with existential mistrust. We must be aware that changing history is making history, but unfortunately, "History," as T. S. Eliot wrote, "has many cunning passages, contrived corridors and issues, deceives us with whispering ambitions, guides us by vanities."

And he continues with a passage particularly fitting the Mideast predicament:

Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices

Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues

Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.1

Neither fear nor courage alone can erase existential mistrust because a person's mistrust of the other is not necessarily diminished by the deeds the other performs—one can always suspect that a hand extended in friendship cunningly conceals a wish to deceive. To erase existential mistrust a person must learn to relate differently, trustfully, to a reality whose adversity threatened him, to persons who comprised that adverse reality. He must alter his mode of existence. Hence the educator may seek guidance for inducing such a change in the writings of existentialists.

In my attempts to develop a sound educational approach that can encourage the student to live trustfully and authentically I found much guidance in the writings of Martin Buber; I am also aware of my debt to Dostoevski, Nietzsche, Sartre, and other existentialists. Buber's prime influence derived from his dealing directly with the development of trust in the educational relationship. Moreover, his philosophy of dialogue provided a broad foundation for building the theoretical framework I shall soon present. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss Buber's relevant writings,2 but a brief review of some of his basic ideas is imperative.

Perhaps Buber's most important assertion for the educator is that a person develops and realizes his personality primarily through the relationships he develops with other human beings, with nature, and with spiritual beings. Thus a person who manipulates, uses, or exploits other persons exists and develops differently from a person who constantly strives to initiate dialogical relations with his fellowman, with nature, and with God. The manipulator views other persons as objects for his use or enjoyment, and he will strive to acquire maximum power over these objects; in the process he himself learns to act and to respond as an object. He exists in the realm of I-It. In contrast, the dialogical person will attempt to reach deep personal relationships with other persons, with nature, and with God; he will repeatedly strive to speak the basic word I-Thou. At times such relationships may bring him pain, but he has learned that such pain often brings with it new knowledge of himself as a subject. Thus a person who cannot or does not ever relate dialogically will not develop the deeper aspects of his personality; he will not realize much of his human potential. His relationships with other persons, with nature, and with God will be superficial, perhaps fanatical; he will be unable to express personal commitment, unable to love, unable to give of himself. Buber also believed that adults who have difficulties in relating dialogically can slowly alter their mode of existence and by undergoing a difficult educational process can learn to relate dialogically. But he did not suggest methods, aside from self-education, that can help persons undergo the process of learning to relate dialogically.

An important Buberian assertion is that a dialogical relationship between teacher and student can bring the student to relate trustfully to a suspect and adverse environment. Buber writes:

Trust, trust in the world, because this human being exists—that is the most inward achievement of the relation in education. Because this human being exists, meaninglessness, however hard pressed you are by it, cannot be the real truth. Because this human being exists, in the darkness the light lies hidden, in fear salvation, and in the callousness of one's fellow men the great Love.3

During the past few years I have been seeking, developing, and examining methods of realizing Buber's educational thought. These explorations have led me to establish what I call Buberian Learning Groups in which a person learns to relate dialogically, trustfully, authentically. In what follows I shall present the theoretical framework of such a group and shall describe my attempts to educate for peace by establishing Jewish-Arab Buberian Learning Groups. I shall also draw some initial conclusions.


All actual life is encounter.

—Martin Buber

The following scale of development, which I formulated, is essential for understanding the subsequent description of a Buberian Learning Group.4


The ensuing five modes of existence and manners of relating to the world are based on concepts coined by Martin Buber. The steps in the scale describe stages in the development of a person from the impression-making stage, which is quite common in Western society, up to the dialogical educator.

It should be kept in mind that according to Buber, Nietzsche, Dostoevski, and other existentialists a person develops and realizes his personality through relations to the Other, to the It, to the Thou. One must therefore not confuse the following stages with the approach developed by various psychologists (Freud, Maslow) who begin with a description of the structure of a person's psyche and find in that structure, and not in the manner in which a person relates, the source for development of his personality.

In a person's life the stages often blend. For reasons of clarity I have presented them separately. I do not believe that persons in higher stages can fully free themselves from some remnants of lower stages. I have attached to every mode of existence literary figures from the writings of Dostoevski and Tolstoy who live accordingly. Nietzsche's Zarathustra is an example of the dialogical educator.

First Stage: The Impression-Making Person

The person is primarily concerned with the impressions he makes on other people; he generally relates to the Other as an object, and to nature as an It. He imposes himself on the Other, often uses stereotypes, does not speak straightforwardly, and evades personal responsibility. He is very much affected by public opinion and often lives in bad faith (Sartre). The literary figures who live accordingly are Oblonsky in Anna Karenina and Ivan Illich in The Death of Ivan Illich by Tolstoy.

Second Stage: The Conscious Person

The person distinguishes between seeming (impression making) and being; he distinguishes between relating to the Other as an object and relating to him as a subject; he is conscious of the possibility of relating personally to nature. He is aware of the faults of imposing himself on the Other, he is aware of his moments of bad faith, he is willing to describe his failings to another person and begins to doubt stereotypes. He expresses interest in self-education, wonders if he is fulfilling his potential, and begins to be aware of the importance of personal responsibility. The literary figures that live accordingly are Prince Andrey from War and Peace by Tolstoy and Gruschenka after Dimitri Karamazov was accused of murdering his father in The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevski.

Third Stage: The Person Who Educates Himself to Relate Dialogically

The person learns to listen to the Other; he attempts to relate to him subjectively, to trust him and to be aware of his otherness. He makes first attempts to live in accordance with his being, allows himself to be spontaneous, rebels against stereotypes, and refrains from imposing himself on the Other. He speaks straightforwardly and begins to establish a relationship of communion with nature. He is aware of his freedom and of his destructive tendencies, and he constantly seeks new ways to realize his being. The literary figures who live accordingly are Katy, after her marriage, and Levin in Anna Karenina.

Fourth Stage: The Dialogical Person

The person can develop a genuine dialogue; he can make himself present to the Other, he is open to the Thou, and he allows moments of I-Thou relationships to guide his life. He responds trustfully to the Other and accepts responsibility, and he knows how to support the Other lovingly. He seeks ways of directing his destructive tendencies to constructive channels and expresses his freedom creatively. He seeks for a vision of just human relationships. The literary figures who live accordingly are Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov and Sonya Marmaladov in Crime and Punishment by Dostoevski.

Fifth Stage: The Dialogical Educator

The person has a definite direction for personal development and is responsible for the fulfillment of a vision of humanity. He sees the Other, that is, his strengths and his existential situation, and he is willing to teach him to realize his personality in light of his vision of humanity. The dialogical educator is willing to bring suffering to the Other, for he knows that, at times, there is no other way to help the Other to develop his creative powers; yet he remains sensitive to the suffering and to the pain that the Other undergoes. He trusts other persons and the world and listens to the demands of the world from him. He relates as a whole being to his pupils. The literary figures who live accordingly are Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov and Nietzsche's Zarathustra.

Through education—as Buber envisioned it—a person can ascend from stage to stage. At times, in a moment of truth, a person will ascend suddenly from impression making to consciousness, and begin a process of self-education. From the literary figures mentioned, Katy, Levin, Zosima, Gruschenka, and Prince Andrey underwent such a moment of truth and subsequently began to educate themselves.

Although it is possible to ascend the scale without the guidance of a teacher, I do not believe that many persons can do so. The following outline of the development of a Buberian Learning Group will briefly describe a two-year educational process that assists participants to ascend the above scale of development.


A Buberian Learning Group encompasses about twenty carefully selected persons who wish to learn to realize Buber's dialogical philosophy in their everyday life, and to engage in fulfilling a humane, dialogical goal. Thus, persons who join a Buberian Learning Group must strive to reach dialogical relationships with persons whom they encounter daily, but they must also dedicate themselves to fulfilling an immediate dialogical social goal, such as establishing trustful relationships between Arabs and Jews in our area or between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

The group is taught by a dialogical person who is well versed in Buber's thought and is acquainted with existentialist thinking. During the first year the student learns many of Buber's concepts and ideas and he is guided in the attempt to live in accordance with these concepts and ideas. During the second year members of the group are taught how to find guidance for self-education in Buber's writings and in other existentialist texts; they are also taught how to assume responsibility for realizing the goal for which the group was organized/ I divide the development of such a group into three learning stages.


It is assumed that at the beginning of the educational process most participants are impression-making persons. The first class meetings are dedicated to reading Buber's essay "Elements of the Interhuman," which elaborates many of his basic concepts. During the reading the educator points to existential encounters that these concepts describe. He will often cite personal examples. Certain techniques developed by group-dynamic psychologists may be used to create such existential encounters in the classroom.5 In short, the educator constantly shows that each participant's life can include experiences described by Buber's concepts.

During this period there is no group spirit and no mutual direction of development. One can describe some of the "centripetal and centrifugal forces" that interact during the meetings. Centripetal forces are those attitudes, interests, and sources of attraction that greaten a person's involvement in the learning process. Centrifugal forces are those fears and resistances that hinder a person's involvement. The strength of these forces varies from meeting to meeting.

Among the simpler centripetal forces one can note intellectual interest in Buber's thoughts, attraction to his humanistic message, and the awareness that one belongs to a select group that may undergo new interesting experiences. A more complex attracting force is the dialogical person who leads the group; his way of life challenges and often encourages participants to attempt to live in accordance with Buber's ideas. There are also personal reasons that lead to involvement. Some participants seek a forum to sound out their views or to express personal distress; others seek to renew themselves, to change their mode of existence; still others may seek an approach that will help them relate trustfully to other persons. At times all these "forces" may interact in one person.

The more common centrifugal forces are initial distrust of the educator and of other participants, an unwillingness to learn unpleasant facts about one's mode of existence, and a person's conception of himself as a finished product that need not be changed. Some persons fear that by becoming involved in a Buberian Learning Group they are forfeiting their freedom; specifically they fear that a profound relationship with the educator will lead to bondage. Another "force" distancing participants from each other stems from the tendency to resist clarifying Buber's concepts in terms of one's own existence. Instead many a person will attempt to define them within a conceptual framework with which he is acquainted, for example, as philosophical abstractions, or perhaps as components of a therapeutic model. The result is not only a misunderstanding of the concepts but also a period during which members of the group use the same concepts to denote different situations.

The initial period ends when most of the participants discern, albeit vaguely, that Buber's concepts and ideas point to live experiences well worth attempting to attain.


During this period most of the participants become conscious persons. The group reads quite a few works by Buber, for example, "On Education," For the Sake of Heaven, "The Education of Character," and some works by other authors dealing with existentialist themes, for example, Kafka, Dostoevski. While discussing the readings the educator continually shows how the concepts relate to everyday life. Moreover, he strives to help each participant acquire a profound consciousness of how Buber's concepts are expressed in his own life. Exercises often help. For instance, Buber stressed that only if another person has "become present to me" in his wholeness can genuine dialogue develop between us. As an exercise students are divided into dyads and asked to sit for ten minutes quietly looking at each other while trying to make each other present. Those who succeed, even for a moment or two, will have acquired a deeper consciousness of this concept and of related Buberian concepts, for example, genuine dialogue.

The group has a definite direction of development—self-education in accordance with Buber's philosophy. Workshops encompassing no more than ten participants and held once every six weeks for four to six hours help each person evaluate his own progress in that direction. At such workshops each participant relates personally to a general question that was presented to the entire group. For about half an hour he is slowly encouraged to open himself by responding to that question; in the process he is told how to deal in a Buberian manner with problems that emerge.

A question at a workshop can be: What are your difficulties in relating dialogically to the person whose name you drew out of a hat? (The drawing occurs three hours prior to the workshop. During these hours participants are forbidden to discuss their answer with the person whose name they drew.) Quite a few students will respond by expressing their feelings toward that person. And the educator will continually point out that when I am absorbed in my own feelings toward another person that person will never "become present to me." In short, the workshops help the educator to see the existential situation of each student and to guide his self-education. The student learns from this encounter, especially when it is accompanied by specific demands for existential changes and by support from the group.

Two additional activities that encourage self-education are monthly personal meetings with the educator and work in subgroups. At personal meetings the educator attempts to draw the student into genuine dialogue. The conversation focuses on those areas in which the student has learned that he should educate himself; with the help of poignant questions and by expressing personal involvement the educator creates an atmosphere of trust and authenticity. He constantly strives to focus on specific problems or attitudes: "Your problem, Sarah, is not that you rationalize too much, but that you lack the courage to change what you know is wrong—rationalization comes later!"

At a successful personal meeting the educator will have conveyed to the student that he relates to him as a whole person. He will have presented to him immediate challenges in his self-education. He will have extended help in resolving any specific problem that the student brought up. And, often, he will have allowed him to come into contact with a more personal aspect of his own life, especially if such meetings are held in the educator's home. Weekly meetings in subgroups help the participants to get to know each other better and provide an additional opportunity for them to discuss Buber's concepts and ideas. Usually the academic purpose of such a meeting is to write a short paper together.

In the middle of the academic year a few specific problems that relate to the humane goal for which the group was organized should be brought up and discussed. Each person should be allowed to express himself in relation to those problems and he should be shown where he needs to add to his knowledge. Deeper discussions should be left to the second year. Toward the end of the year the group should undergo a "testing experience." For a few days the group members should be placed in a new, rather difficult environment and they should be confronted with the challenge of relating dialogically in that situation. During and after the experience the educator should help the participants evaluate their successes and their mistakes. In light of this experience the educator can also learn about his own successes and mistakes, both in relation to certain persons and in relation to the entire group.

It is perhaps important to emphasize once again that all these activities are merely a framework for learning to realize Buber's dialogical philosophy. Each educator will add activities he deems helpful to a specific person or to the entire group. His goal will have been achieved if at the end of the year many students will have educated themselves to partially live in accordance with Buber's ideas and will have learned to use Buber's concepts to describe their own existential situation, and, often, the existential situation of other participants.


It is beyond the scope of this article to give more than a very abbreviated description of the development of the responsible group. (I hope to enlarge on this theme soon.)

The responsible group consists of those students who reached the second and third stages in the above scale of development during their first year in a Buberian Learning Group. They intend to alter important aspects of their mode of existence and they have the courage to attempt to translate this intention into deeds. Two major goals of the responsible group are acquiring a broader and a deeper understanding of Buber's thought by accepting the personal responsibility that dialogical relations entail, and taking the first steps toward the fulfillment of a humane goal within the encompassing milieu. (The process of self-education each participant undergoes is a sine qua non for the realization of this goal.)

The means of education are similar to those described in the second stage: extensive readings, workshops, personal meetings, work in subgroups. Much time is dedicated to learning and to discussing the problems that underlie the social predicament to which the group addresses itself; first attempts are made to realize the humane goal that should ease that predicament. Within the group the demands for self-education of each participant are much more poignant and often painful, since the group assists the educator in pointing to attitudes that need change. The influence of the educator as educator begins to fade and he no longer imposes his views forcefully; instead he becomes a senior consultant to whom each participant can turn in his search for his own direction of development. The atmosphere of mutual learning and mutual support leads to the dissolving of status symbols and other social barriers, especially since the educator shares some of his own problems with members of the group. Egalitarianism reigns in the realm of genuine dialogue. At the end of the year communion prevails and persons know how to assume personal responsibility for fulfilling the humane goal for which the group was originally established.


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

—Robert Frost

It is generally accepted that Martin Buber's educational philosophy is personal, at least in the sense that any attempt to realize that philosophy will reflect the personality of a specific educator. My decision to initiate the project entitled "Education for Peace on the Basis of Martin Buber's Philosophy"6 in the summer of 1979 was based on a twofold act of faith. First, I believed that Buber's philosophy could serve as a basis for establishing trustful relationships between persons who had previously distrusted each other. Second, I believed that by establishing Jewish-Arab Buberian Learning Groups I could help both Jews and Arabs better their interpersonal relations and diminish the existential mistrust between them. This act of faith was partially an outcome of my personal attempts during this past decade to guide my life in accordance with Buber's philosophy and to develop educational means of realizing that philosophy.

These attempts grew out of my fascination with Buber's writings and my dislike of any philosophy that divorces itself from everyday life. They were nurtured by my feeling uncomfortable and often very unhappy in a milieu governed by I-It relations and by my constant search for friends and companions. And they were also nurtured by my wish to educate myself and other persons to live more authentically, especially after my being disillusioned in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War with our Jewish spiritual life in Israel. Hence, my establishing Jewish-Arab Buberian Learning Groups was much more than an academic endeavor; it was arid still is my modest attempt to contribute to peace in our troubled area; and it reflects my personal hatred of war after serving in combat duty in three Arab-Israeli wars.

In the thirty-two years of Israeli independence there have been no in-depth attempts to diminish existential mistrust between Arabs and Jews. All attempts to reach some sort of Jewish-Arab dialogue have been "sporadic and superficial."7 Some instances: Facilitators of Jewish-Arab group dynamics found that the group broke down if the participants touched on political issues. Consequently, when such groups were organized the facilitators emphasized sensitivity training and excluded politics.8 Workshops dedicated to conflict resolution that encompassed no more than eight to ten Jews and Arabs usually reached an understanding of the issues central to the conflict and outlined methods that could be employed to resolve them. But no attempts were made to imbue the participants with mutual trust; the workshops met once, for two days of discussions; there was very little follow-up, and no attempts were made to influence the participants' mode of existence.9 And Jewish-Arab groups that met in order to acquire an understanding of each other's cultural heritage or to further some political or social issue had no intention to deepen interpersonal relations. If genuine dialogue arose between a Jew and an Arab in such a group it arose gratuitously. Thus, the establishing of Jewish-Arab Buberian Learning Groups was a new phenomenon in our area.

"How depressingly, tiresomely, and ridiculously sensible everything that I have hitherto written seems to be today!" wrote Andre Gide in The Counterfeiters. I share his feelings because in no way can I convey my own and my staff's initial excitement, joy, and euphoria when we began to seek for persons who would participate in the "Education for Peace" learning groups. We were excited at doing something novel that might effect a change in our everyday reality, we were joyful at being able to educate for peace after all the years of hatred and war, and we were euphoric because we believed that Buberian Learning Groups might be the Ariadne thread that would lead us out of the labyrinth of prejudice and existential mistrust into the open air of free friendly relationships. Were we naive? Of course. But without such naivete I doubt that any such ambitious project could ever take off.


The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one that is better, then lo! he, between whom and thee there was enmity will become as though he was a bosom friend.

The Koran, Surah XLI, 34

At the beginning of the 1979-1980 academic year I selected participants for two Jewish-Arab Buberian Learning Groups. One group consisted of twenty-one students at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. The other group consisted of twenty-three teachers in the Beer Sheva area. Each group included about 50 percent Jews and 50 percent Arabs. All Arabs were Israeli citizens. Fortunately, in previous years I had taught courses on the realization of Buber's educational thought and had encountered quite a few good students who attempted to guide their lives in accordance with what they learned. Thus at a rather early stage it was possible to assemble a competent and dedicated staff, many of them in their late twenties. I have found this age group to be very open to realizing Buber's philosophy. The teaching core of the staff, two masters degree students and myself, had reached the stage of dialogical persons.

Approximately one out of every three applicants was accepted. Each applicant was interviewed by two members of the staff. Those who seemed appropriate were invited to a second interview with me. The main criteria for selection were motivation in realizing the goals of the project, intellectual ability, straightforwardness, openness, sincerity. I checked these criteria by attempting to reach a painful dialogue with the interviewee. When I succeeded I believed that there was a foundation on which we could build. In choosing participants we also took into account some general considerations. We sought students from all faculties of the university. We did not accept Arabs or Jews who were totally alienated from their heritage or who had radical political views. We suspected—correctly, I now know—that we would have enough difficulties teaching the participants to realize Buber's thought without trying to educate alienated persons or to temper radical views. Ultimately, our choice was based on personal impressions and I suspect that we turned away some good applicants.

In addition to the goals of a Buberian Learning Group, the specific goals of the "Education for Peace" groups were to substantially diminish Jewish-Arab existential mistrust, and to show the participants that through dialogue we can lay a foundation for bridging our disturbing political differences.

During the entire academic year the student group met with me for a two-hour class twice a week, the teacher group once a week. Each group underwent the full-year program of a Buberian Learning Group described above. To save space I will not repeat the details of the program, but it is important to add that there were many unforeseen difficulties. Some of the difficulties, such as problems of administration, probably arise in any educational project. But other difficulties arose because of the topic that concerned us—strange as it may seem, no few Jews and Arabs in the encompassing milieu were rather unhappy with the prospect of education for peace, and they did not hesitate to express their views, and if possible to erode our work. Our manner of coping with these difficulties probably deserves a separate essay; suffice to say that in quite a few political struggles I was not Buberian. Here I shall ignore these outside influences and their impact, and shall concentrate on describing those areas in which the education of our Buberian Learning Groups was unique.

At the first class meeting the participants were divided into dyads of Arab-Jew who met weekly in order to prepare a short written exercise. In the middle of the semester the dyads were changed, but the principle of mixed ethnic background remained consistent. During the second semester each group was divided into subgroups of four to five participants, who met frequently to prepare a monthly academic paper. The academic papers submitted by the subgroups and the dyads were not always satisfactory, but the weekly meetings were only infrequently missed. About once a month there were lectures and assigned readings on topics such as the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the heritage of one of the nationalities. These activities were sporadic and not part of a structured program; students and staff agree that they did not substantially contribute to a deeper understanding of the complex reality that confronts us.

A "politics workshop" was held at the end of the first semester. Each participant described his attitude toward Zionism and toward the Palestinian National Movement and explained how he believed the conflict could be resolved. Since some Arabs equated Zionism with racism and some Jews denied the existence of a Palestinian entity, there were many tense moments. Still, the workshop was a Buberian success: It showed the participants that disturbing political differences need not lead to hatred, and that dialogue can continue despite such differences. I now know that the workshop was also a partial failure: Many of the views expressed were superficial, based on ignorance; but there was no follow-up that might have helped the participants overcome their ignorance.

Two two-day retreats of all the participants in the project were primarily dedicated to existentialist educational games. "The Death Game," a twelve-hour excursion into the relation between personal responsibility and the Arab-Israeli conflict, was probably the most successful among these games. It was played by subgroups of four to five Jews and Arabs. The story of the game faintly resembles the movie, "Heaven Can Wait." An Arab and a Jew of the subgroup were killed by mistake in a car accident; their souls will be allowed to return to their bodies if they describe in detail their personal guilt in not doing enough to resolve the Mideast conflict. What is more, to ensure their return each member of the subgroup (including those members who "died") must enumerate the personal responsibilities he will hitherto take on himself to further peace. The discussions within the subgroups were dialogical and enhancing. But more important, at the end of the game many participants understood that the furthering of peace is his personal responsibility.

Egypt's crucial role in the peace process made it the natural location for the testing experience. During a one-week visit to Cairo, Jewish-Arab subgroups explored the city, encountered Egyptian society and its historical monuments, and made attempts to relate dialogically to Egyptians. At first, the experience seemed to reverse the Jewish-Arab status of group members. The Jews found themselves in a foreign milieu, while the Arabs spoke the language and were acquainted with the customs. But it soon turned out that many Egyptians felt more comfortable speaking with Jewish Israelis. They probably sensed that the Jews viewed Sadat as a peacemaker, while some of our Arabs felt that he had sold out the Palestinian cause. Moreover, many Egyptians found it hard to understand to whom the Israeli Arab belongs. He is an Arab and yet an Israeli citizen; he is not a Palestinian, but he often identifies himself as such. And why does he speak Hebrew and befriend Jews?

The period in Cairo revealed to many participants their difficulties in realizing Buber's thought. In each subgroup there were tense moments; ethnic differences often brewed misunderstandings. A workshop held after four days in Egypt cleared up some of the misunderstandings by showing how a person's response to Egyptian reality reflected his own background, his otherness. I am not sure that the trip helped many participants diminish their existential mistrust of Egyptians. Perhaps the euphoria and the apprehension that intermingled in individual responses to the intrigue of Cairo hindered dialogue. Only a few persons developed personal acquaintances with Egyptians.

During the year ten persons, six Arabs and four Jews, left the groups. Four were asked to leave because they did not fulfill requirements. Two students were expelled from the university on discipline charges. Four dropped out. All numbers I shall hitherto cite relate to the thirty-four persons who completed the year.

Summary workshops held at the end of the year revealed that twenty-four participants asserted that they had significantly advanced in the above scale of development. Those who had advanced the least were persons who, before joining the group, had been conscious of the need to change, but who had difficulty mustering the courage to effect that change. In other words, advancing from the second stage to the third stage proved much more difficult than becoming aware of what needed to be done. Five persons, all of them Arabs, made no progress. They did not understand Buber's basic concepts, and neither private lessons nor weekly personal meetings helped them acquire the Buberian conceptual framework. Five other persons felt that they had not progressed significantly because of personal reasons, for example, a prolonged illness, personal problems.

An interesting sidelight was provided by three Arab participants. They asserted that they had reached the second stage via the third stage, that is, they had reached the stage of a conscious person by educating themselves to relate dialogically. Doing, in their case, led to consciousness. This finding accords with Buber's insights in his essay "The Spirit of the Orient and Judaism," where he distinguishes between the Oriental motor type man and the Occidental sensory type man: "The motor type man perceives in motions; he acts, as it were, his perception. It does not grow in him but strikes through him; it does not nest, in isolation, in his brain, but linked to all other senses, spreads through his agitated body."10 The three Arabs' description of how they acquired consciousness of their existential situation concurs with this definition.

The twenty-four persons who asserted that they had advanced declared that they now trusted some group members from the other ethnic community, and that they had related dialogically to a few of them. They often mentioned that work in subgroups and dyads had encouraged dialogue. But ten of these persons, most of them Arabs, pointed out that such experiences had only slightly diminished their existential mistrust of persons belonging to the other ethnic group. One Jewish participant explained: "I can reach genuine dialogue with Muhamed, but when that happens he is no longer an Arab. I erase his Arab being. What is more, all other Arabs I continue to mistrust." On the other hand, at least eleven persons asserted that their personal development had significantly diminished their existential mistrust of any person belonging to the opposing ethnic group. (The remaining three persons were ambivalent in their answers.)

Perhaps the most important conclusion reached by many participants was that at the beginning of the year they had not appreciated the complexity of educating for peace. They now believe that by learning more about themselves and their neighboring ethnic group, and by self-education in the spirit of Buber, they will be able to contribute to peaceful relations in our area. One Arab added: "Now that I can relate dialogically to a Jew I know that we must work together to surmount our clashing interests."


When a man is singing and cannot lift his voice, and another comes and sings with him, another who can lift his voice, then the first will be able to lift his voice too. That is the secret of the bond between spirit and spirit.

—Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

My major conclusion is simple and significant. Since two thirds of the participants who completed a year in a Jewish-Arab Buberian Learning Group asserted that the learning experience had diminished their existential mistrust of members of the other ethnic group, the major goal of these learning groups was achieved. The additional goal of showing the participants that through dialogue we can lay the foundation for bridging our disturbing political differences was only partially achieved. Developing methods of achieving this goal is probably the most important educational challenge that I now face.

Two additional conclusions: Arab participants had great difficulties in learning to describe their existential situation and in learning to realize Buber's thought. The sources of these difficulties should be explored. Perhaps they arose from the fact that Arabs live in two cultures—the indigenous Arab conservative culture and the modern Israeli culture. Perhaps the difficulties are partially an outcome of the image-rich, unstraightforward Arab language. A rather surprising conclusion pertains to existential mistrust. When such mistrust lessens, many persons are faced with a void in their relationships with other persons; they do not always find constructive channels toward which to direct the energies that previously animated their mistrust. Undoubtedly it is the responsibility of the educator to indicate how such energies can be used constructively, but this is much easier said than done. These conclusions lead to some challenging thoughts as to the future.

Probably the most disturbing and yet challenging thought is that education for peace is an unexplored realm. There is a missing link between the philosopher, theologian, poet, or social scientist who writes about peace and the man in the street who fears war. Educators have done little to forge this missing link. Hence the modest results I have presented merely indicate the broad field of inquiry and educational work that still awaits us.

In the "Education for Peace" project I must enlarge the number of persons participating in Buberian Learning Groups and strive to include both Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and Egyptians. I must also examine the influence of such a learning process over a span of years; it would be fascinating to inquire how such a learning process affects a participant's pupils, friends, and enemies.

These thoughts lead to a more encouraging insight: Education for peace is a blessed field of inquiry and work: not only because the bringing of peace, the erasing of existential mistrust, is one of the most enhancing processes a person can undergo, but also because in this strife-ridden area of the world the daily greeting and blessing is Shalom Aleichem, Saalam Aleicum—Peace unto You.

1 T. S. Eliot, "Gerontion,"in The Waste Land and Other Poems (New York: Harvest Books, 1958), pp. 20-21.

2 Buber's most important educational writings are "Education" and "The Education of Character''; both appear in Between Man and Man. land Thou is, of course, indispensable for any understanding of his philosophy.

3 Martin Buber, "Education," in his Between Man and Man (London: The Fantana Library, 1961), pp. 125-26.

4 In addition to the above-mentioned works the scale of development is based on "Elements of the Interhuman," in Martin Buber, The Knowledge of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 72-88.

5 For a broad discussion of how to clarify existential encounters to students see Haim Gordon, "Can Literature Clarify Existential Encounters?" The Educational Forum 142, no. 2 (January 1978): 189-202.

6 The project is funded by the Hans Seidel Stiftung in West Germany.

7 “Sporadic and superficial'' was the phrase used in a private conversation by Radmi Biadsi. Mr. Baidsi was for five years and during the reign of three Israeli prime ministers the top Arab in the prime minister's office. His duties included encouraging Jewish-Arab relations.

8 See Binyamin Avraham, "Lifnei Camp David" (Before Camp David) published in Hebrew by the Henrietta Szold Institute. Dr. Avraham of Haifa University explains in detail that group dynamics does not encourage trust between Jews and Arabs.

9 See, for instance, A.M. Levi and A. Benjamin, "Jews and Arabs Rehearse Geneva: A Model of Conflict Resolution," Human Relations 29 (1976): 1035-41; and idem, "Focus and Flexibility in a Model of Conflict Resolution," Journal of Conflict Resolution 21 (1977): 405-25.

10 Martin Buber, "The Spirit of the Orient and Judaism," in his On Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), p. 58.1 have discussed the educational implications of this essay in Haim Gordon, "An Approach to Martin Buber's Educational Writings," Journal of Jewish Studies 29, no. 1 (Spring 1978): 85-97.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 82 Number 2, 1980, p. 291-310
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 965, Date Accessed: 10/25/2021 8:54:57 AM

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