Survey: Theater helps Israeli youth humanize Palestinians

It’s unusual to get good news about levels of tolerance toward the other, when it comes to Israelis, Palestinians and the conflict – especially youngsters. As my colleagues and I found in a large study of Israeli youth, intolerance, exclusive and discriminatory attitudes are embraced by a large and perhaps growing numbers of young folks.

So this rare, happy finding reported in Haaretz this week caught my eye:

A new study found a link between culture and tolerance: Israeli teens who watched plays about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict became more optimistic about the chances of achieving peace and viewed Palestinians more positively.

I read closely, because disappointment can set in upon finding out that the “research” involved non-rigorous methodology, or seems to be an obvious PR ploy – even if I approve of the goal, poor research taints the findings.

But the study turned out to have been conducted by an established faculty member of the School of Public Health at Haifa University, Dr. Anat Gesser-Edelsberg, and two colleagues, Dr. Nurit Guttman and Dr. Moshe Israelshwili. Dr. Gesser Edelsberg has published related research in academic journals and the three have researched/written together for y ears.

They sampled a good 540 Israeli teenagers, aged 16-18, writes Haaretz, and did a nice experiment of surveying the teens before and after the kids watched two plays  displaying the dilemmas of the conflict. One was Yael Ronen’s play “Plonter,” and while the other one was not named, both are part of the “culture basket” of cultural pieces sponsored by the Education Ministry and community centers.

The Haaretz report provides a good selection of the data, showing clear and attitudinal changes:

[Students] were shown two plays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…before watching the plays, 55 percent of the students believed the conflict would not be resolved because the Palestinians don’t want peace. Afterward, only 38 percent held these beliefs. Before they saw the plays, 47 percent of the students said they had no interest in Palestinians in the occupied territories, but only 27 percent said so afterward.

Initially, 65 percent said their feelings about Palestinians were mostly negative. This changed to 47 percent. And 78 percent initially said the checkpoint and roadblock policy should be maintained. This dropped to 60 percent.

The study was founded on the theory of “edutainment” – educational entertainment, according to which entertainment can be used to educate while not being perceived as preachy.

Some people here in the peace activist world have been searching for such techniques for a long time – perhaps part of the reason these plays are successful is that they come with a state-sponsored seal of approval, rather than through peace organizations who are being branded ‘traitors,’ and suffering de-legitimization attacks.

The study, as reported, also revealed findings that that might help explain why Israeli young people seem to avoid dealing with the conflict at all. The irony (or perhaps hypocrisy) becomes clear when it turns out that kids are deemed fit to be soldiers but not to handle knowledge about the conflict they’ll be forced to confront.

Gesser-Edelsburg said interviews conducted with educators found that they don’t know how the education system should address the conflict, and therefore prefer to avoid in-depth discussions on the subject. They also avoided holding discussions after the play – even though the researchers said this was essential – preferring instead to see them as pure entertainment.

The play authors called it paradoxical that teachers believe the students aren’t mature enough to discuss the conflict but are mature enough to be handed weapons a few months after graduation.

I was particularly pleased that the study reported on focus groups, which often provide richer illustrations of attitudes behind the numbers. This part didn’t make it into the English Haaretz, so here are a few rare and heartening free translations from the Hebrew version:

[After watching one of the plays addressing the conflict between carrying out an order and basic human feelings] One male youth in a focus group in Ashkelon said: “Of course if I am standing at a roadblock I’ll see them more as people, I’ll deal with them with greater humanity, I’ll give them water if they need it, but the situation is tough and I understand that everyone standing at a roadblock for a long time behaves like an automaton.”

At a focus group in Yehud, one of the girls said, after watching “Plonter” “We’ve always seen this from our side, how limited and scared we are. I saw the Arab as an enemy and suddenly I saw their side, their feelings towards us. Suddenly I saw how much they are human beings like us.

All this made me think how nice to have a parallel study among Palestinians. Although the conflict is not symmetrical, humanity and a nuanced understanding of the other side should be.