The approach of AEI
During last year’s November vote in New York on the recognition of Palestine as an “observer non-member state” in the United Nations, some hundreds of Palestinians came to watch the event on a large screen which was attached to the Separation (or Apartheid) Wall in northern Bethlehem. During the climax of the event, a Palestinian Spiderman climbed up the 9-meter high gate in the Wall and planted a Palestinian flag on top, right next to an Israeli military watchtower. The audience cheered.
Was that action a form of “empowerment”? In a way, yes. The wonderful climb was a statement saying that Palestinians could stand up against the Wall rather than resign themselves to be locked up. But the sense of empowerment was limited to a moment.
NGOs in the West Bank sometimes ask themselves whether empowerment (and also development) is at all possible under occupation. Empowerment should after all enhance the capacity of people to change their reality. One could argue that a genuine and positive change is impossible as long as the Israeli occupation lasts. Yet shedding the occupational yoke requires the empowerment of those suffering under it. No occupation has gone by itself or by international intervention only.
Empowerment and sumud: the AEI
As an organization for community education and member of the peace movement Pax Christi, the Arab Educational Institute faces this paradox all the more. It is difficult to work under circumstances of occupation on empowerment and real peace. However, at the same time such work should take place as long as one wants to keep hope for change.
In the present situation, AEI works on Palestinian empowerment in the form of sumud or steadfastness. Sumud is keeping up dignity and bringing out people’s human story in the face of all the obstacles and burdens which exist under occupation.
The occupation is responsible for the vast human suffering as a result of violence against people and property. It also generates – and that is less visible to the outside world - structural violence that leaves Palestinians to become objects of manipulation. It is especially this manipulation which makes empowerment such a difficult task for educators.
Manipulation is understood as all those social and psychological strategies which make people becoming more vulnerable to attempts to control and dominate them and less capable to resist measures which go against their interests.
Examples from the present reality are, among others:
- The artificial fragmentation of the Palestinian people into seemingly autonomous, geographically defined “categories” like West Bankers, Jerusalemites, Gazans, or “Israeli Palestinians”.
- The bureaucratic, “slow” process of silent ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from East-Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.
- The arbitrary restrictions Palestinians face in accessing large areas of the regions in which they live, including the access from the West Bank to East-Jerusalem which is increasingly subjected to permits, even for youth below 16 years.
- The arbitrary access to Israeli-controlled resources on which Palestinians from the West Bank depend, like water, electricity, equipment, and other supplies.
- Restricted access to financial resources like VAT income at the borders, which is dependent upon fluctuating political motivations.
The experience of being influenced by forces over which one does not have control is not a result of the occupation only. We can add the uncertainty and the often “manipulative” nature of much of the international aid which follows its own agendas.
Being continuously treated as objects of physical, social and ideological manipulation makes it difficult for people to become subjects of human stories of change. This is the real challenge community educators in Palestine face.
It is the many physical and human obstacles people experience in daily life which deepens the sense of helplessness.
Passing by the Wall and checkpoint is a dehumanizing experience. In front of the dauntingly high Wall and the long corridors, waiters in the queue feel treated like mice. It is sometimes said that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are “warehoused” - put away in a storage with the door closed.
We do not need to dwell much on the Wall as a form of imprisonment as it has become one of the most visible icons of occupation, like the checkpoints.
Less known is the pernicious influence of the permit system. In fact, the permit is the ultimate symbol of manipulation.
While the Wall is the visible icon of occupation, the permits people get or do not get are nervous-wrecking sources of frustration and humiliation – and all-time topics of conversation in the private circles of family and work. There is probably no other instrument of occupation that is so widespread and effective in controling the physical movements of people and their psyche. People are not informed why a permit is refused.
The permits let people feel they are at the will of the occupier. People usually do not know why they do not get a permit, while others do, increasing the sense of disempowerment. The permit system makes use of more than 100 different kinds of permits differentiated according to area, vocation, or traveling purpose.
We presently see on the one hand the handing out of more permits to Palestinians during religious events such as the Moslem Eid al-Adha, apparently in order to let more West Bank Palestinians buy Israeli products in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel – economic manipulation.
On the other hand, new restrictive measures are introduced. An example: Palestinians below 16 year are nowadays getting used to receive permits, unlike the past. Even babies get traveling permits. The introduction is hazardous, with a host of contradictory practices. The reactions of Palestinians and international audiences are tested. Sometimes youth below 16 years are allowed to cross the checkpoint but not in all cases; sometimes they need to be accompanied by a parent or another adult, sometimes not; sometimes they are asked to show a birth certificate but nobody knows whether it is really needed or not. If any negative reaction is strong, the permit measure is withdrawn yet re-introduced when the moment is considered ripe.
So the implementation of the measure is unpredictable, draining people’s energy.
The measure of expanding permits to persons below 16 years seems to be intended to let West Bank Palestinians become alienated from their capital city Jerusalem, a process apparently spread out over several generations.
The permit system denies Palestinians to have a natural relation to the land and its communities. It treats them as if they do not belong to the land, although they are its inhabitants, workers and farmers since time immemorial. Traveling in what is supposed to be your own country has become a deniable favor.
More than anything else the permit system functions to strengthen the “deterrence capacity” of the occupation. After all, who dares to challenge the occupation if such a challenge entails that you or your family will in the future suffer from the lack of access to permits?
In opposition to the systems of oppression, such as the permit, stands people’s sumud or steadfastness. Sumud is supported not only by what the Palestinians are famous for - a long collective memory of struggle, a strong national identity, and a tradition of staying put. It is also supported by cultural factors like protective family structures and the Mediterranean culture of mutual support. Finally sumud is supported by a resilience found in every place where people live in desperate circumstances. In the last few years AEI has explored the complex concept of sumud in its various manifestations and conditions in Palestine, stressing its living, cultural and communicative dimensions.
Against the background of the obstacles and manipulative policies mentioned above, AEI considers a number of areas as particularly urgent in building sumud educationally.
- §Reclaiming a sense of rooted identity and place in the world: what does it mean to be a Palestinian, and to live in Palestine (Bethlehem etc.) while staying in closed zones, being fragmented as a national community, living in areas sometimes barely recognizable as “home”?
- §Countering dehumanization: how to avoid dehumanizing oneself in the face of objectifying obstacles like the Wall, checkpoints and the permit system? How to avoid regarding as natural all the dehumanizing metaphors such obstacles evoke? How to keep a human image of the other instead of seeing him as the eternal boss? How to keep him to the same standards as oneself and everybody else?
- §Overcoming fear and anxiety: how to avoid being intimidated not just by soldiers and settlers but also by the physical and other obstacles along the way?
- §Finding direction towards change: How to preserve hope, keep a moral compass and see the possibility of change – even when blockages in whatever form or shape keep the view closed to liberating alternatives?
Many well-known educators and activists have been dealing with similar oppressive and manipulative contexts – Franz Fanon and Paolo Freire, and of course Mahatma Gandhi and Marin Luther King come to mind. They have indicated, with different emphases, the need for an education that encourages humans to take conscious responsibility over their destiny by shedding the yoke of oppression. Many, especially Paolo Freire, have stressed the importance of narrative for empowerment. AEI considers encouraging human and community narratives of change a central task of community education.
In doing so, we need to bring actions and projects into a narrative context of time and place (a “setting”), consider people human agents ( “heroes” – even reluctantly), have a clear understanding of the obstacles and adversaries to be transcended, and open up a human horizon at the end in which values of peace, justice and reconciliation come together. All are needed for an empowerment that is worthy of the name.
Here are some examples. In facing the sumud questions in Palestinian education, AEI has traditionally given attention to the inter-religious living together in Palestine. This is not just because AEI’s headquarters are in Bethlehem, with its mixed Moslem-Christian population, and because of the clear need to become more informed about each others’ religions and oppose ignorance. It is also because the main religions in the Holy Land form extremely rich sources of hopeful narratives. They help to reclaim one’s sense of rooted identity and build a humanized image of both oneself and the other.
If properly applied, religion can serve as a moral compass which overcomes fear and regards alternatives beyond present reality, following for instance the Kairos Palestine document drawn up by main Palestinian Christian leaders. In the “Living in the Holy Land: Respecting Differences” project, AEI and its teacher network in Bethlehem and Ramallah across 12 schools apply student-centered approaches such as the educational use of moral dilemmas and the Read, Reflect, Communicate and Act approach, now also tried out abroad. In all cases the project encourages students to reflect upon and communicate their own stories of identity.
The group work among youth and women also emphasizes the development and communication of stories about daily life identity. An important source of developing a sense of place and community are regular fieldtrips to religious and national places throughout the West Bank and the development of outreach programs. The outreach programs of youth and women groups involves meetings and joint cultural performances with groups and centers in towns, villages and refugee camps around Bethlehem. Networking and joint projects in which narratives are shared help to create an atmosphere in which fear and anxiety can be overcome, a common identity created, and a joint vision of a more human future developed.
Members of youth and women groups follow empowerment leadership courses at Bethlehem University (Cardinal Martini program) which help to build up orientation and self-confidence.
In another outreach program based on advocacy for women’s rights, women groups in three villages and a camp around Bethlehem have been collecting and communicating life stories to analyze women’s rights in their immediate situations. They use such stories as a tool of advocacy in their communities. Gradually, they overcome thresholds of fear to take initiative and build self-confidence.
In the Youth Media House youth groups support the making of brief videos reflecting upon youth life. They are discussed for orientation and direction.
In all those cases, youth and women groups develop stories of identity on the one hand, and attempt to communicate or advocate them on the other. Both are essential to preserve people’s dignity and sumud.
The Wall and sumud
In another main stream of work, AEI directly engages with the blockages, obstacles and manipulations of occupation. At its Sumud Story House close to the Wall in north-Bethlehem it has gradually expanded educational-cultural activities which encourage women groups to develop their stories vis-a-vis the Wall and other obstacles. Since a few years, a Sumud Festival is held nearby bringing together youth and women groups, outreach networks and international visitors and artists.
The Festival is a continuation of many cultural and spiritual activities along the Wall over the last six years, including
- a nightly star of Bethlehem formed by humans with torches
- graffiti sessions
- meditation meetings with the international peace movement
- a singer accompanied by a piano down under the military watchtower
- music from balconies and roofs
- exhibits of children drawings under the Wall
- slide shows on the Wall
- supporting income generating projects near the Wall.
In all cases, a human, animated culture serves to make a dramatic contrast with the Wall, the very symbol and reality of massive intimidation, division and death. These cultural initiatives are part of a broader movement of non-violence, including the abovementioned Kairos Palestine document, pleas for a “cultural Intifada”, and also the Arab Spring – that is, insofar as this Spring has opened up democratic voices of citizenship rather than that it is paving the way for new structures of oppression.
What happens in this cultural movement vis-a-vis the Wall is creating - to apply the helpful expressions of theologian Mary C. Grey - “epiphanies of connection” while “destabilizing worldly hierarchies.”  The non-violent activities at the Wall have served over the years to bring people together, overcome fear, and create a voice for liberation from occupation in whatever form.
An important aspect of these activities is the searching for new genres or formats of communicating one’s story of sumud. Beginning the story of liberation requires a critical mind as well as creativity in a process of co-creation.
At present, desolated spaces along the Wall are reclaimed by the women to communicate new expressions of Palestinian cultural identity.
The latest demonstration of challenging stories is the so-called “Wall Museum,” consisting of story posters on the Wall. The name is put between inverted commas to emphasize that it is intended not as a permanent museum but as an initiative which by its success will help to ultimately destroy itself. In this “museum” stories of Palestinian women are shown on large metal posters. Since Christmas 2011, more than 60 posters have been put nearby the Sumud Story House. In the future new stories of foreigners, youth, landowners, refugees and taxidrivers will appear not just on the Wall, but also on other meaningful objects.
At present, visitors are passing by and photographing or filming the stories on a daily base. In a way, the stories undermine the intimidating Wall and serve as an artistic and human counterpoint.
Some of the poster stories about permit perils are included in another initiative, the so-called “mock permit”. This fake “permit” issued by the “State of Permitland,” specifies elaborate conditions to which visitors have to comply in order to be “allowed” to enter, for a few hours only, the city of Bethlehem.
Reversing relations and hierarchies, in fact ridiculing them, is a long-valued tradition of the international non-violent or peace movement designed to open up space for human agency.
In advance of Christmas 2012, The Bethlehem Sumud Choir developed a music DVD about “The Birth of Jesus Between the Walls.”  The DVD shows traditional Christmas music sung by the women’s choir and a Palestinian child, with the Wall and the Shepherds Fields as background. The settings, Wall poster readings and songs in the DVD constitute a subtle challenge to worldly hierarchies.
Like the mock permit and other cultural activities the DVD serves an educational function, not just for the visitors, but also for those Palestinians involved, who are empowered to shed their fears, and build self-confidence to challenge manipulative structures. They reclaim sumud as human dignity, co-creating a “story movement.”
Ultimately, sumud is human rather than Palestinian. Although the concept has grown on Palestinian soil, we see how anybody can relate to it. In fact, a new step in the story of sumud is its application to international networks, groups and audiences creating human agency through solidarity work.
Arab Educational Institute
 Presently also foreigners are tested through the manipulation of visa. Visas now sometimes show permission to “Judea and Samaria” (West Bank) only; that is, without possibility to enter Jerusalem.
 See Toine van Teeffelen with Victoria C. Biggs and the Sumud Story House, Sumud: Soul of the Palestinian People, 136 pp. Published in the Culture and Palestine Series, Bethlehem, 2011. (In Dutch translation published by Narratio, Gorinchem, 2012). See further the discussions about sumud in the recent twin “gospel journeys” of Mary C. Grey, The Advent of Peace: A gospel journey to Christmas. SPCK, 2010, pp. 85-87, and The Resurrection of Peace: A gospel journey to Easter and beyond. SPCK, 2012, pp. 46-49.
 See http://www.palestine-education.net/index.php?nav=204&;did=191. The RRCA approach has been applied and reviewed by dialogue experts during a visit to Bethlehem in April 2012 organized by Timu Kota, a Dutch youth organization for social entrepreneurship.
The project is explained in an upcoming report which details the stories of the women involved: Sumud Story House, Let Me Stay And Tell My Story: Women’s Rights Advocacy through Community Storytelling. Arab Educational Institute, Culture and Palestine series, Bethlehem, forthcoming.