Israeli, Palestinian youth navigate way through Peace Labyrinth

While many find the Middle East situation to be like a labyrinth, an actual labyrinth is playing a persuasive role in helping young Israelis and Palestinians find their way through their maze to a better future.

The Labyrinth, constructed in Jerusalem, opened its winding passages to fifth- and sixth-graders late last year.

“We call it a Peace Labyrinth,” says Alan Freeman, Jerusalem Foundation vice president for overseas coordination. “It has been adapted from a model created by the Dutch Peace Education Projects, and is designed to challenge the prejudices that children hold and help them resolve conflict peacefully.”

It was Freeman who encountered the prototype of the peace project at a March 2005 conference and encouraged the Jerusalem Foundation (in partnership with the Bloomfield Science Museum, the European-based Evens Foundation and the Olive Stone Trust) to bring it from its birthplace in the Netherlands to Israel.

Youngsters wind their way through the maze, stopping to negotiate its 40 interactive exhibits.

With photographic images, sounds, mirrors and games, each exhibit raises dilemmas or asks questions that youngsters confront daily, guiding them in an exploration of the limits to tolerance, rules of freedom and different ways of resolving conflict within the Israeli context.

The Israeli version of the Peace Labyrinth differs somewhat from the original Peace Factory created by the Dutch non-profit organization Peace Education Projects — as do the versions that have been taken to Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Russia and Northern Ireland.

Each is adapted to address local cultures and social conflicts.

To adapt the exhibit to Israel and specifically to Jerusalem — with its high levels of intolerance and mistrust between religious and secular, wealthy and indigent, Arab and Jew — sponsors brought on board Jewish Israeli psychologist and conflict resolution specialist Danny Fridberg and Palestinian/Israeli art expert and art historian Reula Khoury.

“Certain adaptations we made were obvious,” Fridberg says. “In some of the existing exhibits, for example, teaching tolerance of immigrants is emphasized, as in Israel this is a particularly prevalent problem. Our focus is more on the interpersonal.”

Fridberg and Khoury created four main themes for Israel’s variation of the Peace Labyrinth: the equality and uniqueness of each child; the different ways in which individuals view the same events; conflict management in schools; and the rights of the child.

After that occured, then it was time to brainstorm about how to bring together these themes, transmit the key messages and make the end result coherent, consistent, appropriate and accessible.

Participating in this process were principals from religious and secular Jewish and Arab schools in Jerusalem, pedagogues, Jerusalem Foundation and museum representatives and the Dutch creators of the original exhibit.

“We had to tailor what we created to the different levels and backgrounds of the 300 or so classes (approximately 10,000 tweens) booked to visit the exhibit during its run (until October 2009),” Khoury says.

“In some instances, we’re addressing not only differences, but diametric opposites in perspective. Arab schools, for example, with their school uniforms and strict discipline, stress similarity whereas the Jewish schools focus on individuality. Our solution has been to present both in a neutral way.”

How are topics such as similarity versus individuality, tolerance and acceptance, freedom and its restrictions presented?

“The aim is to make youngsters think for themselves, to research each issue rather than have the information transferred,” Fridberg says.

“They wind their way through the labyrinth as they do in life, observing, perceiving situations, formulating opinions and reaching conclusions. We try to show that every situation presents the possibility for multiple approaches, and that the way they choose to perceive situations has consequences for what follows.”

“Our aim is to stimulate discussion and develop children’s thinking about fairness, democracy, tolerance and the possibility of peace,” Khoury adds. “We want them to learn, for example, that tolerance is a valuable asset, but has its limits … that freedom cannot be unrestricted, because the freedom of one individual can restrict that of others … and that there is more than one way to resolve conflicts.

“An ongoing emphasis is on how individuals, through their own values and attitudes, behavior and actions, directly influence their society.”

Preparation and follow-up in the classroom with teachers — made easier by an accompanying booklet — are designed to increase the impact of the Labyrinth long after the youngsters have had their morning’s fun.

“Thinking more seriously about tolerance and acceptance of others, examining one’s own actions and beliefs, are first steps in making peace,” Freeman says.

“These are tools that the Peace Labyrinth will help youngsters acquire and which we expect will be important to them for the rest of their lives.”