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IRBID, Jordan - Staff members from the University of Hamline, Minnesota, have found a new way of doing things.

Teachers from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and other countries sit down together and speak in a civilized and constructive manner about texts that constitute a rough draft of a handbook that will be taught in schools in the Middle East.

Contrary to similar meetings, in which tempers flare, this encounter is characterized by impressive cooperation.

The recipe is simple: Instead of talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, participants speak about discrimination against minorities in Minnesota or about the attitude toward women in India. Apparently it is easier to be critical and judgmental about others, foreigners who are far away, than about your own society.

Several dozen teachers arrived in Irbid for a few days last month to attend the seminar. They were divided into several discussion groups - one of them on the attitude toward women and girls in India.

The participants read an article from The Herald Tribune which mentioned that in one of the country's many regions, the birth of a son is celebrated with candies and baked goods while the birth of a daughter is not celebrated at all.

Sometimes it is even worse than that - one of the women interviewed for the article was exiled from her home with her daughters after she gave birth to her third girl.

The subject evoked a stormy discussion and, as the organizers had anticipated, in their responses the teachers also reflected on the status of women in the Middle East.

The Arab teachers explained that a woman's Arabic nickname derives from her eldest son or her father, such as Umm-Ali. As part of the discussion, a Palestinian teacher said he was happy he had a son who would carry his name, while an Israeli teacher explained that he was his father's only son and that he himself had two daughters.

"My father is sad that his family name will not continue," he explained to everyone. "The name is important to remember our history and our identity. I think it is significant." His remarks were met with nods of agreement from almost all participants.

Solving dilemmas

The University of Hamline's civic education project has been in operation for a few years now. The main drive behind the project are its two directors - a former Israeli, Dr. Arie Zmora, and a former Palestinian, Lou Kanavati, who now live in the U.S. The two decided to do something that would make their place of residence support the region they came from.

The project's remaining staff members, some 15 members of the university's faculty, lecture and coordinate the various groups on a voluntary basis.

The handbook the teachers helped prepare will be published in three languages - Hebrew, English and Arabic - and will be taught by those schools whose districts decide to join the project. The book's draft provides examples from both Jewish and Arab societies but generally not in the context of the conflict.

One example deals with the dilemma faced by the family of Rashad and Aziza, twins from the Jerusalem suburb of Shoafat.

The parents are glad that Rashad is going to study engineering in the U.S. but are opposed to Aziza's desire to study medicine in Jordan, preferring for her to get married. The different treatment and the inequality of son and daughter is supposed to anger the students.

Another example is the story of Adam and Revital, both lecturers at Tel Aviv University. The two specialize in the same subjects and have the same number of years of experience, but Revital discovers that Adam earns a great deal more and finds herself in a dilemma - how to strive toward equality without jeopardizing her friendship with Adam.

The aim is to present the handbook simultaneously in high schools in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and Jordan, with all the dilemmas presented in the same fashion. That means that a student from Gaza and a student from Tel Aviv will both read about Adam and Revital from Tel Aviv and Rashad and Aziza from Shuafat. Zmora explains that the aim is to promote discussion of the society in which the students and the teachers live.

"Our goal is to arouse critical thinking. This is one of the most important processes in education, which leads to understanding the other and to granting legitimacy to other points of view. When one understands the other, it is possible to make progress toward solving problems," he says.

"We hope that in the long run, it will be possible to apply this tool when talking about the conflict, too, by showing respect for the other's point of view."

Vehicle for social change

The latest meeting of the project's participants was held in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid, at the initiative of Hamline University and with the assistance of the U.S. State Department.

One of the aims was to promote future cooperation on the subject of the environment between schools on both sides of the border - Irbid in Jordan and the Beit She'an Valley in Israel.

The participants say that one of the advantages to holding meetings outside of Israel and the Palestinian territories is that they can hold discussions more freely.

Mona Iraqi, who was born in East Jerusalem and teaches in a school there, says it is much easier to meet abroad. "When we met in East Jerusalem, it was hard for me to sit in a room and talk to Israelis, and then go out and face the difficult reality," she says.

Every participant agrees that the teachers can constitute an excellent vehicle for social change. Iraqi, who lived in the U.S. for about four years, says she has already taught the material they are discussing in a public school in East Jerusalem and is currently teaching it in a private school. She says there is no opposition to the material in her schools.

Iraqi explains that she prefers not to discuss the conflict, in order to prevent her students from losing their tempers. Her friend, Ziva Ma'or, a teacher in Israel, explains that meeting with the Palestinians is particularly important for her and that despite all their efforts, the conflict constantly hovers in the background.

"The Palestinians are the heart of the matter. I feel like I have to give them the feeling that I will always remain in my home, but I recognize their suffering and would like us to advance together to a better place," she says.