Hundreds of disadvantaged Israeli teens spend a post-high-school year as community volunteers in programs operated by the Ma’ase Center. For the past seven years, Ma’ase has brought these Jewish, Arab, Bedouin, Druze and Ethiopian Israelis together at a two-day “Encounters” seminar to promote camaraderie among disparate sectors.

These well-intentioned encounters didn’t always achieve their goal.

In fact, sometimes the seminar only further entrenched prejudicial attitudes, says Neta Manor, activities director for Ma’ase, a subsidiary nonprofit association of the Rashi Foundation working to promote equal opportunities and civil leadership among young people from the periphery.

To figure out what was going wrong and how to fix it, Manor turned to Roni Porat, director of the new Applied Psychology Center for Social Change at IDC, a private college in Herzliya.

The radical research-based changes that Porat helped integrate into the Encounters program made all the difference at the most recent seminar in November, and could be the long-sought key to success in any program for conflict resolution and tolerance training.

“A lot of projects are already out there attempting to change attitudes on racism and intolerance, but they are instinct-based,” Porat tells ISRAEL21c. “We bring in scientific knowledge from academic social psychology — something that has never been done before.”

IDC professors Eran Halperin and Tamar Saguy have published widely on the psychological mechanisms of social change. The Center of Applied Psychology for Social Change was formally established in August  last year to put their findings to work.

While many organizations sponsor joint activities for Jewish and Arab youth such as a soccer game or art project, participants’ good feelings soon dissipate as they see that nothing has changed in real life.

Porat taught Ma’ase counselors psychological strategies to achieve lasting results in overcoming racism and prejudice. With her guidance, the staff integrated these theoretical principles into fun activities to try with 600 Encounters participants.

Three ways to promote real harmony

Porat and Manor describe three examples of activities that were implemented in the seminar and could be used by other organizations to break down barriers to understanding and compromise.

The first was a two-hour workshop designed to instill the notion that groups and people can change. The teens brainstormed to find instances of change from real life, such as former enemy states becoming allies or personal changes they have experienced.

“We found in several research projects that if people generally believe groups can change, that decreases their hatred of the ‘other’ and increases their willingness to compromise,” explains Porat. “Hatred is a huge factor, and sending the message that groups can change has a big effect.”

Ma’ase Center teen volunteers come from a variety of ethnic communities across Israel. Photo by Eilon Kotler
Ma’ase Center teen volunteers come from a variety of ethnic communities across Israel. Photo by Eilon Kotler

In the second activity, the teens stood on opposite sides of a line in the middle of the room. One person would go stand on the line and share a personal characteristic, such as “I have an older brother” or “I don’t like getting up early in the morning.” Anyone with a similar characteristic joined the person on the line.

“A lot of today’s seminars try to create a sense of similarity among people, but we know from research that this can be very damaging because this approach threatens self-identity,” says Porat. “People want to feel they’re special and unique. However, some types of similarity are not threatening and let people feel similar just for a moment in a specific context.”

“We didn’t try to say they are all together in a single struggle,” says Manor. “We emphasized each unique identity and religion, to make everyone feel secure within their own group. From there we tried to make them acknowledge similarities in small ways: They all have parents and siblings, they all live in Israel, they all hope to raise a family.”

Creating lasting camaraderie is not as simple as it may seem. Photo by Eilon Kotler
Creating lasting camaraderie is not as simple as it may seem. Photo by Eilon Kotler

The third activity built awareness of individuality within groups by having kids introduce themselves to others from their own sector and from different sectors.

“In conflict situations, people always feel that while their own group is made up of very different people, the ‘out’ group is all the same as one another. Studies show that when you look at people of a different race, for example, you have a hard time differentiating them. It is important to break this perception and make people understand that the ‘out’ group has different voices, colors and opinions just like your group,” explains Porat.

“We tried not to make them feel guilty if they have prejudices,” says Manor. “As young people volunteering in Israel, they recognize that there are other conflicts aside from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We tried to deconstruct the categories of ‘Jews’ and ‘Arabs’ who look alike or have the same beliefs. When they hear about each other’s hopes, dreams, history and volunteer work, they can look each other in the eyes and see there is not one type of Arab and one type of Jew.”

Results speak for themselves

Ma’ase questionnaires filled out by more than half of the seminar’s volunteers — half of them Druze, Arab or Bedouin and the other half Jewish – show the positive effect of these new methods and techniques to facilitate understanding and communication between groups in conflict.

More than 50 percent of respondents said the seminar strengthened their belief that people can change. More than 70% said the seminar helped them get to know better other ethnic and religious groups in Israeli society.

Approximately 70% said that the seminar exposed them to a range of opinions and viewpoints of the other participants, while more than 40% said the seminar caused them to question their original values and opinions, and to realize that they don’t know enough about the different population groups in Israel.

More than 75% said the seminar made them listen to people whose viewpoints are different from their own.

“I can say for a fact that it was very different this time,” says Manor. “More than in the past, our teen volunteers and our leaders finished with a feeling that something new can happen here. It was not a feeling of euphoria, which according to Roni is an illusion. We understand the world is a complex place and we can take responsibility to change it.”

The Ma’ase Center and the Applied Psychology Center for Social Change plan to continue working together in the future.

“We’d like to help them build and test more specific workshops,” says Porat. “We are doing this voluntarily, because when we come across something like Ma’ase we just do it. Our motivation is to make a real difference.”

For more information on Ma’ase, click here.

For more information on the Applied Psychology Center for Social Change, click here.