Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli teens learn to collaborate

A new study by Stanford researchers found that Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli teenagers collaborate more effectively after learning people can change.

Courtesy of Kinneret Endevelt/Stanford News Service
Students in Israel participate in an activity as part of a study conducted by a Stanford-led research team of psychologists.

Trying to figure out a peaceful solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict can be a thorny job, but a group of researchers says there is one key ingredient that can ease the process: A belief that change is possible.

A Stanford-led research team of psychologists arrived at the conclusion after testing the hypothesis on a group of Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli middle school students in Israel. Published earlier this month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, they found that when the students were taught about the possibility of change, they were better able to cooperate with each other.

“We found that people who believe societies and individuals are capable of change cooperate much better with each other,” Amit Goldenberg, lead author and graduate student at Stanford University in California, said in a news release. Mr. Goldenberg worked under psychology professor Carol Dweck who similarly intends the results to be examined in the context of current events.

Israeli and Palestinian neighbors saw heightened tensions in 2015 in the disputed West Bank region, where fatal clashes between both Israeli and Palestinian civilians and soldiers took place. But as a poll in August found, more than half of the surveyed Palestinians and Israelis also seek peace through a two-state solution, although that sentiment is coupled with high levels of mistrust and fear. Goldenberg and Professor Dweck’s team hopes to play a role in helping the parties overcome those negative feelings in search of a peaceful solution.

“When you think people have fixed traits your job is to just figure them out and go from there,” Dweck said. “If you think people can develop and change, you don’t tend to make blanket judgments.”

The researchers conducted four sessions with 74 Jewish and 64 Palestinian-Israeli students between ages 13 and 14 from a Palestinian-Israeli school and Jewish-Israel school over three months. The students were split into two groups. One group was taught about people’s ability to change while the other learned stress-coping mechanisms.

In the final session, the students were put into mixed teams and asked to complete assignments that require cooperation, such as building a tower from spaghetti, marshmallows, and tape.

Students who were taught about change built towers that were 59 percent higher and “had more positive emotions” toward each other, the study found, compared to the other group.

“We expected to see some change, but not such big changes,” Goldenberg said. “It’s much easier to see changes in people’s attitudes, but to actually see that these people are cooperating better is remarkable.”

The collaboration may be crucial, especially as interaction with people from an opposing faction can be rare. A survey in 2015, as reported by The Jerusalem Post, found that 35 percent of Jewish Israeli youth have never spoken to an Arab youth, while 27 percent of Arab Israelis have never spoken to a Jewish youth.

But interactions and personal connection are important to building peace, Eva Armour, director of global programs for Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings youths from conflict regions together, wrote in a commentary for The Christian Science Monitor in 2014.

Diplomatic processes must be paired with transformational interactions between people in order for peace on paper to translate into peace on the ground.... There is no silver bullet for ending conflict; meaningful change requires people working at all levels to disrupt the status quo. People-to-people peacebuilding is slow, hard, and messy, but, more important, it is also necessary.

There are current initiatives in place to encourage these interactions. For example, a basketball project called PeacePlayers International brings Palestinian and Israeli teenage girls together in games, as reported by CNN. More than 200 youths from both sides also launched a social media campaign to call for direct dialogue with each other this March, as reported by The Jerusalem Post.

The Stanford team hopes that their workshop can be implemented in Israeli and Palestinian schools.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects millions of lives every day,” Goldenberg said. “Any contribution you can make to this problem is progress.”

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