Fellow Studies Political Learning of Israeli, Palestinian Youth

Spotlight on Wilson Center Fellow Orit Ichilov

May 01, 2003

Wilson Center Fellow Orit Ichilov, on sabbatical from Israel's Tel Aviv University where she teaches sociology, is finishing a book on the political and social learning environment of youth growing up in conflict situations. Her book explores the impact that global change and national and societal rifts have on youth living amidst war.

"Political orientations and behaviors are learned," said Ichilov. Learning environments can foster support for democracy or perpetuation of conflict-passed on from generation to generation. In conflict situations, said Ichilov, messages of hatred are reiterated in the media, in schools, and in the family, thus fueling the conflict. "These various environments and contexts, that create a world of meanings, images and social bonds, have a cumulative effect on the political learning of youngsters," said Ichilov.

Ichilov's book draws heavily on a case study of Israeli society. She has conducted numerous studies among Israeli Jewish and Arab youth over several decades. Her new book will examine long-term trends and include data from a recent study she conducted among 11th-grade Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinian-Arabs in early 2000. Even then, she said, during a time of relative peace, the socializing environment in Israel in which Israeli and Palestinian youth have been growing up seemed discouraging. Today, amidst violence and conflict, that environment appears even more dismal.

Israeli Arabs and Jews grow up in a divided society, in which the very foundation of Israel as a Jewish democratic state is contested. It is a society in which two national groups have different aspirations and seemingly irreparable rifts. Data from Ichilov's 2000 study reflects this national divide that builds on the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The study reveals divergent views among young Jews and Israeli Palestinians on such issues as national pride, trust in political institutions, and the legitimate use of military power. Ichilov reported, "The data suggests that strong civil identity, that might provide a measure of cohesion within Israeli society, is not in sight."

For example, most Jewish Israeli youth surveyed considered defending Israeli territory and holy places a justified reason for military exertion, whereas Israeli Palestinian youth cited the need to liberate holy places and territories as just use of military power. Jewish and Israeli Palestinian youth surveyed each had a similar, moderate level of trust in government institutions and the media. But Palestinian youth generally admitted a low level of pride in Israel, its history, and achievements.

In Israeli schools, Ichilov said, "the socializing environments seem to be more conducive to reinforcing partisan views than to inculcating a strong civic identity that would bridge existing rifts."

Ichilov recommends changing perceptions and negative stereotypes, systematically and persistently, in the school curricula as well as through nongovernmental organizations and the media. Improving the atmosphere and attitudes, Ichilov admits, requires a long-term commitment, in which both sides make a serious effort to listen to and address each other's interests. This is crucial, she said, because "the future of the world and the fate of democracy will be greatly determined by the young."