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New college peace program launches in Israel


Students at Mar Elias College in Galilee will soon be able to participate in the first undergraduate peace program in Israel.

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December 15, 2006
- Rich Preheim

Elkhart, Ind. — Glenn Witmer, peace worker in Jerusalem, will bring together a group of North American educators to pioneer a new peace initiative in a land where sides have been battling for centuries.

Gordon Matties, of Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Joe Liechty, chair of the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies department at Goshen (Ind.) College, and David Brubaker from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. will be at Mar Elias College in Galilee the first week of January to help develop what will be the first undergraduate college peace program in Israel.

Witmer, whose ministry is supported by Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network, and Mar Elias Peace Center director Marie Loller, have spearheaded the planning efforts. Witmer calls the region a “laboratory for peace studies” to which Mennonites have been invited to help experiment.

Elias Chacour founded the college, located in Ibillin in northern Israel, 24 years ago. He is a Melkite Catholic priest and a Palestinian-born Arab-Israeli who has long worked for reconciliation among the Holy Land’s conflicting religious and ethnic groups. The student body includes Christians, Jews, Muslims and Druze. A peace centre affiliated with the school was started in 1994, but Mar Elias now aspires to become Galilee’s “university of peace.”

“I find it so exemplary that a community of Palestinian Christians in Israel should be that intent on peace,” Liechty said. “Anything you can do to support that you should do.”

During the Jan. 2-7 meetings, the three Mennonites are scheduled to join two scholars from Australia and one from Ireland as consultants to a Mar Elias committee working on the peace studies program. The college hopes to submit a report to the Israeli Council of Higher Education by February.

Loller said short-term efforts such as dialogues and meetings among the region’s factions can have only limited positive effects on systemic issues. “We believe that it will be much more effective to increasingly channel resources into well-structured, long-term programs that are embedded within the everyday educational curriculum [of the school],” she said. “Applied research and the academic peace studies program will provide pilot studies and a foundation for achieving this goal.”

Liechty noted that most academic peace studies programs are spin-offs from programs such as international relations, but that’s not the case at Goshen, EMU and CMU. “In Mennonite institutions, peace studies is applied Christology,” he said. “From what I know of Elias Chacour, he believes that too.”

Witmer said Chacour “keeps reminding us [Mennonites] of his wish to form a closer bond with us, appreciating so much our stance and work in the peace area.”

The North Americans emphasize that they are going as much to listen as to speak. “Putting together a peace studies program in a war zone is a different kind of endeavor,” said Matties, associate professor of biblical studies and theology at CMU. “We can learn from some of the practical issues they face.”

Said Brubaker, who is the academic chair of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, “It is my fervent hope that what emerges is a product that reflects the unique needs, vision and mission of Mar Elias and its own context.”

With nearly 400 students, Mar Elias is the largest Arab college in Israel. It is part of the Mar Elias Educational Institutions in Ibillin, providing schooling to 3,500 students from kindergarten through post-secondary levels. Addressing inequalities between Arabs and Israelis is a major focus for Mar Elias, as only 8 percent of students in Israeli colleges are Arab, even though they are 20 percent of the national population.

Loller bemoans “a paucity of research relating to Arab society and educational needs, which is essential if a real partnership is to be built” with Israelis.

“Don’t we all pride ourselves to be children of Abraham?” Chacour, now Melkite Catholic archbishop of Galilee, told an audience while visiting Harrisonburg in October. “How many more people do we kill using religious arguments?”

The three North Americans will bring to Ibillin extensive experience in peace work, both practical and academic. Liechty served 24 years in Ireland and Northern Ireland with Mennonite Mission Network, helping start and then direct a peace program in Dublin. Brubaker, a former associate director of Mennonite Conciliation Services, was a co-founder of Arizona-based peace consulting organization Cooperative by Design. Matties has broad Middle Eastern experience, including leading four tours to the region.