Promoting tolerance with a cross-cultural education

When the prospects for peace in the Middle East appear dim in the face of unrelenting violence and a mutual unwillingness for dialogue from both sides, it is reassuring to hear of constructive attempts to overcome barriers and develop an understanding among citizens of traditionally hostile states. An example of such an initiative is an educational program that the Washington-based International Institute of Political and Economic Studies has been organizing every summer for the past eight years, which aims to bring together students from across the Mediterranean region, and especially the Middle East, to broaden their outlook through debate with their fellow students. It is a goal which has particular resonance now as the deadlock in the Middle East shows few signs of breaking. Last July a total of 80 students – from Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and other parts of the Balkans – converged at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Hania in Crete for an intensive three-week program of studies and debate. The program – which is supported by the Greek Association for Atlantic and European Cooperation, the Fund for American Studies and Georgetown University and endorsed by President Costis Stephanopoulos and Foreign Minister George Papandreou – «explores major political, economic and cultural issues important to the Eastern Mediterranean region,» with students offered courses in politics, economics, history, philosophy, and conflict management.» In addition to studying important principles of political and economic organization, students also participate in a conflict resolution workshop designed to teach approaches for breaking down the barriers built up by historical conflicts. There are also frequent debates designed to promote a broader grasp of developments on the international stage among the various students. Last year students benefited from lectures from a range of experts in politics and international relations, including Panteion University professor Alexandros Koutsis and Serbia’s ambassador to Greece, Dusan Batakovic. But the program is not purely academic. It also comprises a range of formal and informal social events and excursions (last year, the students visited the Samaria Gorge in southern Hania prefecture) to allow the students to get to know each other better. Even the sleeping arrangements are conducive to promoting «a cross-cultural exchange» with participants assigned roommates from countries other than their own. Most participants claim to have gained not just a broader outlook, but lifelong friendships. More details about the program can be obtained by visiting the institute’s website (