Youth Encounter Programs in Israel

Pedagogy, Identity, and Social Change

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Karen Ross
Syracuse Studies on Peace and Conflict Resolution
  • Syracuse, NY: 
    Syracuse University Press
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For several decades, encounter programs in Israel have been bringing Israeli and Palestinian youth together to promote peace. Since their inception, scholars and practitioners alike have grappled with the question of whether these programs “work.” Ross resists the push for a yes or no answer. Instead, she centers her analysis around the complex life trajectories of program participants and the meanings they ascribe to their youth encounters. While past studies of peace-building programs in Israel largely focused on surface-level, attitudinal shifts, Ross’s detailed account goes further by looking holistically at how attitudes translate into wider actions and ideas about social change. This approach provides the foundation for a well-researched, qualitative investigation into the role of Jewish-Palestinian encounters in shaping participants’ values, political beliefs, and activism. 

Through a comparative case study of two pedagogically distinct programs, Sadaka-Reut and Peace Child, Ross illuminates the influence of programmatic approaches on impact. Relying on in-depth interviews, observation, and content analysis, Ross innovatively traces the intersections of these organizations’ pedagogies with their influences on participants’ beliefs and political engagement. Ross insists on moving past a unidirectional, causal understanding of impact toward an approach that connects attitudinal shifts to broader frameworks for social change. She challenges the typical approach to evaluating encounter programs, noting the ways that pre/post surveys can privilege researchers’ preconceptions and sometimes produce superficial data that do not fully capture the nuances of participants’ experiences. Instead, her methodology is guided by her interviewees’ own discussions of significance and meaning. She argues that this approach is particularly conducive to the study of encounter programs, as it produces rich data suitable for the analysis of deep-seated beliefs, and it allows for the consideration of socio-political context.Together these creative, thoughtful methodological strategies offer a refreshing and much-needed development in the literature.

In her analysis, Ross highlights the importance of pedagogy in determining programs’ impacts. She argues that by comparatively analyzing participants’ accounts of their own views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in contrast to dominant collective narratives, clear patterns emerge in terms of how Israeli and Palestinian alumni of Sadaka-Reut and Peace Child diverge from the mainstream narratives of their societies. For Sadaka-Reut alumni, themes of structural inequality and systemic change are salient, while Peace Child appears to facilitate universalist thinking that often lacks a critique of power imbalances within the conflict. Peace Child participants tend to understand the conflict through a cultural lens, while Sadaka-Reut alumni take a more political approach that facilitates higher levels of activism. Sadaka-Reut participants are also more likely to attribute their engagement in efforts for social change to their participation in the program, especially in terms of learning specific skills. This leads Ross to conclude that while efforts like Peace Child may have positive effects on participants’ sense of self and their beliefs, Sadaka-Reut alumni are better positioned to continue to engage in concrete efforts to address the conflict. 

Ross’s analysis also reveals differences between Israeli and Palestinian participants in terms of the programs’ roles in shaping their beliefs and activism. Her findings include the tendency of Israelis to apply their encounter experiences to other social issues beyond Israeli-Palestinian relations, as well as the tendency of Palestinians to develop stronger ties to their collective narratives. Ross argues that these findings shed light on how socio-political and communal factors shape participants’ views in tandem with the encounter program. As she argues, participants are not passive recipients of their program’s content. Instead, encounter programs may help facilitate transformative processes that are already in motion or their effects may be constrained by broader, complex structures. Her data reveal that stark differences in the daily lives of Palestinian and Jewish youth in Israel steer their ideological developments in different directions, despite their shared experience in the encounter program. This finding underscores one of Ross’s key arguments, that encounter programs do not happen in a vacuum and must be assessed through methods that account for a variety of intersecting factors. 

Ross offers a thoughtful explanation for these divergences, though a deeper theoretical discussion would have enhanced her analysis. For example, while an awareness of power imbalances is consistently referred to as a program outcome, critical theories of racial hierarchy and settler colonialism are largely absent from her discussion. Ross briefly mentions the fact that Sadaka-Reut’s Jewish participants are often from marginalized communities within Israel, such as the Mizrahim. However, she neglects to analyze how this may play a role in the distinct experiences of Jewish alumni of Sadaka-Reut versus those of Peace Child. Ross references literature that briefly discusses how minority versus dominant groups react differently to encounter programs. Yet given the richness of her data and her unique sample, a deeper analysis of how race and marginalization play a role in participants’ distinct reactions to the programs would have been fruitful. 

Overall, Ross makes a compelling case for the long-lasting impacts of encounter programs. She finds that both organizations appear to develop participants’ awareness of socio-political issues, help them to acquire confidence, and facilitate their ability to overcome indifference and despair through instilling hope in their ability to envision alternatives to the current reality. Ross also highlights the stability of participants’ identities and how changes, often directly tied to Sadaka-Reut and Peace Child, persist for many years after leaving the program. This book is an innovative and instructive addition to the literature on the people-to-people programs that have been running in Israel over the past three decades. Ross masterfully demonstrates the power and relevance of an ethnographic approach to evaluative research. Through a revealing comparison of two analytically rich case studies, Ross methodically brings attention to the crucial importance of integrating structural analyses of power into initiatives that bring Israelis and Palestinians together. While she maintains that any contact is still useful in terms of promoting peace, her study makes a compelling case for a deeply needed shift toward action-oriented, skill-based encounter programs that plant the seeds for a younger generation willing to challenge systemic injustices. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Schneider is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado College.

Date of Review: 
June 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karen Ross is assistant professor in the department of conflict resolution, human security, and global governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.


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