Human rights when everything’s wrong

Imagine a simple drawing showing a group of men, women and children who appear to be of Palestinian origin, frantically fleeing a series of armoured tanks and soldiers brandishing guns and dressed in green uniforms. The faces of the soldiers are too small to make out clearly but, if you look closely enough, you will see what appears to be the Star of David on one of the tanks.


Now imagine that drawing as part of a lesson plan for secondary school students on the right to humanitarian treatment.  If you assumed this was a lesson plan for Palestine refugees, you’d be right.

When I saw this image in a lesson plan a few months ago I said to a friend, “Why is this in here? What possible good does it serve to show Palestinian civilians attacked by Israeli soldiers?” He didn’t have an answer. On the plus side, it didn’t appear as though any teachers regularly used the lesson.

Bias in textbooks is nothing new. As a recent Economist article pointed out, some Israeli textbooks represent Palestinians as refugees, farmers, and terrorists. Books written by the Palestinian Authority “since the 1990s often shy away from awkward questions. The authors cannot decide whether to portray Palestine as they understand it historically, Palestine as they hope it may emerge from a settlement with Israel, or the messy reality on the ground that changes from year to year.”

Forget from year to year. Things were relatively calm when I entered Gaza a couple of Fridays ago, and within 48 hours there were rocket and mortar attacks at the border when I crossed back into Israel. Since then the assaults have become deadlier by the day with, hopefully, a lasting ceasefire that has just taken effect.

Regardless of the ever-changing situation in Gaza, what children learn about related to human rights should reflect a positive outlook. Even though a curriculum showing that “you’re oppressed and things aren’t getting any better” may be accurate, I doubt it’s in the best interests of children. This doesn’t mean that difficult issues around the rights of Palestine refugees should never be addressed in schools. They must, if children are to become active participants in creating a culture of human rights. In order for that to happen, though, teachers must have the proper skills to engage students into critically reflecting on their lives using a language based on human rights.

Sounds straightforward. I want to convince teachers to have a positive outlook, but honestly my own convictions are tested in situations where senseless violence and fear become the norm. As the bombs finally stop falling in Gaza and Israel I wonder why I’m doing the work I do in human rights. My last trip was only for two days. I was there to pilot a toolkit on human rights I’ve been developing for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The goal of the pilot was to get feedback from primary school teachers on the structure, content, and usability of the toolkit. Following the two-day workshop, the teachers were expected to try out parts of the toolkit in their classrooms with their students. One school was scheduled to try three of the toolkit’s activities, another two schools planned on doing four activities each, and a fourth school wanted to try out five activities. The activities focus on the understanding of different human rights themes: learning about human rights in general, strengthening respect for each other, learning to solve conflicts peacefully, appreciating diversity, and –

Oh forget it.

The schools are closed. No wait that’s not true. They’re open but filled with families who fled their homes seeking refuge from the aerial strikes. The teachers I gave the workshop to won’t be teaching, they’ll be hunkered down in classrooms protecting their families or held hostage at home doing the same. Their routine of teaching children hope in a hopeless land just got a lot worse. The reality of their lives, already frighteningly tenuous, makes the stuff I showed them seem preposterously naïve.

Drawing community maps and making links with human rights.

A Grade 4 student from an UNRWA school– a young girl my son’s age – was killed by an Israeli air strike November 18; an UNRWA teacher at a boys’ school was killed in an attack last week. I think of their deaths and wonder of the futility of teaching about human rights in a place like Gaza. The young girl, had she survived, could have eventually participated in one of the toolkit activities where she and her classmates create a community map using paper and coloured pencils. They would draw different places in the community where rights are present – the mosque (the right to practice your religion, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), their homes (the right to housing, Article 25), the beach (the right to rest, Article 24), the health clinic (the right to health, Article 25). The activity is called “Rights all around me” and is meant to show that, however dire your living conditions, there is still some scrap of dignity amidst your depressing surroundings that proves you are a human being and you deserve to be treated as such.


Now any map would be filled with bombed-out craters, black holes where homes, mosques and pathetic health clinics used to stand. I want teachers to present a positive outlook for their students but the damn bombs, the killings, the destruction always get in the way. As if that weren’t bad enough, an apparent “Israeli spy” was just killed and dragged through the streets of Gaza City by motorcycle as children looked on. I can’t help but think What the hell are you doing?

John Lennon’s Imaginepops in and out of my head a lot these days.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.

This isn’t the time for futility, I tell myself. Teachers want to learn about human rights because they know things have to change, if not for themselves then for their children. The bombs will stop, the dust will clear, the victims mourned, and somehow the children will learn a language of peace.

The Gaza I want to remember

A young boy was killed in Gaza the day before my scheduled trip to Gaza City last week. That morning as I packed my luggage from my hotel in Jordan I saw the news ticker on CNN announcing his death and selfishly thought of the escalating tensions that would likely make my trip more dangerous – or at least more unexpected – than previously planned.


A couple of hours after arriving in Gaza City Friday November 9, my friend asks me if I want to go out for dinner. “It’s just a few minutes walk,” he says. During my last trip in June 2011, I was strictly forbidden to leave the UN compound or the hotel without hopping into a bulletproof Land Cruiser. He senses my hesitation at his offer.

“If you don’t feel comfortable, we’ll just head back and stay here at the hotel,” he assures me.

“Let’s go,” I say, and we’re off.

We exit the hotel. My friend quietly says to me, “You see, the hotel is protected. On your left and your right. Those are Hamas officers both in uniform and in plainclothes.” He points to four men on the left and one on the right. “We’re protected.” Sure. In the hotel.

Walking through the streets of Gaza I think, This isn’t so bad. There are few people on the main street, all men and boys. They sit idly and talk to each other in front of dirty shops filled with second-rate Egyptian goods smuggled through tunnels. Every other street corner has a Hamas officer sitting on a half-broken chair.  There are large, rusted garbage bins every so often filled with rot. By the looks of them their contents are likely burned on the spot rather than collected. Looking at the filth swirling around the streets you could tell that people are used to throwing their trash out anywhere, anytime.

It wasn’t so bad, in the sense that I felt safe. After a wonderful dinner we return back to the hotel and hear preparations under way for a wedding. The festivities were so loud it was impossible to get any sleep until well past midnight. “This is the only way hotels stay in business,” my friend tells me at breakfast the next morning. “There are no tourists so they rely on weddings.” There was another wedding the next night.

It wasn’t so bad, in the sense that people did what they could to live in dignity despite their living conditions. The water’s undrinkable, the food if you can find enough to eat isn’t healthy, you don’t know when you’ll have electricity and when you won’t, you can’t find the medicine you need if you get sick, you can’t get a job, you can’t take care of your family, you can’t even go for a walk on the beach because it’s full of garbage and shit and broken boats and ripped tires and everything else you want to get rid of but there’s nowhere to put any of it so you just live with it every day.

It’s impossible to fully understand the depravity of people living in conditions that are deliberately meant to dehumanize them. I feel sorrow, empathy, anger, but I will never know what it’s really like to live like that all the time. I’m passing through, a two-day temporary glimpse into a world that shouldn’t exist.

I question, as I often have, the impact of my work under such circumstances. My job this time around was to present to and get feedback from primary school teachers on a toolkit I developed for teaching human rights. It’s nothing new, it’s nothing innovative, it’s just common sense. The toolkit builds a lot on international human rights practices to introduce children to human rights. All I’ve done was to package it by contextualizing the toolkit for Palestinian teachers. I’ve focused the toolkit on specific human rights themes that Palestinian teachers told me were important: children’s participation, respect, building links with the community, and learning about equality, among others.

When I walk into the workshop room on Saturday November 10, I’m greeted by smiles from everyone. Within a few minutes our discussion leads us straight to asking ourselves what human rights are.

“Human rights are the basic things that all of us have, like the right to education, the right to live in a nice house, and the right to be healthy,” says a young woman.

“It means we respect each other,” adds the woman next to her.

Both of them speak as though these are truths. They aren’t naïve, they are hopeful. In their place I don’t know how I could possibly share their enthusiasm. I’d find it hard to fake a smile in front of students and tell them everyone has the right to live in security. When a student plays football in the field under the threat of bombs ripping his body to shreds, I think it would be easy for a student to say to a teacher, “We are never safe.”

Teachers in Gaza learning about human rights.

As the two women speak, the other participants nod and join in with similar things to say. It’s the kind of environment where I feel, as a facilitator, revitalized by the energy, thoughtfulness, and professionalism of educators who work in arguably one of the most dangerous environments around. They never admit that human rights are only what other people have; they speak of rights as entitlements everyone must have.


One in the afternoon on Sunday and the workshop is already over. Our scheduled departure for 1:30 is delayed due to mortar and rocket fire at the border. By 2:15 we’re told by security to get in a vehicle and leave the UN compound.  The first rains of the season quickly flood all the streets and bring traffic to a standstill. A normally fifteen-minute ride to the border is delayed the moment the compound gates close behind us. After half an hour wading through water at least a quarter meter thick, the driver receives the call from security to turn back because of new border attacks. We stop, wait in silence on a side street, then get another call told to forge ahead. The mortar and rockets stopped, at least for the moment. Our surroundings change as we near the border: a barren and pitted landscape even more desolate than the misery of the city looks like the perfect setting for a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. Half a dozen young boys play football by the side of the road next to a couple of pathetic shacks surrounded by garbage. I try to reassure myself that things can’t be that bad if they’re out playing.

Things weren’t bad, at least for the few minutes required to cross between borders. The situation was labeled as “calm but tense” by one UN official and that sums up the attitude most people had up to that point. But I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder what an easy target I was as we left the safety of a bulletproof vehicle and made our way in a Turkish government-donated golf cart down the kilometer-long concrete passageway leading up to the Israeli wall. I was not eager for my fate to be ignominiously sealed while riding in a golf cart in a war zone.

Leaving Gaza, I knew the situation would deteriorate, and do so quickly. I leave with an overpowering sense of abandonment. The teachers I met will still teach, and I wonder if what children learn about human rights will give them any greater sense of comfort amidst the violence that imbues their lives.

The Gaza I want to keep in my memory is that of teachers eager to learn and teach about human rights; I want to remember walking freely through the streets, even if only for a few minutes; I want to remember the unrelenting music, laughter and screams of joy at the weddings I heard from my hotel room; I want to remember the handshakes, the smiles, and the kindness of friends and strangers alike; I want to remember the young man at the hotel reception saying, “See you next time,” with a genuine smile. I know the reality is anything but this at the moment. Like the teachers who spoke at the workshop, I’m not naïve, I’m hopeful. There must be better days ahead.

You can’t hold a gun while you’re dancing

A friend sent me a link to an article the other day about a shooting range in the West Bank that offers tourists the opportunity to “shoot” terrorists. The camp is apparently a fun outing for the whole family. One man from the US brought his family there for the experience, wanting to “teach them values.” The article goes on to write “Upon entering the range, his five-year-old daughter, Tamara, bursts into tears. A half hour later, she is holding a gun and shooting clay bullets like a pro.” That’s so touching.


I don’t know what kind of values that man is trying to teach his daughter. The shooting range’s website helps clarify: “At our program we combine together the values of Zionism with the excitement and enjoyment of shooting which makes the activity more meaningful.”
Proof that you can have fun without a gun.
The tourist part of the shooting range is absurd, particularly when it becomes part of a family vacation with young children (OK, shooting ranges in general don’t get my vote of approval either). As I write these words, I am sitting in an office in Amman at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a UN agency responsible for providing Palestine refugees with access to education, among other services. The office is spacious and sparsely decorated, with two laminated posters of children’s drawings on the walls. Behind me is an old photograph of Palestinian girls performing a traditional dance near a tent. It’s a beautiful image that reminds me of the many workshops I have facilitated in the Middle East where the participants – all adults – at some point during the workshop pull out a mobile phone, play traditional music, prop the phone next to a microphone and all break out in dance.  A bond between individuals is strengthened, hands are held, smiles erupt, and it’s easy to sense the importance that dance plays in the lives of the people present. Those are values I can get behind.
If we talk of values to instill in our children, I cannot even begin to understand the motives behind the man at the shooting range who brought his five year-old daughter. He is quite simply insensitive, mindless, and is probably holding on to a profoundly skewed conviction that he’s doing the right thing by exposing his children to guns. And not just for target practice (which is bad), but to “shoot” terrorists (which is nuts).
Parents have a responsibility to teach their children values. A guiding principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is that of the child’s “best interests.” Essentially that means that all decisions related to a child’s development, all actions by parents and others responsible for such development like teachers, must act in the child’s best interests, not their own. I’ve got two boys, now nine and 11. When each one was five years old, my wife and I decided that their best interests were having a safe and secure home, being kind and respectful, having fun and being loved. I may have missed a thing or two but “holding a gun” wasn’t on the list, and it never will be.
Let kids be kids. I’ll get back to my work now, writing a toolkit for Palestinian teachers on how to teach about human rights. Respect, equality, non-discrimination, inclusion, and tolerance – nothing you will ever learn by pulling a trigger.