The word "Freedom" is scribbled on the light-blue door of Jameel Aldweek's classroom in the New Kufar Aqab Girls School on the outskirts of Ramallah. It is a welcome reprieve from the swastika and “All Jews are pussies” emblazoned on the security barrier as I entered the West Bank. Aldweek, director of the Al-Razee Association and co-teacher of a new pilot project in two Palestinian schools, begins by asking the dozen sixth-grade girls in attendance, "What does democracy mean to you?" "Liberty and responsibility," one student immediately shoots back. "What is the link, then, between liberty and responsibility?" he retorts. The girls enthusiastically give examples of conflicting interests in their homes. One girl answers that often she wants to watch one television channel but her brother wants to watch another. Cooperation and dialogue are the keys to solving problems, Aldweek says. "It is forbidden to impose on the freedoms of others."
Aldweek stands relaxed and confident at the front of the classroom, gently encouraging the girls to participate. A soft smile graces his lips, and his eyes light up when they share an observation or experience in support of democratic ideals. His graying hair is matched by an equally peppered kempt mustache. Aldweek speaks to me in hushed tones about his goal of infusing Palestinian youth with tolerance and respect for differing races, religions, and genders. With ten schools in Jerusalem, he calculates, he could affect 400 families--and within a decade, he hopes for nothing less than a transformation of Palestinian culture.
He takes me back to his office, where two posters of Yasser Arafat adorn the walls. Arafat, I remark to Aldweek, was an autocrat who quashed dissent and democracy. Why, then, does he hang two posters so prominently? "It's a game," he replies cryptically. I push him further. "As a leader, we like him," he says, "but that doesn't mean I like everything he did." He harbors an even greater level of disdain for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his Islamist rivals like Hamas. When I ask what leaders Aldweek supports, he says Farruq Qaddumi (who famously said, “[There are] 300 million Arabs, while Israel has only the sea behind it. At this stage there will be two states. Many years from now there will be only one"). Aldweek also believes that Marwan Barghouti, responsible for numerous terrorist attacks, including a 2002 shooting spree at a bat mitzvah, is "pure," but simply lacks the charisma of a true leader.
Half of Kufar Aqab's democracy students don the traditional Islamic hijab, while the other half dress in a more secular fashion. But even the girls with hijabs sport bright t-shirts, jeans, and flashy sunglasses. On several occasions, Aldweek tells the class that Islam promotes equality and understanding. He quotes the Koran as the basis for democracy: "Let them consult each other about their affairs,” he intones rhythmically, as if repeating this line for the umpteenth time. Many people misrepresent and abuse Islam, he says, but in its true form, the Koran is a progressive book.
The girls break into groups of three to put on short skits about equality, democracy, freedom, and dialogue. One girl pretends to listen in on the personal conversation of another. The latter gets mad and rebukes the eavesdropper. The message is clear: Privacy is freedom, and should be respected.
Aldweek asks the girls to sit in a semi-circle around me. I am introduced as an American interested in democracy promotion. He allows me to ask any question of the girls, and encourages them to ask questions of me. They want to know if I watch Dr. Phil and what Hollywood is like. One girl confides that she desperately wants to go to Disneyland.
I begin by asking what reactions the girls' parents have to their democracy education. All but one say that their parents are very supportive and excited. The dissenting girl admits that her father is opposed to her studying this subject. Aldweek whispers to me that she lives in a particularly conservative household, where women have few rights. The girl comes to the class anyway.
This same girl is the only one to finger Islam when asked what specifically has prevented democracy in the Arab world. The other girls say culture and tradition are at fault. I ask what sorts of traditions. "Early marriages," says one. "[Lack of] women's rights," opines another.
I ask how many of them would want to become prime minister, and half raise their hands. One girl praises Israeli democracy, and notes the cultural and political impediments she faces in her own society. "Palestinians," she says, "wear seatbelts because they want to avoid a 150 shekel fine. Israelis wear seatbelts because they know it's the safe thing to do."
One student says that Israelis clearly love and understand democracy, and that the Palestinians are having a much harder time with it. Another girl counters that Israelis only want democracy for Jews, not Arabs. Aldweek tells me that he is open to the idea of taking the students to the Knesset. I ask what the West can learn from the Arabs and vice versa. "Democracy" is what one girl thought the Arabs should learn from the West, and, in turn, the Arabs should teach the West about Islam.
And what words immediately come to mind when the girls hear the word, "Freedom"? Their answers are as follows: individual freedom, freedom of opinion, democracy, free expression, freedom of movement, and self-defense.
Unlike panicky populist pundits, the sixth-graders of New Kufar Aqab understand that democratization is a long process. I ask how long they think it will take until the Arab world is democratic. "100 years," one immediately blurts out. "A million years," says the girl whose father discourages her from coming. "We will succeed," says another, though she recognized there will be setbacks. I tell the girls that, indeed, almost half of democratizing nations regress, but that persistence pays off. They nod in agreement.
David Keyes is the Coordinator for Democracy Programs under Natan Sharansky at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies. He assisted a former U.N. ambassador and served in the Strategic Division of the Israeli army.
By David Keyes