‘Eh what?’ he said, giving me his best 'Mum's going mad again' look.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Turn it round. Why isn’t there peace? Why don’t people just get along with each other?’
He stopped and bit a chunk off his licorice bar.
‘People get chewed up about being different. Like having different coloured skin or wanting different bits of land or believing in different gods.’
Couldn’t argue with that.
‘Or you get nutjobs like Gaddafi who wreck it cos they have to be the big boss. They think they’re the only one who can do it right.’
Couldn’t argue with that either. But then, ain’t it true of all politicians, to greater or lesser degrees?
‘But why do people care?’ I said. ‘Why does it bother them that people are different colours or worship different gods? I mean, if you strip off the skin we’re all the same bone and muscle and tendons.’‘Ewww, Mum. Do you have to?’ He paused. 'It’s kinda mad really but it’s like you get two people talking and getting on fine and then one says, ‘I support Arsenal’ and the other one says ‘I support Spurs’ and then they’re, like, ‘you’re a total arsehole’ at each other.’
|yes, it's bog roll...|
‘I dunno. Or it’s like school bullies I suppose. They don’t feel good in their own skin so they take it out on other people. You know, self-esteem shit.’Okaay. Hold that thought.
‘If we want peace in the world, we have to find it in ourselves first,’ she said. ‘We have to take responsibility for our selves and for our actions. The first step always begins inside us.’
In Tel Aviv we went to visit Mahuti, the visitor centre for the Essence of Life organisation, founded by Shari Arison. Arison is Chairperson of the Ted Arison Family Foundation and apparently the richest woman in the Middle-East. When she inherited an empire she decided, not just to make more money but to work on a broader, wider, far tougher mission. In fact, really, it doesn’t get much bigger than world peace, does it? And the irony was inescapable, that she was talking about peace in a country that is surrounded by enemies on the outside and disputes inside and on its borders. But then, I suppose, there’s nothing like that kind of situation to concentrate the mind.
|Shari Arison. Pic by Sally Whittle|
Her belief is that if we learn to listen, to respect one another, to act with compassion and open our hearts lovingly, then we may have a glimmer of a hope of achieving a more harmonious society. It sounds woolly and New Age but actually it’s tough, inner warrior work. Both as individuals and as societies we project our fear and loathing outside, onto other people, onto other races and creeds. Learning to look in the mirror and take back those projections is bloody hard work, a lifetime’s work. It takes commitment and awareness and humility and self responsibility.Arison is relentlessly upbeat about this vast task. ‘If we focus our speech and our hearts on bad, bad will grow,’ she said. ‘If we focus on good, good will grow. The way we think and act shapes our reality.’
Essence of Life runs workshops, has its own radio station and its own visitor centre (with everything spelled out in Hebrew, Arabic and English). But its most interesting aspect is its work with children. The Let’s Join Together programme is running in Israeli schools, from kindergarten to senior school and, interestingly, it has already been shown to reduce significantly the level of violence amongst children and teenagers.It’s all about fostering solid self-esteem. About teaching children to become aware of their emotions and to realise that they are okay in themselves; they’re just fine. And that, fundamentally, we are all the same, we are all one. That’s a hard one for our ego-led society but, logically, you can’t escape it. Like it or not, we are all one.
I like the concept of Arison’s work. I would love to see children, from a very early age, learning to respect and approve of themselves so they can, in turn, respect others. Is it pie in the sky? Is it pissing in the wind? Well, Arison is a firm believer in the hundredth monkey effect (in which learned behaviour spreads instantaneously from one group to others once a critical mass is reached). And, you know what? Where’s the harm? If all schools taught these principles from a very early age, who knows? It’s easy to be cynical; easy to think that the system will find a way of subverting the message (and indeed it may). But you have to try, right?My main practical concern is that the programme’s image and delivery is too woolly, too New Age, too fluffy. It’s the same issue I have with the Steiner system of education. It’s beautiful, it’s dolphins and rainbows and bunny rabbits and fluffy kittens. But it doesn’t have the balance – it's all up in its head somehow; it isn’t terribly grounded. And, because of that, it runs the risk of alienating the very people it needs to attract.
I'd also love to see the programme reach out beyond the Jewish world. Arison has the money and the clout to take this trans-global, trans-cultural, trans-faith. There seems to me a huge irony that Essence of Life with its message of 'We are One' is - at present - so insularly Jewish .
But hey, it’s a start. And I cannot help but applaud anything that teaches people (and in particular children) to listen, to understand, to love.
So. What do you reckon? Should we have classes in self-esteem and self-awareness at nursery? Would children grow up more balanced and happy if they learned meditation, yoga, self-questioning at school? If we put peace right in the heart of our children, might we kick off a seismic reaction that could permeate society? Or is that just hippy-shit? Is it just being a dreamer?