Residents of Cambridge may not know it, but some of the seeds of peace in the Middle East have been sown in their back yards.
Cabot Professor of Social Ethics Herbert C. Kelman has been leading workshops for Arab and Israeli leaders for the last 20 years, encouraging ideas that may have changed history.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chief Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House's South Lawn just three weeks ago, but Kelman has quietly been bringing together leaders from both Israeli and Arab camps since 1971, employing the ideas of political psychology to help promote understanding between the groups.
Approximately two-thirds of the three dozen meetings have taken place in Cambridge, in affiliation with the Harvard Center for International Affairs.
"It is a way of developing understanding which can be fed into the political communities on both sides," Kelman said of the workshops. "What we have done is develop the sense of possibility, the idea that problems can be bridged."
While other professors have done their research in libraries or in laboratories, Kelman's work has been in conference rooms.
"This is my research. I'm able to learn an enormous amount about the conflict, and about conflicts in general. Much of what I've learned I gained from participation in these workshops," he said.
William A. Graham Jr., professor of the history of religion and Islamic studies, said Kelman may have been a key figure in the peace process in the Middle East.
"Herb Kelman is one of the few people who has maintained for very many years a dialogue with persons on all sides in the Arab-Israeli situation," Graham said.
"No one who knows him could be surprised that he would have a hand, direct or indirect, in any eventual solution," he said.
Kelman, a founding editor of the Journal of Conflict Resolution and one of the founders of the study of political psychology, said he first thought of holding Arab-Israeli workshops in 1967, when it occurred to Kelman that social and psychological methods could be effectively applied to the Middle East conflict.
"I learned quickly that it's not an easy thing to do," he said. "I began intensive work in 1974, and it has been my major work for the last 20 years."
"Over time," he said, "I think it has helped to create new ideas, providing opportunities of important people on both sides to learn about the other side. I feel that it has been worth it."
Kelman is presently working with a group that is considering issues that may be contentious a couple years from now. The current group, which has been together for three years, is discussing the Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees and what to do about Jerusalem.
He said the recent mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO will have a positive effect on the group discussions. "I'm not saying it will be easy, but now we have a better atmosphere for doing it."