US Mideast policy debate lacks Israeli representation

Student debate conference hosts only one Israeli expert.

July 9, 2010 04:43
4 minute read.
Brit Woods in Jordan debate

Brit Woods in Jordan debate 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

A five-day conference held this week in Madaba, Jordan, that aimed to teach US students how to debate their government’s Middle East policy, came up short in its presentation of the Israeli perspective, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

Although organizers tried to present a balanced picture of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians allow some 50 high school students from the US and Jordan to formulate an articulate argument for or against US policy, only one Israeli expert, Tal Harris, executive director of the OneVoice organization, which works to achieve a two-state solution through nonviolent means, participated in the event.

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Conference organizer: Israelis we invited couldn't make it

“We had bad luck with the Israeli speakers and although we contacted people from both sides, because we wanted to make it balanced, two Israelis we invited could not make it and a third fell ill at the last moment,” said conference organizer Tab Boyles, director of events at Washington- based National Center for Policy Analysis, in a telephone interview from Jordan.

The event, an annual conference aimed at sharpening debating and leadership skills among elite high school students in the US, was organized by the National Center for Policy Analysis together with the General Tommy Franks Leadership Institute, the Academy of Leadership and Liberty at Oklahoma Christian University and the Kings Academy boarding school in Madaba, a city 30 km. southwest of Amman.

“We had a total of 15 speakers and five were meant to be experts on the conflict, two from Israel and two from Palestine (one neutral),” Boyles said, adding that former Labor MKs Colette Avital and Ami Ayalon were contacted but could not make it and journalist Yoram Binur, author of My Enemy, My Self, who had been slated to participate, fell ill in the days leading up to the conference.

“It was unfortunate that the others could not make it but Tal Harris was extremely articulate and I don’t think our students got the sense that it was unbalanced,” Boyles said.

Asked whether the organizers had considered inviting Israelis students to participate in the debates, in order to present another view of the conflict, Boyles said that the Kings Academy had a wide range of students from the Middle East and that they had “hoped there might be Israeli students at the school.

“We did not know in advance what the make-up of students at the Kings Academy would be,” he admitted. “It would be great to have Israelis students join us in the debates in the future.”

Goal of the conference was not to take sides

Boyles said the goal of the conference was not to take sides in the conflict, but rather for the students to learn the art of debate.

He described how students were asked to prepare arguments advocating either more US involvement in the Middle East or less US involvement, and how that they were only informed half an hour before the final debate on Wednesday what view they would have to present.

Jeris Abuhoran of Salt, Jordan, and Brit Woods of Flower Mound, Texas, won the top prize, presenting an argument for more US involvement in creating a comprehensive peace agreement and a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the Four Star Debate Competition announced on Thursday.

“To me the debates were interesting, but they were not the most important part of the week,” Marguerite Gilles, 17, from Connecticut, the sole Jewish student involved, said by telephone on Thursday. “I loved meeting the other students, who even though they were from half way around the world and have a very different culture to me, we had a lot in common and could become friends.”

Brought up in a Conservative Jewish community and a supporter of Israel, Gilles said there was frustration that the program was not balanced.

Palestinian speakers attempted to justify positions

“Some of the Palestinian speakers were attempting to justify their position to us and to get us to agree with where they were coming from,” she said. “Tal [from OneVoice] presented a more factual account of the situation.”

Still, Gilles said it had been useful for her “to hear the viewpoint of the Palestinian speakers and interesting to hear the views of the other students.”

Harris, who spoke to the Post upon his return from Jordan earlier in the week, said that despite the dearth of Israeli involvement, it had still been an important to participate.

“It’s always important to look at how the US can help solve the conflict,” he said.

“The challenge is to make the international community take on a positive role and not a negative role in this.”

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