social good no less ambitious than global peacemaking stands at the
center of one new venture: the Spirit Initiative, a recently launched
Web site that sees the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of its
Founded by Gal Bar Dea, an Israeli MBA student at Columbia
University, the Spirit Initiative went on-line in the fall, and seeks
to apply the technical savvy of young thinkers to some of the world's
oldest and most destructive conflicts. Developed and produced by a team
of students and young professionals in New York City, the Web site
represents an unconventional combination of blogging, Wikipedia and
old-fashioned international diplomacy.
trying to minimize limitations and boundaries," Bar Dea says of the
project's emphasis on Web 2.0 technology. "The whole notion is to allow
the crowd to lead the way, to work together to create the building
blocks for peace."
Though still several months away from fully realizing Bar Dea's
on-line vision, the Spirit Initiative took a vital step forward at the
end of December, receiving 30 peace plans from students at universities
around the world, including in India, Israel, Ghana and Brazil. Of
those proposals, 10 submissions focus on Israel and the Palestinians,
while the rest look at two additional hot spots the initiative has
adopted: the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and internal
warfare in Colombia, where the government has battled the FARC, a
guerrilla group, for decades.
started by looking at many conflicts around the world," says Bar Dea, a
30-year-old IDF veteran who grew up in a small town between Haifa and
Tel Aviv. "When we started looking at the details, we decided it was
better to focus in the beginning on three conflicts, so that we can
gather knowledge on specific areas and possible resolutions."
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Initially inspired by Bar Dea's efforts to meet Columbia
classmates from the Arab world, the Spirit Initiative now runs on the
efforts of 25 core volunteers, many of them fellow students at the
business school, or at SIPA, the School of International and Public
Affairs. Other volunteers are young people already in the business
With zero overhead costs and no official workspace, the
organization resembles a start-up, Bar Dea says, with volunteers
collaborating on-line and, when they meet in person, doing so at school
facilities and other public spaces. One set of volunteers spent the
fall conducting outreach efforts targeting 50 other universities around
the world, inviting teams of students to submit outlines of the peace
plans that were collected in December.
"The criterion is that the plans should be narrow and focused,"
says Bar Dea, who worked for three years as a corporate account manager
in Tel Aviv before arriving at Columbia. "They need to be
'executionable' - to focus on one aspect [of the conflict] and be
something that can be put into action."
DESPITE ITS start-up status, the Spirit Initiative has already
won backing from SIPA and Columbia's business school, placing faculty
members on its advisory board and winning support from the Department
of Public Information at the UN. The organization is currently
reviewing the 30 peace proposals it received in December, with plans to
bring the creators of the top submissions to New York for a conference
at the UN in April.
"The ideas are really all over the place, but fascinating,"
says Bar Dea, now engaged in efforts to raise $70,000 for the summit.
Regarding ideas focused on the Middle East, "some talk about
economic development, education or checkpoints in the West Bank.
There's one interesting plan about water resources - how to divide them
in case there is a peace negotiation between Israel and Syria."
While the UN conference will represent a major milestone for
organizers, the meeting is not itself the final destination. Following
the conference, the Spirit Initiative plans to transition into perhaps
its most important phase, posting the peace proposals on the
organization's Web site (spiritinitiative.org), where individuals from
around the world can collaborate on efforts to improve the ideas. The
plan is based on the "open source" model of on-line cooperation, in
which users can combine efforts on a project with little in common
beyond an Internet connection.
"We call it Wikipeace," Bar Dea says.
Applied to conflicts
that have frustrated diplomats for decades, social media represent a
new and potentially game-changing variable, Bar Dea continues.
"I think the situation is stuck," he says, referring to the
stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians. "I think it has to go to a
generation that is more global, has more access to new ideas and ways
to communicate. Just the fact that I have 600 friends on Facebook, and
probably 20 or 30 are Lebanese or Syrian, lets me be more open-minded.
"I'm able to talk with a friend in Egypt on Skype. To my father, a guy who fought against Egyptians, this is a miracle."
Technological innovations aside, it's clear that some
pre-Internet barriers remain. Although some Arab students - and one
ambassador - have expressed interest in the project, Bar Dea's Middle
Eastern counterparts have mostly declined to get involved, beyond
sharing contacts back home.
Already sounding like a polished diplomat, the business student
writes off their reluctance, attributing it to "underlying currents"
that simply "take time to dismantle."