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(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Staff)
If you want to make peace you don't talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies," said Moshe Dayan, one of Israel's great politicians known for his peace activism. In line with this thinking is Tel Aviv University's (TAU) Conflict Resolution Program for High School Students, an after-school series of workshops and games that give teens the language and tools to become the world's next generation of peacemakers.
Developed through the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at TAU, the program targets both Muslim and Jewish youths. "When they grow up, we want them to be different from the way politicians are today," says program coordinator Eyal Shachter, a lawyer working toward an MA in conflict resolution at TAU.
As part of the 13-week program, students ranging in age from 13 to 17 attend seminars and engage in role-playing activities led by TAU lecturers, former United Nations teachers and well-known peacekeepers from the region. The focus is on the roots of rivalry in both faraway, unimagined places and locally in the Middle East.
"Will peace ever be possible in Israel?" TAU and Open University lecturer Dr. Arie Geronic asked a recent class in Jaffa, where he talked on the precepts of realism versus liberalism. "Is it okay to go against school rules? Why do some Israel Beduin still support blood vengeance?"
"Normally," admits Shachter, "these kinds of sophisticated concepts are reserved for university lecture halls. But the kids appreciate the lectures that stimulate their minds, and are later put to the test in a role-playing multi-player game at home."
In the online game, as an example, a student who has chosen to become Condoleezza Rice could decide how she would negotiate with another classmate posing as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"Through the lectures and games, we give the youths an academic perspective on conflict resolution so that one day they, too, could be leaders or citizens who can influence the political peace process," notes Shachter. "We want them to understand how to resolve problems between countries, not just their neighbors."
The conflict resolution program is the first of its kind anywhere that takes advanced political theories and partners them with a multi-player game suited for teens. During the past school year Shachter recruited 40 students from three high schools in Jaffa, Ashkelon and the Arab village of Arara.
At the Jaffa location, students Gidi Aizen and Eden Pelleg, both 16, decided to attend the meetings even if they happened to fall on a day when there are no scheduled classes. They listened patiently to Dr. Geronic speak. "Astronomers use telescopes to see the stars, right? Each profession has its own special set of tools. The tool of politics is theory and I am going to talk to you today about why theory is important when one discusses politics," Geronic explained, adding, "People are inherently good, but if we want to fix the world, we need to fix the system."
Aizen said that overall, the seminars have taught him how to negotiate and cooperate with his friends. "And I loved the session where I had to make peace with a piece of paper. I cut it, burned it, then had to make peace with it," he recalls.
His classmate Pelleg joined the program in order to try out the computer simulation game, he says. But other in-class games turned out to be interesting too. "I liked the game where Gidi and I had to figure out how we would each eat a cookie every 30 seconds. We were tied together and the cookies were on opposite sides of the room. It was hard, but we worked it out."
Their mentor Gal Harnat, who facilitates the meetings in Jaffa, was educated at the United Nations University and worked at the UN for eight years. "We are teaching university-level conflict resolution and peace studies through experiential and academic seminars," says Harnat. "Knowing that I would be teaching them at a university level, they didn't hesitate to sign up. We are hoping they will be motivated to go to university and continue the work," adds Harnat, who was chosen by Shachter for her open-mindedness and unconventionality.
"Gal is the perfect person, because she is dealing with human rights and all the issues in the program that we wanted to cover," says Shachter, who first developed the idea with Tamar Hemmer, the former manager of the Steinmetz Center. The program is currently funded solely by the center, and Shachter plans to attract outside donors in the future.
The Steinmetz Center was established in 1992 to promote systematic research and thinking on issues connected with peacemaking processes and conflict resolution. One of its most successful projects to date is The Peace Index project (developed in June 1994) to monitor how the Israeli public - Jews and Arabs - perceive relations with the Arab states and the Palestinians. The Crossing Borders Program, funded by the Ford Foundation, is also a well-regarded academic initiative that fosters peace dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian researchers.
"This new conflict resolution program for teens is special because in most mediation projects, people talk about the wonderfulness of peace," comments Prof. Mordechai Tamarkin, Director of the Steinmetz Center. "In our project, we try to avoid that and make the kids understand the nature and forces of conflict. Before one resolves conflict, one needs to understand the source. Peace itself as a topic is very boring. That's why few centers in the world deal with it. Instead, we analyze the conflict and see how it can be resolved."
And radical changes like world peace are not all that Tamarkin expects from their efforts. "We are educating these youngsters before they are formed to show them there is a way out of conflicts. The point is not about whether or not we can resolve the conflict, but whether or not we as peacekeepers are doing the right thing."
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