With increasing criticism locally that the United Nations is out to get Israel, more than 120 Israeli high school pupils gathered Sunday to try to improve their understanding of that body and its image here, in the first convening of the Israel Model UN.
"Our rationale for creating this model UN was to create a better image of the United Nations in Israel, where there is a serious misunderstanding of the organization," said Rony Adam, Director of the UN's Department for Political Affairs. "We need to improve the image of the UN in Israel and the image of Israel in the UN."
The UN passed a series of controversial resolutions slamming Israel for human rights practices recently, and many of the 120 pupils involved in Sunday's model UN read up on these resolutions in preparation for their roles in the model assembly.
"The model UN is a great way to get young people involved in current events," said Roi Anteby, who held the role of president of the General Assembly. Anteby has been involved in model UN since his sophomore year of high school, and last year traveled to New York to take part in a UN leadership conference. "It makes us look at the situation here and try to find creative diplomatic ways to improve the conflict."
The 16 to 17-year-old pupils, who came from seven schools across Israel, were assigned to represent 18 UN member states. On Sunday, they took part in a mock general debate of the United Nations General Assembly, and then broke up into several United Nations committees, among them the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Committee for Human Rights, the Environment Committee and the Committee for Disarmament and International Security.
Organizers said that the most in-demand countries, North Korea, Iran, and Sudan, interested pupils because they represented dramatic conflicts. Other countries chosen to participate in the model were Israel, Syria, Ghana, Japan, the United States, Italy, India, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Panama, South Africa, Russia, China, Venezuela and France.
"I really wanted Iran because I thought it would be very dramatic, and very interesting to represent," said Yair Tocatly, a junior at the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem, who represented the Iranian ambassador at the General Assembly. "I had to say a lot of things that I don't believe in, and it was strange because at one point I found myself getting so into it that I almost believed my argument."
Tocatly added that some of the preparation, such as reading Iran's speeches to the UN, was difficult for him as he strongly disagreed with the views.
"I represented Sudan last year in New York, which was hard because human rights is important for me and Sudan tramples human rights any time they can," said Daniel Gal, who this year played the role of undersecretary-general. "We had to learn to lie through our teeth, but that is what happens in the real world. Sudan is lying through their teeth about human rights and I had to learn how to copy that."
Miri Marmur, who was the secretary-general, said that the experience was partly a theater workshop, with pupils learning how to act the part of countries with whom they disagreed with in real life.
"Pupils learn the value of transparency when they have to represent countries that they know lie," she said. "We really get into the grit of politics."
While some may be deterred form the political world after such an experience, Anteby, Gal, and Marmur all said that they hope to pursue a diplomatic career after their army service. While Marmur said that she was applying for a special army unit that would allow her to deal with public relations for UN representatives in Israel, Anteby said that one day he hoped to be involved in the real UN.
"We learn how to be real diplomats here, we are training for future careers," said Anteby. He told of how earlier in the morning, a number of representatives from North Korea took out a poster of their leader, Kim Jong-il, and tried to disrupt the General Assembly by waving it in the room.
Anteby and the secretary-general decided that rather than acknowledge the disturbance, they would ignore the North Korean delegation and continue the speeches.
Representatives from the Foreign Ministry, which hosted the event, and the UN Secretary-General's representation to the Middle East commented that they had never seen high school pupils so well behaved, and noted that it might be due to the formal wear that most of the students wore to the event.
"There is something about wearing a suit that really puts you into the role," said Anteby. Most of the suits, he added, were borrowed from their father's closet.
One participant remarked that the age of the pupils was reflected only by the details: ketchup bottles littering the banquet tables, buttons and key-chains dangling off laptop bags, and, of course an abundance of safety pins to hold up the suits.