The future is bright

Jewish and Arab Israelis are shedding school uniforms and slipping into power suits at Model UN.

model un 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
model un 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'The chair recognizes the delegate from Iran," the man in the suit and tie said with exquisite courtesy. "Decorum please!" the secretary-general called before banging his gavel. "The delegate from Lebanon is invited to address the General Assembly," the woman announced. "What assurances can you offer the Iranian government that it will receive enriched uranium to make us stop our program?" a harassed-looking young diplomat challenged the Security Council. No, these are not quotes from UN meetings in New York. Although they're sharply dressed and their grasp of world affairs is truly astonishing, the speakers were all students here in Israel. The location was not the floor of the General Assembly but a gym and converted classrooms, and the participants were hundreds of high schoolers who have just wrapped up a month of Model UN conferences. For 12 students from local schools, their hobby took them even farther afield - to Qatar at the end of January as unofficial ambassadors for Israel. They comprised the country's delegation to an international Model UN (or MUN) conference in Doha, the capital. For more than 500 others, two MUN events here - Israel Model UN (IMUN) and The Israel Middle East Model UN (TIMEMUN) - drew these eager minds for days of speeches, debates, bargaining and fun. Model UN events are held all over the world every year. The UN Association of the US alone advises events in 22 cities and 14 countries, not to mention the events organized under other auspices. Here, history teacher Sara Jane Shapira created the first-ever event eight years ago at the Walworth Barbour American International School (WBAIS). At the first conference in 2001, she had nine schools attend. At the conference last week, more than 30 schools, comprising 400 students, participated. Students flocked to the event from the North, the South, Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority. The Foreign Ministry also thought MUN was such a good idea, it initiated its own conference in Hebrew, now in its second year, which was held two weeks ago at the Ministry and the Hebrew University. Opening speakers included keynote speaker Stephane Dujarric, deputy communications director of the UN, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and 125 students took part, expounding their positions in flowing Hebrew. Many of them would then gather at the WBAIS campus in Even Yehuda the next week to expound their positions in fluent English. Model UN events, as their name suggests, simulate the workings of the UN, from the General Assembly to various commissions such as Human Rights and Trade and Development to the Security Council. They are almost entirely student planned and led. And delegates spend days researching their country's positions, polishing their speeches and preparing draft resolutions. Commission chairs plan which topics their committees will address. The Secretariat (president of the GA, undersecretary-general and secretary-general) spends at least six months planning the three action-packed days. "I remember my first conference," Uri Agnon, a senior at Leyad Ha'universita High School in Jerusalem and president of the General Assembly, told The Jerusalem Post after the opening day of IMUN. "I look around and I envy their enthusiasm. Look at them, the day is over and they are still talking about policies with people they've only just met." SHAPIRA CONCEIVED the idea for a MUN here in 1999 and devoted her sabbatical the following year to putting it together, she said. "I was taking students to conferences all over the world in the late '80s, but that was really just playing around. I thought to myself that it was silly not to have a conference in this particular area," she explained while scanning the room to ensure all was running smoothly. "I started out planning a peace conference. I was going to bring kids from Egypt, Jordan and the PA. And then the second intifada broke out. So we made it a regular MUN conference with a lot of local issues. I tried to keep away from contentious issues. "We added schools each year and became more global in our content. Ours is not a global MUN - we want schools from Israel and the PA. Next year, I hope to bring schools from Bethlehem, Ramallah and Arab-Israeli ones from Haifa." One Druse school, ORT Ronson in Daliat al-Carmel, sent a delegation to TIMEMUN for the second time this year. A former delegate from the first delegation who came to say hello to this year's said that the delegation was now a big deal at the school but had been greeted with some skepticism last year. "Those who knew about it appreciated it, but those who didn't know about it were like 'What is this?'" the young man said. "For me, this experience was about getting involved in world decisions and getting to know new people and new cultures. While our resolutions are not binding, I see the leaders of the future here. I see and sense who is going to develop into a leader." According to Shapira, 40% of the delegates to TIMEMUN came from Israeli-Arab or Palestinian schools. IMUN included an Israeli-Arab school from Jerusalem, and students from Nazareth also joined the delegation to Qatar. Although schools did not mix together to represent any given country, there was lots of interaction through the commissions and through the lobbying necessary to garner enough signatures on the draft resolutions to submit them to the commission chairs. THE PURPOSE of MUN, in Shapira's eyes, is much deeper than a one-off educational experience. "The future leaders are here. They are talking about life-and-death issues. I think this is the only hope for consensus building and communication - the students. Therefore, I think everything should be discussed, even the internationalization of Jerusalem, since it is still a possible solution," she said. To realize her vision, Shapira instituted a new feature at this year's conference - an eighth commission comprised of Israelis and Palestinians not playacting, but dialoguing. Closed to the public and the press, with trained student mediators, the group spent the three days of the conference talking about the conflict points which affect their lives. Rony Adam, director of the Department for United Nations Political Affairs at the Foreign Ministry and the initiator of the IMUN conference, also sees a larger purpose behind the event. "For a long time, Israel followed a responsive strategy towards the UN. We would wait for anti-Israel resolutions and then protest them. Eventually we decided we needed to initiate a positive agenda there," he said. "If we seem more serious about the UN, then we'll be perceived better by the member states." IMUN is one of the ways Adam hopes to do that. He has also held several job seminars around the country explaining to people how to get jobs at the UN. Adam believes the UN is very relevant and the common attitude of "Um-shmum" (which is based on the acronym for the UN in Hebrew) needs to be dropped. "The UN gives importance to processes or legitimacy to borders. It is important to conform to the norms of the UN - only good will come of it," he said. In addition to its PR value, IMUN has definite educational value, according to Adam. "We should be teaching about the UN to the public and to students. In addition, participating in an event such as this encourages personal processes such as learning how to debate, speak in public and give presentations," he pointed out. Adam hopes to expand his event beyond Jerusalem in coming years, financial backing permitting. All of the delegates the Post spoke with agreed that MUN was very good training in debating and public speaking. One young man seemed to be a natural right off the bat. Leyad 10th grader Adam Nahari wowed the crowd at IMUN with his impassioned rhetoric representing Indonesia. He positively sliced through the air with each sentence during his speech to the GA. He admitted that this was his first MUN experience, and explained that he had spent a lot of time researching Indonesia's position on the Internet. He also watched speeches on the Web to complement the training he was given in school, he said. A week later, he was again putting his skills to use, but this time in faultless English. As a representative of South Africa on the Security Council, he was visibly displeased with the Iranian delegate's responses to a cross-examination concerning his country's nuclear program. Nahari introduced a motion to dismiss the Iranian delegate because of his inadequate answers, which left his fellow council members gasping in surprise. Regrouping fast, the chair declared that such a motion was invalid. AS BEFITS a high-school event, the mood at TIMEMUN was not always completely somber and serious. In between the cross-examination of the Iranian delegate through examples of Security Council resolutions the country had violated, one of the council chairs had to quell a giggling fit that swept through one half of the council room. "Decorum please! Giggling is not allowed. Stop, just stop. Look, I don't want to have to use this gavel but I will," the chair pleaded. Secretary-General Fallon O'Dowd sprinkled his management of the General Assembly opening session with small jokes and a relaxed manner. When a plastic chair broke because a delegate had been leaning too far back in it, he asked all delegates not to lean so far back and added, "I did not expect to need to tell you that since you are high schoolers." And yet, despite the occasional levity, delegates were serious about their tasks and had clearly put in a lot of effort in the run-up to the conference to prepare. Each delegate was also presented with a "Delegate's Handbook" composed by the Secretariat listing everything from the schedule to a letter from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to a list of "65 powerful preambulatories," "48 omnipotent operatives" and "42 extraordinary enhancements." While many native English speakers were naturally drawn to the conference, there were many who struggled valiantly with Hebrew- or Arabic-accented English. They searched carefully for their words, but were no less serious or intent on putting across their point. And some actions required no words at all, such as when the entire Iranian delegation (played by students from a Jewish school) stood up and marched out when the Israeli delegate got up to speak. For now, these students remain unknown, their faces, speeches, resolutions soon to be forgotten amidst the preparations for next year's events. They themselves will hang up their suits, let down their hair, put on their everyday jeans and return to regular life as high-school students. They'll continue on to the army or to university, but who knows, in the not so distant future, they may again don their suits - but this time as bona-fide representatives of their country.