Stepping up for their country

The largest delegation of Israeli university students competes in one of Europe’s biggest international Model UN conferences.

EuroMUN (photo credit: Mor Yahalom)
(photo credit: Mor Yahalom)
Israel has sent its largest delegation ever to the Model United Nations International European conference, EuroMUN, being held in Maastricht in the Netherlands this week. It is also the first time an Israeli has chaired a committee in the conferences’ six-year history and in any European UN simulation, although the majority come from mainland Europe.
EuroMUN is one of the largest international academic simulations with around 600 university students from all over the world.
The Israeli delegation consists of 22 students from various Model UN Societies of universities within Israel; The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yafo has sent the largest group with 14 delegates.
“It has been fascinating to watch this world of model UN grow,” says Daniel Gindis, one of the heads of academics and a senior trainer at “Ambassador,” an organization that teaches public speaking, strategy and diplomacy. He coaches various university Model UN teams and has trained most of the Israelis at EuroMUN.
“I’m constantly amazed at just how much of a life-changer these skills are,” he says. “To see the students change and grow is very gratifying work.”
Model UN is an extremely competitive forum for university students to engage and discuss pressing world issues on the national and international level. There are over 300 international conferences and among them, Israel’s own: IsraMUN has been held annually in August since it began in 2009.
Gindis, who was born in the US, has been involved with Model UN and debate since 2008. Along with his work at Ambassador, he trains various university teams and believes that while Israel’s participation in the international and European circuit is still in its infant stages, he envisions the number of students participating, as well as their achievements, to grow enormously.
“It’s p o s s i - bly the most important skill-building extracurricular available to university students these days,” Gindis says.
The EuroMUN conference, which will take place over the course of five days, places students in the framework of 12 UN committees, including the UN Security Council, the Human Rights Council, The General Assembly and others. This years theme is “Global Engagement: Embracing diversity through cultural diplomacy.”
Each committee ranges in size with the Security Council made up of around 20 students, for example, and the Disarmament and International Security Committee including over 100 students.
Delegates take on the position of a foreign nation and argue their stance on topics such as preventing arms trafficking in open waters and the power of member states to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
THESE STUDENTS aren’t dealing with fantasy scenarios.
They are tested on the depth of their knowledge and how well they can negotiate their stance with other nations. The structure is that two or three judges chair each committee and are responsible for facilitating the conversation and making sure the room follows the parliamentary rules of procedure.
Karin Chen is the only Israeli on the EuroMUN staff. The specific committee she’s chairing is NATO: Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which has around 40 delegates participating.
The 23-year-old student represents Tel Aviv University and is originally from Holon. She is studying for her BA in political science and English literature and first joined the society for Model United Nations in October 2010.
Chen says the original society was shortlived and that she was the only member to attend an international conference.
Afterwards, she wanted to continue the program.
“I thought we should [start] again, something [stronger], because this university has to have such a program,” she says. “We just came up with a new form, new administration and had tryouts.”
In March 2012 they relaunched with the blessing of the university and the student union. Chen and Yarden Ringham, a social work major, have been co-presidents ever since. In August, the TAMUN society participated in its first international conference in Israel, for which Chen also served as chair.
Chen applied to chair at EuroMUN at the urging of Gindis and was accepted in October.
“I am very proud that one of my students is the first Israeli to have a chairing position at EuroMUN,” Gindis says.
“I hope this is a precedent that will be followed up in many more European conferences.”
Chen, working with Nora Lambrecht, a German national studying at the University College Maastricht, is responsible for the committee’s topic of discussion and will have to steer the room to keep delegates on topic.
“With a larger group, you have to focus even more,” Chen says. “You have to practice the rules of procedure and be there for the people who have questions.
“It will be a new experience and challenging,” she continues. “I’m going as a director, but you can always learn something new from other people. As much as I give I hope to get back too.”
Chen is the only Israeli staff member but she will went with the rest of the delegation to Maastricht. Of the 22 students, the Academic College of Tel-Aviv Yafo has sent the largest delegation by one university with 14 students.
“When I told people that we got 14 students to go, they laughed in my face,” says Mor Yahalom, founder and current president of the university’s MUN society.
She says people were skeptical of finding the budget to send so many students.
Yahalom was told to choose her best six to send to the conference.
“I don’t want to compare them to my own children,” she says. “You love every one of them individually so much and you see the best in them, you cannot choose from the best, you know.”
With the help of the student union and the university, Yahalom is very grateful to be sending all of her team to the conference.
“I am very, very lucky,” she says.
Since discovering Model UN last year, Yahalom says her life has changed completely.
The 26-year-old currently studies behavioral science and thought she was only on the path to becoming a clinical psychologist.
“There are few programs like this,” she says. “I fell in love with the idea. This whole world of diplomatic relations is so intriguing to me.”
Yahalom recently came back from the International Model UN conference in New York where she, along with only three other Israelis, competed among 600 international students. Despite their small number, Yahalom and her group managed to bring home the award for “outstanding delegation.”
She attributes their success to their outgoing and competitive Israeli nature. She says many people at the conference were surprised to meet Israelis, and for her, international conferences like this provide a unique opportunity to engage and educate people who have only heard of Israel in the context of its conflicts.
“When I meet someone who only hears about Israel on bad terms, through the personal connection I can help him learn about the good sides,” she says.
At the conference, Yahalom says what surprised her most was to meet students from Bangladesh, and that for them meeting her was equally surprising. Foreign relations between the two countries are nonexistent as Bangladesh refuses to recognize Israel as a state and Israeli citizens are forbidden to travel there.
“[They said] ‘you are Jewish and nice people,’” she explains. “They were really surprised to meet Israelis and to like them.”
“You can’t meet people like that anywhere else,” Yahalom says. “It was really great.”
Shaina Hirsch is one member of Yahalom’s team. An American who made aliya just last September, Hirsch is also looking forward to meeting internationals and giving them a different perspective on Israel.
“I’m in a position as someone who has looked at it from the outside and am now on the inside,” she says. “People may have problems with the fact that Israel is even there but I’m hoping to make friends with people from different countries and change their perceptions. I want to [show them] that we have an opinion of what’s going on in our country and it’s not a unified opinion, we are struggling with issues [too].”
This is Hirsch’s first international conference and the first as an Israeli-American.
She says being part of the MUN society with Israelis who share similar interests for intellectual discussion has helped her assimilate into society better than anything else. She is excited for the networking opportunities and to meet people from around the world she wouldn’t normally meet.
Gindis continues that Israel’s presence at these conferences will only grow stronger with time.
“When it comes to academic simulations, Israel is part of the European circuit.
It’s our natural place to be there at these conferences both as participants and staff,” he says. “As our league develops and the people become better, I believe we have a lot to gain and a lot to offer, both to the European branch and the global Model UN community as a whole.”