Model of a new reality

Students from two Jewish and two Arab towns are meeting and discussing heavy topics – learning the important diplomatic skills of debate, reconciliation and, maybe, even friendship.

Students participating in the after-school Model UN program pose with Thomas Genton (center), the counselor for press and cultural affairs at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
Students participating in the after-school Model UN program pose with Thomas Genton (center), the counselor for press and cultural affairs at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
A meeting of the UN Security Council led to unprecedented steps in regional cooperation last week when Qatar and Israel – countries that have no diplomatic relations – agreed to work together to intervene in the conflict in Syria to save the Syrian people and bring stability to the region.
Okay, so what I’m writing about is not the real UN, but a model and practice space for Israeli students to assume the identity of a foreign country, research its position in international affairs, and argue for its interests in a mock-up of the international forum.
Still, it’s important, for on December 31, nearly 100 students from Petah Tikva, Modi’in, Baka al-Gharbiya and Tira met in Petah Tikva at a session of the Young Ambassadors School, an after- school leadership program run by the municipality and the Education Ministry. The mix of students was clear – kippot and hijabs, Hebrew and Arabic – and the atmosphere was one of nervous excitement.
The students were all participants in Model UN, a program run in their own schools, and the New Year’s Eve debate was an attempt to give them a larger competition to work with. Speaking in English and all between the ages of 12 and 17, they were divided into four groups that debated the response and responsibility of international bodies to the civil wars in Yemen, Libya and Syria, and the insurgency by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
STEVEN AIELLO, an American oleh who graduated from IDC Herzliya with a master’s in diplomacy and conflict studies, spearheads the Model UN program.
In 2012, he began teaching this type of debating society to students at the Young Ambassadors School, and also at an after-school program at the Q School in the Arab village of Tira.
Both have a focus on leadership training, but Aiello says Model UN offers more for students in terms of personal growth.
“I think it’s a great way for students to learn how to represent themselves, learn to debate, learn about international subjects, use it as a model for conflict resolution and bridging and building young leadership,” he tells The Jerusalem Post Magazine. “A lot of times the results are much better in real life than the competition. In that sense it’s very encouraging.”
He says the ongoing security situation in Israel adds a level of difficulty in bringing the parties together.
Just one day after the debate in Petah Tikva, an armed Israeli Arab opened fire on a café in central Tel Aviv, killing two people. During his escape, he murdered a third. Yet even if there is fear or hesitancy among some of the parents, Aiello says the students and organizers are committed to making it work.
The December 31 debates, co-sponsored by the Interfaith Encounters Association, were something of an anomaly, for only twice before had Arab and Jewish students participated in a mixed competition, in 2012 and again in 2013.
Help in moderating the event came from alumni of the previous mixed debates.
“We have people who finished the first debates who are still involved and are actually training the other students now, which is nice,” Aiello states.
He says he gives his students “controversial and salient topics,” the biggest challenge being to get them to step out of their own modes of thinking.
“I was teaching in [Petah Tikva and Tira] and seeing parallel problems with students in both places – the Jewish students didn’t want to represent anti-Israel positions, and the Arab students in Tira didn’t want to represent countries with pro-Israel policies,” he relates. “It’s really a matter of pushing the right buttons and challenging them to do it, because no one asked them to represent a side they don’t agree with.”
Aiello’s goal is to have the meetings take place on a regular basis, with the next one expected to take place at the end of January, hosted by the US Embassy at its cultural center in Jerusalem.
“A lot of [Jewish] students responded that it was really exciting for them to work with Arab students,” Aiello says of the feedback from the December 31 debates.
“They want to do more stuff like that. It wasn’t on the radar until we did it, and they are very excited to do it again.”
YOAV STEIN, 14, from Rosh Ha’ayin, represented the United Kingdom in a mock UN Security Council debate on Boko Haram.
“What I try to do is research what the UK has said about the conflict,” he tells the Magazine. “I try to come up with what Britain would say and what resolution it would suggest to the UN.”
Stein, whose interests include history, geography and architecture, says that because the conflicts being covered are Middle Eastern geographically or involve the region’s prevalent religion, they feel personal.
“I saw at the start a couple of people, how they feel about these conflicts – ‘We should annihilate Islam and bring it to extinction because it’s a very violent religion,’” he says. “I don’t like this terrorist thing, but I don’t think Islam is a bad religion. I have some Arab and Muslim friends. I don’t think Islam is the source of that [evil]. We can share these thoughts and have resolutions and friendships, and even something to think about for your life.”
Outside the Model UN program, Stein says he met one of his friends, an American Muslim originally from Saudi Arabia, in an online gaming forum.
“We found each other in a chat and started to talk. No one realized the other was from an enemy country, so we had a really fun time speaking,” he relates.
“Then, when we found out about each other’s origin, we said ‘Huh!’ So, I don’t think there is [difficulty] in speaking to each other, and even to Arabs in Israel.
I don’t think they should be under-represented because they are Arabs; [I say] respect every man because he is a person, and let him do whatever he wants unless he harms another man.”
THE MOCK meeting of the UN Security Council over the crisis in Syria took place in a cramped classroom. Participants – dressed as diplomats would dress for such an event – squeezed around the table and raised paper signs designating their country to confirm their attendance.
The opening statements commenced.
The delegate for Austria called for the ousting of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The representative of China said Beijing would respect any agreement as long as it was accepted by the warring factions.
Egypt’s delegate pointed out the continuing threat of Islamic State, arguing that if the Syrian government fell, the terrorist group would fill the void.
The delegate for France raised her hand. “Point of personal privilege?” Decorum, official requests and “diplospeak” are required throughout the session.
“You may,” the moderating chair answered.
“Can we open the window?” For 17-year-old Mohammed Keaden, from Baka al-Gharbiya, Model UN has had immense positive aspects for his life – it has matured his personality, improved his English and changed how he takes in information.
“I want to read, to learn the facts,” he tells the Magazine.
“I knew there was something called the UN, but what is it? I learned what the UN is, what the international community is, what they have done, how to debate, how to talk in front of people, how to be diplomatic with other people,” he states. “This project has helped me in an amazing way. I can’t deny that.”
In his senior year, Keaden wants to take off a year to work before heading to either Tel Aviv University or Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“I’d like to study medicine, or possibly political science,” he says.
During the debate, Keaden represented Israel. One of the things he learned from his preparation was about the differing narratives taking place in the Arab, Hebrew and English media. He was surprised to learn that Israel wanted peace in Syria.
“This was new for me, I didn’t expect that,” he says.
In his opening remarks during the debate, he said: “The Syrian war is not our conflict, but we are preparing for the day when that changes.”
He cited how, despite being in a state of war with Syria, Israel took in people who had been wounded there and set up a field hospital on the Golan Heights.
His performance earned him the title of best delegate in his group.
Although he has been participating in the Model UN program for just one year, Petah Tikva was Keaden’s third mixed debate, having taken part in debates held in Even Yehuda and Nazareth.
Can Israel have a positive effect in solving the Syrian conflict? “As the Israeli delegate participant in Model UN,” he says, “my position is that every war has an end and there will be peace.... After this war, there will be peace, and Israel will be first with Syria to have peace.”
DALIA FADILA is the founder and director of the Q School (the Q stands for quality), an after-school leadership and development program similar to the Young Ambassadors School. The main location for the program is in Tira, located in what is known to many as the “Little Triangle” of Arab villages in the center of the country near the Green Line, with branches in nearby Taiba, Jaljulya and Kalansuwa; Iksal and Kafr Kana in the Nazareth area; Abu Ghosh; Ramallah; and Amman, Jordan.
Fadila founded the Q School program in 2007, with the mission being to use English as a neutral language to develop leadership and critical-thinking skills.
“It’s a unique concept, to use English not for the sake of teaching English, but through developing the skills in the context of minorities to move away from a victim mentality into a leadership mentality,” she tells the Magazine.
There are some 2,000 Q School participants in Israel, Ramallah and Amman.
The programs in Tira, Taiba and Kalansuwa include a component of meetings between Jewish and Arab students.
The Model UN program in Tira began in 2012 at the initiative of Aiello, who was volunteering at the school at the time.
“He wanted to start training students to be part of Model UN,” Fadila says.
“He started a whole network of Arab and Jewish [programs].”
Have parents shown hesitation in sending their children to meet with Jewish students during times of heightened conflict? “No one has even thought for a second that there must be or should be something threatening,” Fadila says of the students, parents and principals in Tira, Taiba and Kalansuwa.
“All of the focus is on academics,” she goes on. “Some of the girls are religious, wearing head scarves; no one thought for a minute they didn’t want to go or were afraid of going to Petah Tikva and meeting Jewish students. The media and politicians are complicating things for young people who want to live a different life, who want to be part of the larger Israeli society.”
This doesn’t mean that the interaction has been without its challenges.
“The first experience [in 2012] – and [a] unique experience at that time – was that parents expressed their concern, not over the fact that Arab kids were meeting Jewish kids, but discussing this specific issue,” Fadila says.
The first Model UN debate focused on the issue of Palestine being accepted as a non-member observer in the international body.
“They didn’t want their kids to be discussing [serious] politics,” she says.
(The resolution passed in the mock international body, three years before it passed in the actual UN.) For Fadila, however, the interaction highlighted a stark difference in the education systems used for Jewish students and Arab students.
“At that time, the Jewish kids were more dominant; they were more confident,” she explains. “The [Arab] parents thought we were at a disadvantage. Although we made sure that the students worked in [mixed groups], we still felt that there were gaps.”
She adds that some of the parents whose children who were at the top of their class in school were shocked to discover that they lagged behind the level of the Jewish students in the same grades.
“From that perspective, I started lobbying for better education for our students, and to take responsibility for the best education for our students,” she says.
“One of my critiques of my society is that people live in a bubble because, mostly, Arabs and Jews live in segregated geographical areas – they think whatever they have is perfect,” Fadila goes on.
“I know it’s not perfect because so many Arab kids don’t go to Israeli universities, they don’t work in Israeli institutions....Now with all the work we do, with all the talking we do, the importance of excellent education with our kids – I’m seeing the effects of that.”
Nevertheless, she says she’s extremely proud of the students participating in the Model UN program, adding that the most important thing is to move on from a place of fear and tension, and start with a clean slate.
“They’re representing us,” she explains, “being themselves, with no preconceptions as to who they should be.”
AT THE end of the December 31 event, in addition to recognizing outstanding delegates, the group welcomed Thomas Genton, counselor for press and cultural affairs at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv.
“Only at a Model UN event can a diplomat be treated like a rock star,” Genton told the excited, albeit tired, students.
“The embassy supports these types of people-to-people engagements that work toward debating and discussing issues through such educational forums, because these are excellent models for building democratic, open and more tolerant societies” said Genton, who arrived in Israel in July 2014 after postings in Washington, Madrid, Africa and Latin America.
“You join some elite, noble past participants in Model UN programs,” Genton told the students, “including Ban Ki Moon, secretary-general of the United Nations; Kiyotaka Akasaka, former UN under-secretary-general for communications and public information; Stephen Breyer, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States; Tom Donilon, former national security adviser in the Obama administration; Steven Schwebel, former judge and president of the International Court of Justice; and Chelsea Clinton, former first daughter.”
He added that the debate’s participants had impressed him owing to the depth of their knowledge of the issues, and the research they had done.
“[I was] impressed by their English language skills and their debating skills, but more than anything else, [by] their poise, confidence and maturity that they displayed,” he stated. “This, I think, speaks to the extent of the impact of this program, that people can verbalize their thoughts and present them in ways including [those] they don’t necessarily know well, and develop an understanding.”
While the US Embassy does not give monetary support to the program, it is enthusiastic about the project in general, and Aiello believes it inspires the participants.
“[W]e can bring in a speaker [Genton] that gives it a stamp of authority and shows students, parents and the schools that the US Embassy appreciates what we’re doing,” Aiello says. “And that already helps my effort.”