A model education?

Hundreds of high-schoolers descend on the Walworth Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda to "represent" UN member states.

model UN meeting 521 (photo credit: Eliezer Sherman)
model UN meeting 521
(photo credit: Eliezer Sherman)
The sprawling 19-acre campus features all the trappings of a typical American school that might be found in an upscale suburban setting in the US – a cavernous gymnasium, a basketball court, a properly trimmed soccer field, a swimming pool, modern facilities, spacious auditoriums. Only this isn’t suburban American, but the rural community of Even Yehuda, just outside of Netanya, home to the Walworth Barbour American International School.
Hundreds of students descend on the campus to take part in the annual Israel Middle East Model United Nations, a mega-event that brings together youngsters of various backgrounds from all over the country. While the model UN is designed to give high-school students a taste of diplomacy by simulating reallife scenarios and dilemmas faced by countries, the Israeli version takes on more significance due to its location – square in the heart of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
“The goal is to give students real-life experience in debating, public speaking, learning the issues of many countries around the world and learning how to bridge those issues in a peaceful and constructive way,” says Aviva Rosensweig, assistant director of TIMEMUN.
The model UN is the signature yearly event for the host institution, WBAIS, a secular private school that offers an American educational curriculum to a student body of 600 from 50 countries, comprised largely of the children of diplomats, international businesspeople, parents on sabbatical and Israelis, who make up between 15 and 20 percent of those enrolled. The school, which charges tuition of $20,000 a year, conducts its course work in English, operates its calendar largely on the basis of the American school year, and prepares its graduates for college admission and the SATs.
“This is the generation that’s going to lead us tomorrow, these are the leaders of tomorrow,” Rosensweig says. “It’s wonderful to see students come from all over the country.
The students who come away from it often say that it was the most influential experience they had in high school because they make connections here with people they would otherwise have never met.”
The event, which has been held every year for over a decade, assigns students the task of representing a certain member state of the UN. The students then represent that country by articulating its interests and needs in nine different committees, each devoted to a specific issue, including disarmament, human rights, strategic affairs and territorial disputes.
“It’s almost totally student-run,” says Rosensweig, who immigrated from the US in 1974 and has been teaching English at the school for 30 years. “Even though we have adults explain to them what we do, we just set them in motion so that they take over. A lot of what you’re going to see here today is 90% students and the rest is our guidance, just showing them the way.”
As opposed to other model UNs, TIMEMUN has added a special “Conflict Resolution” committee in which a group of students – which in the past has included Israeli Jews and Arabs, Palestinians and non-affiliated students who take an interest in the conflict – represent themselves rather than countries. Those who take part in the project commit to 40 hours of conflict mediation training while learning opposing viewpoints and rival narratives.
At the end of the three-day conference, the committee makes an effort to come to an agreement on the wording of a formula for practical solutions on resolving the conflict. Unlike in previous years, however, this year Palestinian schoolchildren who were invited to participate did not show.
While the event provides students with a forum for holding frank discussions on weighty issues, organizers say that the disagreements do not preclude them from cementing bonds of friendship.
“I know that the Jewish kids and the Arab kids feel close to each other while being very honest about their real feelings about the problems that they’re facing,” Rosensweig says. “That’s a remarkable thing.”
With hundreds of high-schoolers packed into the main gymnasium on campus, the festive opening ceremony kicks off with introductions of the various country delegations. (The “Israeli” representative is met with a mix of cheers and boos, while “Palestine” receives the loudest applause, perhaps the best indication of the heavily foreign element of the American school’s student body.) A group of violinists offers a stirring rendition of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” The pomp and circumstance of the event can be seen on the specially printed name tags that each delegate is sporting, complete with the name of the country he or she represents.
Organizers even arrange for an official model UN memorandum to be issued.
“It’s nice to know what is happening in the world and why it is happening,” says a student from Baka al-Gharbiya’s Science and Technology High School.
She and four classmates, who were chosen based on their English proficiency, are representing Togo.
“Coming here is great because you get to meet new people,” she says. “From the standpoint of politics, it’s so interesting.
Also, we improve our English by coming here. We get exposure to the language, and this is very important.”
One proud father sits in the stands toward the back of the gymnasium, clicking away on his camera as his son, a student from the Ami Asaf state school in the central moshav of Tzofit, is assigned to represent Syria, not surprising for a family that knows all about embracing contradictions and challenging stereotypes.
“I think this [event] is very, very interesting,” says Alon Arazi, a religious Jew who serves as a colonel in the IDF Intelligence Corps. “My son is a religious boy who attends a secular school, and we try at home not to make these distinctions between religious, secular, rightists, leftists, Arabs and Jews. From our point of view, he can go to school wherever he wants.
He chose his own path.”
“You see him there with the kippa?” he asks, before pointing to his son’s classmates. “All of his friends are totally secular. Part of the reason that he came here is the education that he received at home, one that preaches pluralism, listening to the other side, removing all of the dividing lines and barriers that separate people here in Israel as well as throughout the world and listening to another person’s opinion. The fact that somebody has a different opinion doesn’t make it verboten.
“I’m very supportive of this, and I’m very happy that he is here to take part in this with his friends,” Arazi says.
Rosensweig, beaming with pride, takes in the festivities as the assistant director for the first time. As a lifelong educator, she can’t help but derive inspiration from an event that she says could serve as a template for others.
“When the position became available, I thought this was an amazing opportunity,” says the Queens, New York, native. “I think this is the direction education is going in. You’re going to have more collaborative community-type events. It’s not just through sitting in a classroom and learning through a book, but by doing, students gain an enormous amount of wisdom and skill and problem-solving ability. I thought this was a great activity to take part in.”