Teaching Palestinian, Israeli Youth the Art of Diplomacy
Debate for Peace program is ‘the most impactful thing that has happened in my life,’ says former participant
With negotiations to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in deep freeze, and vast and violent conflicts within and between countries around the world proliferating, it is hard to avoid the conclusion: Respectful debate, diplomacy and compromise are in short supply.
But where adults have failed, a spark of hope remains for the next generation.
Debate for Peace brings together hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian students to participate in Model United Nations conferences where they debate, negotiate and try to resolve the most difficult and pressing challenges in international relations.
The young people, ages 14-19, come from more than 60 cities and towns, mostly in Israel, but also in the Palestinian territories. They also represent a wide variety of ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Debate for Peace participants don’t shy away from discussing areas of disagreement,” program director Steven Aiello told The Media Line. “On the contrary, the program provides a forum for them to engage with each other on just those issues, and they are encouraged to do so.”
Now in its fourth year, Debate for Peace – which also offers leadership training, enrichment programs and volunteer opportunities – organizes a local Model UN conference almost every month. Each includes some 80 to 300 participants who play the role of diplomats representing the positions and interests of their assigned countries.
Aiello said he also organizes weekly meetings in which smaller groups of students receive specialized training. They might hear a guest speaker, hold Skype conferences with peers in Kurdistan, Gaza or Sudan, or visit a local embassy.
“About half of Debate for Peace participants are Arab, and half are Jewish,” he said.
“They come from both secular and religious schools, though the religious schools are under-represented,” he continued. “Most of the Arab participants are Israeli citizens, though some are Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Aside from the occasional Skype conference, the program has succeeded in including a youth from Gaza only once.”
Every year, Aiello takes up to a dozen of his best students to Model UN conferences abroad, where they also meet with professors, NGO officials, diplomats and more.
He adds that the program’s biggest problem is funding.
“We very much don’t want to charge students, or even their schools. We don’t want it to be a program just for the elite,” he explains.
Funding comes mainly from the US Embassy. Students pay nothing except transportation costs. For trips abroad, they pay for air fare and other costs, but many of the expenses are subsidized or waived.
All of the Debate for Peace programs are held in English – a “neutral” language and the language of international Model UN conferences – although this can be a barrier, Aiello says, as some Palestinian and religious Jewish students attend schools where the English language is not emphasized.
Tradition and culture can be another hurdle.
In the Bedouin community, he adds, “most of the students who want to participate have been girls, but they were frequently discouraged or prevented from doing so by their fathers, older brothers or even male principals.”
By virtue of its very existence, the program, Aiello states, helps fill a “major gap” in educational systems: the lack of exposure of Jewish and Arab students to one another.
“The impact we’ve had is massive,” he proclaims.
The Media Line spoke with several former participants.
Sharehan Aloqaily, 19, grew up in Beer-Almshash, an unrecognized Bedouin village in Israel’s Negev Desert.
“The program helped me discover who I am,” she told The Media Line.
“Before the program, I thought I wanted to leave my community. As an unrecognized village, we don’t have full rights. Model UN taught me how we can fight for our rights and solve our problems through diplomacy,” she said.
Aloqaily is now working as an educator at a boarding school for Bedouin students on the Israel-Egypt border. She says it was Debate for Peace that gave her the ability to help her own community, and she’d like to see more Bedouins from the Negev participate.
Amalia Cedar Kellner, 18, told The Media Line that Debate for Peace was “the most impactful thing that has happened in my life” – although she joined “on a whim” at age 15, when she did not think she’d be interested in politics or history.
“Now I’m doing national service at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation,” she said, speaking of an institution named for the late Israeli politician and president, Shimon Peres. “We focus on working with Arab and Jewish kids in schools through sports.”
Another former participant, Sana Zahalka, from the northern Israeli village of Kafr Qara, is now a medical student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Debate for Peace, she told The Media Line, “helped me acquire tools, like standing up for myself, and how to approach people who are different.”
Mohammed Ke’adan, 21, is from Baqa al-Gharbiyye, an Israeli town on the so-called Green Line with the West Bank. He told The Media Line that he is “more attuned to what’s happening in the world” since participating in the program.
“I’m more open. I can accept all people. I can listen to and talk with others about controversial topics,” he said, adding that he would like to see more international participation at the Model UN conferences in Israel, believing they should be for younger students as well.
Debate for Peace opened Avi Scharlat’s eyes not only to Arab youths, but also to nonreligious Jews, with whom he had only limited contact before joining the program. Through Debate for Peace, he learned about the Givat Haviva International School, a new boarding school that, he says, “brings together Israeli Jews and Arabs and Palestinians and people from all over the world.” He will graduate from Givat Haviva this year.
The exposure that the Debate for Peace program affords participants, Aiello explains, breaks down stereotypes and creates friendships. It also teaches them how to talk about points of disagreement.
“All the things that are a complete failure at the governmental level, these kids can do,” he said. “We’re heading to elections [in Israel] now because people cannot make compromises and cannot sit down and talk about even minor disagreements. These kids can do it.”