By EVA A. SYLWESTER

WASHINGTON, DC, United States (UPI) — It`s hard to find high school students excited to spend their summer vacation taking classes. It`s also hard to find Israelis and Palestinians working on projects together. In spite of that, the Middle East Education through Technology program at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has managed to create an environment where both are commonplace.

MEET co-founder Assaf Harlap told United Press International that the program`s goal is to create “a new generation of leaders that are not only empowered … but can work together.”

Harlap, now majoring in Japanese studies at the University of London while serving in an administrative role at MEET, created MEET with Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Yaron Binur. Binur had been teaching computer science in Africa while Harlap had been teaching in Japan, and both observed computers bringing people together, Harlap explained.

“We really wanted to make a difference back home,” Harlap, a native of Israel, said.

MIT is still heavily involved in the MEET program, providing the program`s teachers and a portion of the funding.

For the 2005 program, 32 students were selected from 22 schools in Jerusalem and Bethlehem based on English ability and leadership skills. Eighteen students from the initial 2004 program, which included 30 students from 10 schools in Jerusalem, returned for another year of study. Harlap expressed hopes to expand the program to even more schools in more cities.

An average day in the program for a first-year student consists of lectures about the Java computer programming language and guest speakers in the morning, followed by small-group discussions and lab sessions where Java concepts are reinforced and implemented after lunch break. First-year student Aharon Topper told UPI in an e-mail that his class just began working on graphics and animation.

Second-year students in the program are currently working in teams of six on advanced Java programming projects and are learning lessons that come from a course for second-year computer science students at MIT, MEET instructor Daniel Ramage told UPI. Harlap said one of the teams is designing a program called MEET Messenger, which will be similar to America Online`s AOL Instant Messenger with the added ability to automatically translate text between Arabic and Hebrew.

Harlap said there is no mention of politics in the MEET curriculum, which is conducted entirely in English, although students have free time where they can talk about whatever they want.

“The minute you discuss the conflict, it diverts you from the professional focus of the program,” Harlap said.

Harlap said MEET replicates the environment of a computer programming team at a major company like Microsoft, where people of various nationalities and political persuasions have to set aside differences to work toward a common goal.
“Look, we have a conflict and we have some issues, but let`s see what we can do together,” Harlap said, describing the program`s attitude.
“Before I joined MEET, it was hard for me to see the Arab children as kids just like me and my friends,” Topper, who is Israeli, wrote. “Now after being in MEET and actually meeting Arab kids, I see that we are not so different. We all like similar things like playing football, telling jokes, computers. … The kids are all a great group of kids and I`m enjoying the time that I spend with them.”

“All I knew about the Israeli-Palestinian situation I learned from the American and world media I had access to,” Ramage, a 2004 MIT graduate, wrote. “I understood the situation to be complicated, with strong and largely substantiated claims made by each side against the other. I also had the impression that personal interaction between Israelis and Palestinians would be very charged, whenever it might happen. Working at MEET has been an opportunity to see past the `events` level and look to the individuals. I`ve been pleasantly surprised by how quickly political and cultural differences fall away when our students are focused on the common goal of mastering difficult computer science curriculum.”

Harlap said MEET differs from programs that bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together to discuss political issues and specifically work toward peace in that those programs tend to attract students and families who were already concerned with peace issues — in effect, preaching to the choir. In contrast, MEET draws students in with the lure of technology training from MIT experts, and the homeland of their classmates is less of an issue, Harlap said.

“It excited me immediately as I love computers and the thought of being together with people of a different culture and outlook to my own was very attractive,” Topper wrote, describing his reaction when MEET representatives visited his school in Jerusalem to recruit students.

Computer ability is not a prerequisite for the MEET program. In fact, Harlap said, it`s easier for students to learn and work together when none of them know anything about computers.

“We like to start fresh and get them all on the
same level,” he said.

The computer training, as well as other aspects of the program, is designed to provide students with an advantage in the business world.

“I think that apart from the technical skills I`m acquiring in MEET which are going to give me a head start, the `people` skills like working in a team, conflict resolution, leadership qualities and aiming for excellence are all going to be invaluable,” Topper wrote.

Harlap said another unique aspect of the MEET program is its potential for longevity. “We do everything we can to make sure it`ll still be here in 10, 20 years,” Harlap said. This includes offering internships and scholarships to MEET students as they move through college, in hopes that some of them will return to serve as teachers in the program.

“We keep instilling in them this value of giving back to the community,” Harlap said. “I think the impact on the community has been amazing and growing.” He added that MEET students already mentor younger students in computer instruction at local schools. “I really feel that our students are the leaders of tomorrow.”

In addition to the current generation of youth, MEET has affected older residents of the Middle East. Harlap said he frequently sees Israeli students introducing Palestinian friends to their parents, and vice versa, at MEET events. Harlap said he once planned to spend 20 minutes phoning parents regarding a MEET event, which turned into three hours as parents poured out their praise of the program.

Also, many Israeli and Palestinian businesspeople called in to give presentations for the MEET program meet each other for the first time. Harlap said this is unique, as Israeli and Palestinian businesses usually operate separately.

“They`re putting their resources into something they both care about, the education and empowerment of the next generation,” Harlap said.