It took Steven Aiello about 20 minutes to drive from a high school in the Jewish Israeli city of Petah Tikva to a high school in the Arab Israeli city of Kafr Kassem to lead debate clubs based on the Model United Nations (MUN) model he so enjoyed during his graduate diplomacy studies at IDC Herzliya.

But the two schools’ geographic proximity belied a wide cultural gulf separating them. And even the most talented members of the two clubs could not get into official MUN groups due to a lack of English fluency and money.

So Aiello, a Jewish interfaith activist who served on the national Israeli MUN team, solved both problems by organizing MUN-style debates between Jewish and Arab schools in 2012.

Assigned to represent a particular country, whether or not they personally agree with that country’s stance on the issues, the novice debaters were given a cost-free way to polish their English and rhetorical skills while making friends. Aiello’s students loved it.

In 2016, he formalized the program as Debate for Peace (DfB),  a volunteer-run project of the Interfaith Encounter Association in partnership with Jerusalem Peacebuilders and supported by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. It grew quickly.

Kids from Petah Tikva and Kafr Kassem at a debate in 2012. Photo: courtesy

“Originally it was publicized by word of mouth through teachers. The demand was so much higher than expected that in one year we went from four to 14 schools and doubled the number of conferences in Israel to eight,” Aiello, 29, tells ISRAEL21c.

“Now we have more than 30 participating schools. Altogether we have kids from 40 to 50 towns and villages,” says Aiello, who moved to Israel in June 2009 and works at Tel Aviv startup Rootclaim.

“We’re giving our kids the skills and opportunity to debate about topics like Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security, women’s rights and racism. And it never devolves into a shouting match.”

Whereas politicians often need goading to come to the negotiating table, Aiello notes, “Kids from [the Galilee Arab village] Sakhnin voluntarily came to Tel Aviv — five hours round trip by bus — to do just that. It’s really inspiring.”

Participants chatting during a Debate for Peace weekend retreat in Haifa, held at a mosque with kosher catering. Photo: courtesy

DfP runs weekend retreats in Israel and takes kids to MUN conferences abroad to give them more exposure to disparate cultures and viewpoints.

DfP co-director Nooralhuda Hoji, 20, from the Arab village of Kalansua, led an Israeli-Palestinian delegation to the Asfar Sports and Human Rights for Peace conference in Azerbaijan last May.

In June, Hoji and Aiello discussed their work with Muslim communities in Istanbul. In August, two DfP members attended the Save the Dream peace camp in Athens, while another two flew to New York City to meet with Muslim and Jewish community leaders.

Last October, Aiello spoke at the European Parliament accompanied by seven DfP students, who attended a peacebuilding workshop led by international NGOs.

The opening DfP event for the 2017-18 school year at Bashaer High School in Sakhnin drew 250 registrants from 50 municipalities – 100 more kids than expected.

‘The same as us’

DfP member Benjamin Chelsky, 15, of Modi’in will go to Cyprus with DfP in February for the MediMUN conference on the topic of international weapons disarmament.

“I’ve really gained a lot of friends from all around Israel,” Benjamin tells ISRAEL21c. “Before DfP I wasn’t actively against any particular group, but now I don’t really see a difference. I see ‘the other side’ more as the same as us.”

DfP member Benjamin Chelsky, second from right, and DfP co-director Nooralhuda Hoji, far left. Photo: courtesy

Some debates have been challenging, “like negotiations with other Palestinians and Jews about ‘the conflict,’ but it ended really well,” says Benjamin, who spends at least 10 hours per month on research and speech-writing.

“In my group we try to build trust before doing anything foundational because you can’t force anything on others before they trust you. Then you become friends and can talk about more sensitive topics and try to solve the big issues,” he says.

Alia Habib Allah, 17, from Ein Mahel near Nazareth, spoke to ISRAEL21c before going to Kosovo for the second annual Jewish-Arab MUN conference in December, where DfP members George Abu Daoud and Aviv Hanukah won Best Delegate awards.

Alia represented Kazakhstan on topics ranging from climate change to terrorism and gender.

“At my first conference I was really nervous because I had never expressed my opinion to people I didn’t know,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “DfP has helped me with my self-confidence. I learned how to write and present a speech in English, and how and when to use body language to make a point.”

Coming from a Muslim family that supports her participation, Alia has represented Canada, Algeria, Romania and Turkey in various debates. She also attended Jerusalem Peacebuilders camp in Texas. Her experience in DfP has reinforced her dream of studying medicine, she says, “because it’s also about helping others.”

Alia Habib Allah, third from right, and other DfP students meeting the Ambassador of Albania to Israel before the delegation’s trip to Kosovo in December 2017. Photo: courtesy

Not every participant’s family is as enthusiastic about DfP as Alia’s. Some parents and schools worry about the teens’ safety when traveling to what might be considered hostile territory.

“We have a Bedouin girl who just got on the bus and came without the support of her school,” says Aiello. “She doesn’t have a passport but she’s so good I want her to come to the international MUN conference in Cyprus this February.”

The effect of DfP sessions on participants’ attitudes can be profound. One group of Arab DfP members told Aiello that they confronted classmates who had made disparaging remarks about Jews.

And at a MUN conference in Belgium, when a Jewish DfP member became upset during a discussion about the Israel Defense Forces, Aiello (an IDF veteran himself) asked an Arab member of the group to take the boy outside, calm him down and give him a hug.

“I’m sure this Arab kid isn’t going into the IDF, but this was his friend and they love one another. These kids really build friendships,” he says.

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