February 25, 2009

Student teams who take part in Israel’s model UN conferences are learning how to negotiate and resolve conflict – skills the Middle East can’t do without. Over the last two months, we have witnessed appalling negotiating skills in the Middle East. Israel and Hamas have each declared a unilateral ceasefire because the two sides cannot even agree on terms to bring an end to the current tensions, never mind a long-term solution. Political leaders may promote the idea of peaceful resolution, but actually sitting down to talk seems to require a Herculean effort in which nobody wants to invest.

Despite the visible failures of current leaders, programs designed to offer an alternative to future generations are encouraging. Two examples are this week’s third annual Israel Model United Nations Conference (IMUN), and last week’s eighth annual Israel Middle East United Nations Conference (TIMEUN). In both conferences, diverse groups of high school students improved their own conflict resolution proficiency.

For the third year, IMUN took place in the Moshe Sharett Auditorium of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Approximately 300 Arab and Jewish students across Jerusalem, from the Hartman Institute to the Boyer School, as well as the American International School in Even Yehuda, spent three days negotiating and passing resolutions based on formalized rules of international diplomacy.

During the opening ceremony, students had an opportunity to pose challenging questions on issues ranging from global warming to concerns regarding Israel’s portrayal in the United Nations. Based on responses to the remarks of keynote speaker Richard Miron, spokesperson and chief public information officer, United Nations Special Coordinator’s Office, it was clear that these students had carefully researched the challenges they would be addressing. They did not shy away from asking difficult questions and did not accept answers at face value.

Watching “Denmark” send messages to the Greenpeace delegation about supporting offshore drilling resolutions and Iran protest international sanctions from the podium, it’s hard to remember that these students, dressed in business attire, are not real United Nations delegates.

But, despite the sometimes palpable tension as representatives struggle to simultaneously support their positions while working to achieve an acceptable compromise, none of the delegates walk out. Nobody screams and nobody uses idol threats. These students assume the passion, dedication and professionalism we would like to see in real negotiating teams.

Dedication to peaceful resolution

The same dedication to peaceful resolution of issues was also seen at last week’s TIMUN conference. Under the passionate and dedicated guidance of Sara Jane Shapira, and her assistant, Peter Sickle, over 500 students came together at the campus of the Walworth Barbour International School (WBAIS) in Israel’s Even Yehuda to debate real issues, adjust to unexpected crises and pass resolutions.

Christian Arabs from Nazareth, Palestinians studying at the Jerusalem French School, Jewish students from the Amit Nachshon Yeshiva and even a group of students who flew in from the Bikent University Prep school in Ankara, Turkey joined students from WBAIS and 31 other schools for three rigorous days of committee meetings, passionate debate, resolutions and team-building.

For eight years, despite the second Intifada, Lebanon War and other regional crises, high school students have sacrificed free time throughout the year so that they can prepare for this conference; showing their classmates, neighbors and families that, if people are ready to talk, they can find a way to resolve conflicts. But they have to be ready to talk.

Sitting with Sara Jane Shapira, a longtime teacher at WBAIS and the ongoing director of the conference, I realized just how passionate the participants were. Assignments were made months ago, long before the war broke out in Gaza. Despite the tensions of current events and the resulting deteriorating relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara, the Bikent Prep students did not cancel their trip. Not only did they participate, but they did not resign from their previously assigned role as the Israeli delegation.

Actually, all of the student participants displayed a great deal of courage and integrity.

A different point of view

Shapira encourages participants to broaden their horizons and look at conflicts from different perspectives, so all of the students are asked to assume roles different than those they represent in real life. Students of Haifa’s Leo Baeck school represented Jordan, students at the Tabeetha School in Jaffa assumed the roles of South Korea, Thailand and Uzbekistan and students of the Hayovel School in Herzliya assumed the position of Saudi Arabia.

For months, students involved in both conferences have learned to argue effectively to defend countries whose positions they may have found anathema in reality. They are challenged to see things from a different point of view.

For some students, the affects are long lasting. Graduates have used their TIMEUN experience as a springboard for professional training. More than one former student has returned to tell Sara Jane that their participation in TIMEUN inspired them to study conflict resolution in university. Some are now teaching these skills themselves at a variety of universities.

Merrill Lynch and Global Classrooms have sponsored TIMEUN for many years. Though the economy has weakened globally, all of those involved in the program, including conference directors, students, and parents hope that the funding will be available next year. The program challenges students to re-evaluate long-held positions and biases.

The world is becoming more and more divisive. It is a dangerous time. Radical religious movements are increasing in numbers, and the damage they inflict is growing This, combined with the worst economic global downturn since the Great Depression, can combine to serve a lethal blow to the future of peaceful conflict resolution.

But watching the IMUN and TIMEUN students in action, one realizes that the world cannot afford to lose events like this. These debates offer students a chance to become more effective leaders than the ones who have brought us to the dangerous precipice where we stand today.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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