One of the things which I have found most challenging while teaching high school students about topics like a UN vote on Palestinian statehood, has been getting the students to see other viewpoints. Thus I was very excited when told that a group of my Jewish students from Petah Tiqva would be representing Saudi Arabia at the TIMEMUN in Even Yehuda. This was the perfect opportunity to put what we had discussed in the classroom into practice.
Certainly, this was true. While we did not win any awards, my students worked hard to understand what their country’s position would be on issues ranging from renewable energy to reforming the UN member state application process to dealing with Iran on the issue of nuclear weapons, to freedom of religious expression. I am proud of their efforts to truly represent their assigned country’s interests.
There seems to be a tendency to caricaturize a country’s view; for example Model UN representatives of Iran seem inevitably to fall into this trap. But every country has its national interests; these are diplomatic, economic and social. On at least two occasions I saw my students being told by others that they were misrepresenting their country’s position. In fact I think they did an excellent job. The assumption that, to take one example, Saudi Arabia would unequivocally criticize any efforts to improve renewable energy in an international forum to discuss that topic seems far less likely than the one we suggested, that we would want to promote our own efforts towards sustainable energy, as well as advocate for a long-term focused approach to renewable energy development.
This is a mistake that many seem to make in politics, perhaps intentional at times. The choice to make very simplistic judgments of a country based on the most outlandish or extreme statements is one which belies geo-political realities and the strategic calculus of decision-making. At the same time, an inability to truly put oneself into his ally’s or adversary’s shoes can lead to the failure of negotiations, talks and treaties.
However where I was most proud of my students, and most pleased with their performance, was with some of the discussions that they had back at our hotel. Shortly after dinner the first night, we moved to the lobby to begin preparing for the next day’s events. As I worked on my own papers and helped a few students prepare, I witnessed some of our delegation beginning a conversation with members of an Arab school from Haifa. Before long the conversation had turned political; an intense conversation ensued which from the snippets I caught seemed to span from British Mandate Palestine to contemporary Israel. Initially I was slightly concerned that the conversation matter might be too difficult for this forum. In the end the teacher of the other group and I had to drag the students away from one another—because they would have happily continued their conversations with one another all night and no one would have gotten any sleep. The next two days saw students from our two groups sitting next to one another on the buses, and during mealtimes. Their impassioned views had only brought them together, not pushed them apart.
It is hard for the most experienced of debaters to argue about the topics most sensitive to them. In an otherwise excellent debate on the Palestinian statehood vote which I have sent to all of my students to watch, there are inevitably points during the debate when different members, accomplished diplomats with a long list of credentials, lose their decorum and begin trying to yell out, cut one another off, and generally do all of the things which I discourage my students from doing. Suffice it to say that I do not believe they all left the room the best of friends. Yet my students and their peers have shown me that it is indeed possible to have such a debate while maintaining respect, and love, for those who hold differing viewpoints.
On March 5th, in Petah Tikva, we are bringing together Christian, Jewish and Muslim high school students to debate this very topic. Many people who I’ve mentioned it too expressed their concern that the subject-matter was too sensitive for high school students to be debating. But I have high hopes and expectations for our participants, not just to have an enthusiastic debate, but to come out of it with longer-lasting relationships and friendships, to maintain the conversations and to continue learning from one another well after we finish our event.
What I have seen from my students in the classroom, and in Even Yehuda, is extremely heartening. It is why I believe strongly in a grass-roots solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. High level officials and leaders have shown their inability to listen, to hear one another, and an overall failure to understand the other’s viewpoint which will inevitably doom negotiations. Whether you agree with the perspective of the other side or not, you cannot negotiate or debate without at least listening to, and trying to understand the other side. This is something which I have been trying to teach my students, and I am happy to see that they seem to get it much more than your average government leader.