50 Jewish and Muslim Arab high school students crowd into an auditorium to debate the issue of Palestinian statehood. A Jewish student rises to speak on behalf of Palestine, his Arab partner at his side. An Arab girl representing Israel argues passionately against unilateral statehood; her kippa-clad partner waiting for his turn to speak. After two hours of intense debating, the committee votes on the motion to create a Palestinian state and by a two-thirds majority, the vote passes. The auditorium erupts in applause.
This is not a joke, or a dream, but a synopsis of what transpired on this past Monday evening (March 5th) in Petah Tiqva. During this event, students from AlQassemi college in Baqa, Qschool in Tira, and the Young Ambassadors school in Petah Tiqva, joined together for what is surely one of the most ambitious, exciting, and promising events in a region with a history of unsuccessful conflict resolution and failed mediation attempts.
The name chosen for the debate, TIKVAMUN, symbolizes its significance. Tikva means hope in Hebrew. These students, most 14-16 years of age, are indeed a source of great hope for creating a better future. Coming from different communities and religions from within Israel, each brought his or her own opinion and perspective to the auditorium in Petah Tiqva. Yet asked to take their assigned country’s position, each complied willingly and performed admirably. Placed with a teammate whom they had only just met, and with a very different point of view, they meshed immediately, and worked together as a team to do their best to represent their assigned point of view.
The project had numerous goals: we wanted to train the students, young leaders and top students from their respective communities, to learn how to argue from different perspectives, as well as giving them a chance to strengthen their ability and confidence to speak in public and debate in English, their second, third or fourth language.
In addition, bringing students together from such different worlds, living so close to one another, was of utmost importance to me personally. Israel faces many different challenges, internal and external. Even were the two various issues completely divorced from one another, the domestic issues facing Israel would still be of paramount importance, as they affect each and every member of Israeli society, if not directly then indirectly. In this I see a great need for further integration of the Jewish and Arab societies. Within ‘mixed cities’ this is somewhat less problematic, although far from perfect. However from an Arab student from Tira, or a Jewish student from Petah Tiqva, the exposure to peers from the other community is usually limited and impersonal. Yet if we are raising our children to be future leaders, in addition to learning of the various challenges which face Israel from without, they must be well in-tune with the various social issues to be dealt with internally, and well-acquainted with all of the sectors of Israeli society. Whether as a leader in Baqa, Tira, or Petah Tiqva, regardless of the students’ personal aspirations, the friendship of those from other communities as well as the ability to see things from opposing perspectives, may prove just as valuable as the abilities to debate, to speak in front of a crowd, or to converse freely in English.
For all of these reasons, I find the name TIKVAMUN to perfectly apt to describe the situation. Israeli and Palestinian leadership has been ineffective at agreeing on the necessary details to create a legally-recognized, politically sovereign Palestinian state. By most accounts an agreement could be achieved fairly easily; most issues could be resolved speedily and in fact many important concessions and compromises have already been offered. In recent years there is a perceived lack of will on both sides. The respective governments seem more bent on pandering to an American and international audience than working together to create a better future for themselves. Neither sides’ leadership seems to have bothered to see things from one another’s perspective. That such inability would lead to a failure in negotiations seems obvious.
For this reason, among many others, having a young core of leaders who can and will be dedicated to mutual respect, understanding and friendship is essential. They need not like one another, though it is certainly preferable. They need not agree with one another; to expect that would doom our efforts from the outset. They must simply recognize that each is an important member of society, representing a unique and valuable viewpoint, every one of which should be heard and considered. Mutual respect can lead to agreements, compromises and partnerships in which ultimately everyone (sans political extremists) stands to gain.
Our truly incredible students have done this and more. They demonstrated the ability to argue passionately, eloquently and courageously, on a sensitive topic that causes even the most professional and experienced debaters to lose their composure. In this they displayed maturity and understanding far beyond their years, and our ‘leaders’ would do well to learn from them. But they went further than just playing their role in an incredible debate. They also displayed empathy, friendship and loyalty. They showed great respect for one another. Each understood the difficulty of standing in front of a crowd and addressing a crowd in a foreign tongue; in this they were all the same. They all joined in to sing Happy Birthday for Hameed, the Tira delegate representing Egypt. Within a few hours of their event, a facebook group had been created where they could find one another, converse, share photos and further their friendships.
The part which I enjoyed the most of all however began in the very beginning of the debate. When we called our first speaker to the podium, I expected one of the teammates to rise up and come to the front of the room. This is how it is generally done in more experienced MUNs in any case; where multiple delegates are present, whoever speaks will come to the podium. However in this case as soon as the speaker left his seat, his partner rose to join him as well. This sequence was the repeated by just about every group we had. Country after country, delegate after delegate, the students stood together on the stage, one who had chosen to speak accompanied by his or her partner. This level of spontaneous support, really summarizes the success of the evening to me. The natural feeling of loyalty towards one another, and empathy to the difficulty of standing alone at a podium in front of dozens of people, brought each speaker’s partner to join them in a silent gesture of support.
Coordinating, participating in, and witnessing this event has given me much hope in our future. These young leaders have exhibited characteristics and abilities which, had many of our leaders been endowed with, I can only believe would have changed the past and present considerably. While every one of these students is truly special, it is safe to assume that most students, given such opportunities, would stand to benefit from such an experience, and I hope that each of our participants will share what they have acquired with their friends, and that this can be the first of many such endeavors. Our future is bright, and hopeful, when we can look forward to prospective leadership from the kind of leaders as we saw in Petah Tiqva on Monday night.