How do you teach tolerance and co-existence to young people in a region roiled with conflict? The answer is, you don’t. At least not directly.

For the past five years, the US Embassy has sponsored a program teaching negotiation skills to Arab and Jewish Israeli high school students. This year, under the auspices of Mosaica Center for Conflict Resolution, over 300 eleventh-grade students participated in the program — six pairs of Arab and Jewish schools around Israel. Each pair of schools came together for two days of intensive training in which they learned the fundamentals of interest-based negotiation.  The curriculum draws heavily on concepts developed at the world-renowned Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, and teaches keys skills such as distinguishing interests from positions, generating creative options, and separating the people from the problem.

But what makes this program different from many others that bring together Jews and Arabs is that there is no discussion of politics. The topics of tolerance, Palestine/Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict, are all off limits during the class sessions. Moreover, the classes are entirely in English – a “neutral” language that is native to neither population.

The goal is to create a safe space in which these kids can interact with one another without feeling pressure to represent any political point of view, and without becoming entangled in an argument about conflicts in society. At the same time, they are learning the very skills that tolerance requires – listening, openness to other points of view, a willingness to think creatively about how to meet everyone’s needs – and they are doing it with their peers from a different segment of the Israeli population, one they might not otherwise meet. This unique approach of engaging coexistence indirectly through a shared experience of learning negotiation skills but without every tackling it “head on” is a recipe that has proven successful for the past five years.

The two-day program ends with a “closing circle” in which students can opt to share their thoughts and feelings about their experiences.  Notwithstanding that the instructors have studiously avoided any reference to Arab-Jewish issues, the participants express deep appreciation for the chance to get together, learn together, and build bonds of friendship where there were none before. In the words of one student, “At the beginning, I was nervous about meeting the students from the second school, but at the end of the two days, I saw that we have a lot in common.”