Steven Aiello, Director of the Debate for Peace program, gave this speech at the EP-med-PATRIR (European Platform for Middle East Dialogue) “Israel-Palestine, moving towards needs-based solutions” conference.
In 2011, I was studying conflict resolution in a graduate program at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel. The most lasting lessons I learned that year came not from any professors or practitioners, but from a few dozen teenagers.
Every week, I volunteered with youth leadership programs at two different schools: one Jewish and one Arab. Although these schools were just 30 minutes away from one another, their students lived in very different worlds. I taught Model United Nations, using critical but controversial topics such as the war in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I soon realized two important lessons. Firstly, that Model UN, with its focus on representing different viewpoints, and its framework for respectful debate and negotiation, can be a really good conflict resolution tool. And secondly, I realized that I needed to bring these two groups of students together.
So in March 2012 I organized the country’s first free, high school-level Model UN conference. For three hours, Jewish and Arab students who had never before met debated and negotiated, before finally voting to recognize Palestine as a state. Several months later, the actual United Nations General Assembly followed suit.
Four years later: Fall 2016. I founded Debate for Peace to advance these twin goals: using Model UN as a framework to teach Jewish and Arab youth key skills: critical reasoning and analytical thinking; problem-solving; understanding different viewpoints; negotiation, and most importantly, civil disagreement on sensitive issues.
Since our founding, barely a year ago, we’ve doubled the number of MUN conferences in Israel. We’ve led the first Jewish-Arab MUN youth delegation abroad, organized meetings with half a dozen embassies, and sent over 40 youth to interfaith camps in Asia, Europe, and North America. We’ve held Shabbat prayers in a mosque in Haifa and volunteered with Eritrean and Sudanese refugees in south Tel Aviv.
Our participants include hundreds of students from fifty cities, towns and villages, literally all over the map. More than the numbers, the impact is in the friendships made every conference, in the warm holiday greetings from Jewish, Muslim and Christian students who would never have known one another otherwise, in seeing them organizing their own social get-togethers because they miss one another. My Muslim Arab co-Director is a graduate of the 2012 debate, and several other alumni now mentor our younger students.
Of course we’ve faced obstacles—reluctance from parents; the controversy over a Palestinian flag hung at the entrance to a Jewish school; fundraising to pay for buses. But each challenge has been a positive learning experience—the Jewish girl who overcame her mother’s concerns about going to an Arab city by explaining how important it was to her represent Saudi Arabia in a debate on Palestinian statehood. Now, hanging both flags prominently at the entrance is a requirement to host one of our conferences. And we’ve developed a wonderful relationship with the American Embassy, including grants to help bring students together.
We still have a long way to go. We are developing a national leadership body that has the skills, experience, and social network to make Israel a better place, and to move towards improved relations with all of its neighbors, especially Palestinians. That means empowering young leaders from as many communities as possible, and we’re always trying to diversify our student body.
But I’ve already learned a great deal, and I want to highlight several concrete issues. Firstly, I believe strongly in our mission—to teach Jewish and Arab youth to disagree respectfully. Our conflict lacks a good model for respectful debate. It takes carrots and sticks to bring our political “leaders” to the negotiating table, and religious leadership isn’t much better. There is no public example of responsible open discourse on the issues that we need to address going forward: Jerusalem; Refugees; Security; Settlements. Although I support every effort to increase contact between Arabs and Jews, I think the focus whenever possible should be on developing this most critical skill of debate—respecting the other side, and understanding another’s perspective, even as you disagree fervently.
Secondly, I believe we should focus on liberal democratic values as stepping stones to long-term peace. I believe that the same values that this institution, the European Union, is built on can help us as well. Liberal democracy and democratic safeguards can reassure Jews and Palestinians and guarantee the rights of all. And increased freedom of mobility and economic freedom improves living conditions for everyone, and creates strong incentives to live and thrive together, as partners. In both the top-bottom and bottom-top approaches, all sides must be educated in, and held to these standards and values.
And finally, I want to speak to what I believe is our most underutilized resource in building peace, the Arab community in Israel. Palestinian Arab citizens in Israel are in a unique position. They alone have the linguistic and cultural backgrounds to understand all sides and bring people closer together. Yet unfortunately this is rarely recognized, and virtually never capitalized upon.
I want to show a brief clip from negotiations we held with our Jewish and Arab students, and Palestinian students from Jerusalem and the West Bank.
What you see here isn’t just translation. It’s cultural mediation, and the bridging of political gulfs. It’s a 16 year-old stuck in the middle of one of the most inflammatory international conflicts, yet maintaining complete composure in “translating” the needs and feelings of each side. There is no one else who can do that as effectively as the Arab population in Israel.
Arabs in Israel have the skills and perspective to be bridges—natural mediators. And their values, especially those of younger generations, are well-aligned with those of liberal democracy. With the help of some teachers in Gaza, I’ve been able to compare the views of Arab and Jewish students in Israel and Arab students in Gaza on topics like civil marriage; female judges, and separation of government and religion. In all instances, Arab youth in Israel are far closer to their Jewish peers than to their Palestinian brethren.
We can’t afford to squander such valuable voices. Yet Arabs in Israel are marginalized by both Israeli and Palestinian leadership. Even at the international level they are often forgotten. I’ve submitted highly qualified Arab youth leaders to international peace-building programs, only to be told that the Israeli spots were for Israeli Jews, the Palestinian spots for Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza; as if this demographic were non-existent. We were incredibly honored to send eight students to hear the UN Secretary General speak at Tel Aviv University last month, and yet one of our Arab leaders described herself feeling neglected during the speech, with the entire event seemingly geared only towards Jewish interests, as if its organizers didn’t anticipate that there might be young Palestinian citizens of Israel in attendance. It is time to empower this community, and to recognize its potential.
I’d like to thank our hosts for organizing this important event, and all of you for being an attentive audience. I look forward to your feedback, and encourage you to talk to the seven amazing students I was able to bring with me. It is in everyone’s interest to empower our youth, to promote liberal democratic values—the values of the EU—and to strengthen the skills, opportunities, and leadership involvement of Arabs in Israel, who are best positioned to serve as intercultural mediators and bi-national peacemakers. Our presence here is an example of how today’s leaders can give a platform to the leaders of tomorrow. And I hope that today that future looks just a little bit brighter.
More information about the EP-med programme can be found here: http://ep-med.org/european-parliament-conference-palestine-israel-moving-towards-needs-based-solutions/