Students Try Hands at Solving Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Tal Barak — September 21, 2004 5 min read
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The assignment seemed nearly impossible: finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And doing so in three days.

Yet during a conference this month at Phillips Academy here, students from across the United States and many countries around the world attempted to do just that.

They met in the trustees’ room, on the top floor of George Washington Hall, at the prestigious boarding school that graduated both the current President Bush and his father. Teenagers sat at a conference table, surrounded by antique furniture and bookshelves holding volumes about the expeditions of Lewis and Clark, and wrestled with solutions to the conflict.

Part of a class in international relations, the conference aimed to teach students “preventive diplomacy,” the art of negotiations, and the history of the Israeli-Palestinian clash. Seven of the 28 students were from the United States; the rest were natives of the Dominican Republic, France, Italy, South Korea, Spain, and many other countries.

In fact, half of the approximately 550 students in the five-week, $5,000 summer program at Phillips Academy were international students, said Ralph Bledsoe, the director of the program. While American students are eligible for financial aid for the summer program, international students are not.

To capitalize on the diversity, he decided to incorporate a curriculum unit called “Axis of Hope,” pioneered by Carl Hobert, a 1993 graduate of Tufts University’s school of diplomacy and a language teacher.

“I think that it is very important for the people in the United States to hear other people’s stories,” Mr. Bledsoe said, “because there is a much larger world out there.”

Mr. Hobert has been teaching his program for about six years in schools across the United States that pay for his services. Axis of Hope tries to convey the tools of conflict resolution through a case study on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict titled “Whose Jerusalem?”

Half-Dozen Viewpoints

The students broke into groups representing the parties involved in the conflict and then tried to achieve an agreement. Groups included the “Israeli and Palestinian progressives,” the “Palestinian moderates,” the “Israeli moderates,” the “Arab extremists’ supporters,” the “Israeli right wing,” the “Quartet” (made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations), and the “neutral mediators,” whose main role was to help the negotiations along.

To first understand the complexity of the roles they would be playing, the students e-mailed teenagers who are members of Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youngsters who demonstrate leadership skills to promote coexistence and peace.

During the first round of the negotiations, the parties were asked to decide on what they were willing to give up.

After private negotiations, they met with members of groups opposing their points of view. Their task was made more difficult when teachers announced “news flashes” in the middle of the negotiations: “Suicide bombing in the Jewish settlement. There were 27 people killed, eight of them were children, and 52 were wounded. There is a probability of retaliation.”

Soon enough, the negotiations got heated and the parties grew apart.

“We demand that Jerusalem will be the capital of the new Palestine,” said Estephania Holsteinson, 16, from the Dominican Republic. Representing the Arab extremists’ supporters, she said her people were tired of being treated as second-class citizens.

“You’ve pushed us and pushed us, and we can’t take it anymore,” she said to representatives of the Israeli right-wing party.

“It is amazing to see how they take their role and their position very seriously,” Mr. Hobert said of his students. “They seem to have a real passion for the negotiations.”

During the first day, he said, students experience raw negotiations, learning how to look one another in the eyes and how to talk with each other.

On the second day, they learn about “soft diplomacy,” including better methods of communication, such as shuttle diplomacy, in which delegates from each group pass notes summarizing their demands to other parties.

“I teach them the vitamin C’s that are required to cure a conflict,” said Mr. Hobert, who compared conflict to a disease. “Those are communication, compassion, compromise, cooperation, coexistence, and collaboration.”

Charles Newhall, one of the teachers of the summer class, said he had used mock negotiations before in his history classes at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, Mass.

“First, there is the content goal, which the students will attain through reading previous material on the subject. Then, there is the skills goal—the students will learn oral presentation and critical thinking,” he said. “What Carl has crafted and we are implementing is the best form of education.”

An Early Start

Kamille Washington, 14, a student from Craigmont High School, a public school in Memphis, Tenn., played a moderator and found that she liked having the power to watch how the debate unfolded.

“It helped me to learn how to accept ideas of people, and not to judge,” she said. “I think that this program is definitely important, because we’re going to deal with those conflicts as adults, so it is important to start early.”

The third round of negotiations took place in Phillips Academy’s chapel in front of the whole summer school. The students presented their parties’ positions and the negotiation methods they had learned. The discussion was opened to the audience, and students were invited to ask questions.

“This is the part where you can see how this issue really touches some of the students here,” Richard Collins, another teacher involved in the class, said of the Middle East conflict.

At the end of the conference, the parties tried to come to an agreement. A peace treaty was written, but the students were never able to conclude an agreement.

Mr. Hobert explained that his goal was for the students to learn the heart of negotiations, frequently repeating: “We all have two ears and one mouth, because we need to listen twice as much as we speak.”

Jonathan Panter, 14, from the private Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, N.J., said it was a challenge for him to play a progressive, because he holds the same views as the Israeli moderates. Still, he said, “I learned that all parties have valid points, and I value them more now that I have heard them.”

“I don’t think that the negotiations would have been the same had we all been Americans,” he said.

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Students Try Hands at Solving Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


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