Imagine groups of Jewish and Arab teenagers gathering together to peacefully debate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — even sometimes compelled to argue fervently against their own privately held beliefs.
Since 2012 such a scenario of coexistence — which has led to enduring friendships — has become a growing reality in Israel, created by Steven Aiello, a Brooklyn-born Jew who is completing a master’s degree in Islamic studies at Tel Aviv University.
Five years ago, while Aiello was studying at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and teaching Jewish and Arab students in separate classes, he decided to found Debate for Peace, an organization for all the students.
At first, said Aiello, “I assigned them the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the Arab students had a very hard time representing the Israeli side and the Jewish students had a very hard time representing the Palestinian perspective. So, I said, ‘These kids are so similar, but they live in different worlds, often 20 minutes apart, and we have to get them together.’”
Thus in 2012 was born a venture calling for 50 high school students to engage in a mock debate on Palestinian statehood modeled after debates held at the United Nations.
In an Aug. 15 visit to White Meadow Temple in Rockaway, Aiello touted the program with the help of two of its 16-year-old participants, Omri Weinstock, a Jew from Petach Tikvah, and Khetam Kalash, an Arab from Kfar Qara. Both aspire to become physicians.
The three Israelis discussed their program with NJJN and some 20 members of the Conservative congregation in an evening entitled “Don’t Call Them Your Children, But Your Builders.”
Aiello explained that Debate for Peace brings Jewish, Muslim, and Christian high school students from 25 cities and towns in Israel to Model United Nations conferences in many parts of the world. Although UN officials in Jerusalem are “very interested” in his organization, he said it “has nothing to do with” the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority. “Our work is diplomatic, not political, so I don’t work with either one,” he said.
He noted that the group’s biggest supporter is the United States embassy in Tel Aviv. The embassy sometimes hosts its conferences and subsidizes transportation costs so that young people from different parts of Israel can travel to central locations for meetings.
There is no direct affiliation between the Model United Nations and the actual UN, though both were founded in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II. The model organization was intended for students of college age. But Aiello prefers working with younger Israelis whose ideas and opinions are less hardened.
“We positively affect the lives of participants and prepare them to be better global citizens through quality educational experiences that emphasize collaboration and cooperative resolution of conflict,” he told NJJN.
As yet no Jewish and Palestinian teenagers who live beyond the Green Line take part in the program because of the red tape and logistical hassles to travel into the territories. But, he said, “we have gotten so much demand from within Israel that we are still struggling to incorporate everyone from there.”
Aiello said his organization’s goal is to have participants maintain their relationships with one another and continue debating “so that in 30 years we will have better leadership. Right now, we don’t have leaders who talk about important stuff without devolving into shouting and yelling.”
Apart from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the student debaters have argued peacefully about issues of religion, ISIS, and conflicts in Syria and in Africa.
Sometimes that can get tricky, said the young debaters.
“A girl who is a religious Muslim Palestinians represented Israel, and she was with Israel in every word,” said Khetam. “It is a great experience to stand up and speak things that normal people who don’t participate in these things don’t do.”
Omri joked, “If you are representing Saudi Arabia and you are discussing women’s empowerment or human rights, you have to get very creative. You have to approach this issue diplomatically and try to get out safe.”
Both said they have formed enduring friendships with other young people who live in close proximity but have different religious and political beliefs.
“At the Model UN conferences, we get to see the other communities,” a rare circumstance, said Omri, “because our cities are usually separated.”
“I have friends who are Jewish, and we can live together,” said Khetam.
Asked whether members of their generation could set an example for their elders regarding the possibilities of peacemaking, Omri said, “If you try to hear and understand the other’s story and narrative you can better understand him.”
“We should all understand that Palestinians and Jewish are all humans,” said Khetam. “So if we all treated each other like humans, there would be peace.”
But how do you cope with the deeply entrenched attitudes on both sides that lead to complete distrust of, and sometimes deadly harm to, the people they perceive as enemies? asked NJJN.
“A lot of blind hatred will disappear if people can meet people from the other side,” Omri suggested.
The trio’s appearance at the synagogue was arranged by Hana Kornblum, an Israeli-born resident of Mendham who is a volunteer with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Israel Program Center.
She said the program “represents a new generation. But if they can walk and think and work every day together, maybe they can foster more dialogue and living in harmony and peace.
“These seeds of hope exist and we have to rely more on them than on hatred,” said Kornblum. “They are the future leaders in their respective societies.”