How to Represent Saudi Arabia: Lessons Our Youth Can Teach Our Leaders

Originally posted on the TOI blog on February 26, 2012. To read the full post, click here.

One of the things which I have found most challenging while teaching high school students about topics like a UN vote on Palestinian statehood, has been getting the students to see other viewpoints. Thus I was very excited when told that a group of my Jewish students from Petah Tiqva would be representing Saudi Arabia at the TIMEMUN in Even Yehuda. This was the perfect opportunity to put what we had discussed in the classroom into practice.

Certainly, this was true. While we did not win any awards, my students worked hard to understand what their country’s position would be on issues ranging from renewable energy to reforming the UN member state application process to dealing with Iran on the issue of nuclear weapons, to freedom of religious expression. I am proud of their efforts to truly represent their assigned country’s interests.

 

However where I was most proud of my students, and most pleased with their performance, was with some of the discussions that they had back at our hotel. Shortly after dinner the first night, we moved to the lobby to begin preparing for the next day’s events. As I worked on my own papers and helped a few students prepare, I witnessed some of our delegation beginning a conversation with members of an Arab school from Haifa. Before long the conversation had turned political; an intense conversation ensued which from the snippets I caught seemed to span from British Mandate Palestine to contemporary Israel. Initially I was slightly concerned that the conversation matter might be too difficult for this forum. In the end the teacher of the other group and I had to drag the students away from one another—because they would have happily continued their conversations with one another all night and no one would have gotten any sleep. The next two days saw students from our two groups sitting next to one another on the buses, and during mealtimes. Their impassioned views had only brought them together, not pushed them apart.

It is hard for the most experienced of debaters to argue about the topics most sensitive to them. In an otherwise excellent debate on the Palestinian statehood vote which I have sent to all of my students to watch, there are inevitably points during the debate when different members, accomplished diplomats with a long list of credentials, lose their decorum and begin trying to yell out, cut one another off, and generally do all of the things which I discourage my students from doing. Suffice it to say that I do not believe they all left the room the best of friends. Yet my students and their peers have shown me that it is indeed possible to have such a debate while maintaining respect, and love, for those who hold differing viewpoints.

What I have seen from my students in the classroom, and in Even Yehuda, is extremely heartening. It is why I believe strongly in a grass-roots solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. High level officials and leaders have shown their inability to listen, to hear one another, and an overall failure to understand the other’s viewpoint which will inevitably doom negotiations. Whether you agree with the perspective of the other side or not, you cannot negotiate or debate without at least listening to, and trying to understand the other side. This is something which I have been trying to teach my students, and I am happy to see that they seem to get it much more than your average government leader.

Originally posted on the TOI blog on February 26, 2012. To read the full post, click here.


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