Debate for Peace by Thomas-Xavier Christiane

At the beginning, there is education.

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Debate for peace is an organization based in the Holy Land that brings together “Arab and Jewish students (from 13 to 19 years old) from all over Israel and the Palestinian territories to debate, negotiate and (attempt to) resolve the most pressing global conflicts and challenges.” Its program offers opportunities for Jewish and Arab students to meet; to learn negotiation skills for resolving conflicts; to train on how to disagree civilly; and to practice in reaching compromises in a focus on hot topics (Syria, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Israel/Iran,…). Debate for Peace is part of the Interfaith Encounter Association and operates with the support of the Embassy of the United States in Israel and many other organizations in Israel, Europe and the Middle East. It is supervised by university graduated people from both Israel and Palestine. Debate for peace has brought students from Israel and Palestine all over the world to participate in debate, conferences and to build strong friendship between individuals coming from conflicting sides.


If one goes to the internet site of Debate for Peace, he/she could find many references to the organization in the press. In an article of the Jerusalem Post, it is quoted that: “Each and every time, students who have never met before prove that they are more capable of respectful discourse on controversial topics than most adults, including seasoned diplomats. Plus, they walk out with smiles and new friendships.” In an article from Israel 21C, it is written that: “The effect of DfP sessions on participants attitudes can be profound. One group of Arab DfP members told Aiello (one of the supervisors) that they confronted classmates who had made disparaging remarks about Jews.” In a transcription of a speech given by Debate for Peace at the European Union, it said: “Of course we’ve faced obstacles. Reluctance from parents; The controversy of a Palestinian flag at the entrance of a Jewish school; fundraising to pay for buses. But each challenge has been a positive learning experience. (…) Now, hanging both flags prominently at the entrance is a requirement to host one of our conferences.” Additionally, it is also possible to read interesting testimonials from students who have participated in the programs of Debate for peace. One Palestinian student said: “It (MUN (the Model United Nations program in which the students of Debate for Peace participate)) helps you to be more creative, more impressive, and shows you how to lead yourself in the political world.” An Israeli student said: “I have learned and trained how to speak in front of a crowd, write a convincing and effective speech and resolution and learned how to control a debate in my favor among many other things.” Another Palestinian student said: “I felt comfortable and excited, especially when we started the debate to find common solutions for our countries. There was competition but we did not feel it because we were working together, in order to achieve the peace in all fields that we need.” A third Palestinian student said: “Resolution can never be achieved unless we all unite for the sake of one humanity and are not divided by their ignorance of divergence.” Another Israeli student said: “One of the advantage came to me in a blast, I wasn’t expecting it. I was sitting in a train station and a tourist sat next to me. We started a conversation and I could finally talk (in) English in the same speed of a native speaker.” Finally, an Israeli student resumed it all in one piece of a sentence: “…in fact, I now have some new Palestinian friends.”


My first meeting with Debate for Peace was down the Trade Tower of Tel Aviv where the Italian Embassy is located. I arrived there early and I waited in the lobby. During that time, I saw teenagers wearing black trousers and white shirts arriving one after the another. Somehow, I had understood that these were the students I was supposed to meet but, since I’m more afraid of a teenager than anything, I didn’t walk towards them and I staid where I was with an awkward face. As I was looking at them, I could see something: there were Israelis and Palestinians in that group. At that moment, Steven, the supervisor of these teenagers, arrived. He came to shake my hand and briefly introduced me to the students. We crowded ourselves in an elevator and went to the floor where the Italian Embassy was located. During that time, a student asked me a question in Hebrew. Steven told him that in diplomacy, questions had to be asked in English so he reformulated. While we were waiting for the security checks at the door of the embassy, I could see the students chatting about the things together. There was no real tension or segregation. It was just a group, despite what History and the news would say about it. When we entered the Embassy, located in the heights of a very tall tower and with a view on the beaches of Tel Aviv, the students began to take selfies all together. Someone from the embassy came towards them and asked them not to publish these pictures on the social networks. 


Finally, after some time, we entered a room and sat at a meeting table. We began by introducing ourselves. The group was made of varied aged students. Some were only fourteen years old and some were about seventeen; one was way older but I don’t remember his age. As for their identity, they described themselves as being either Israeli or Palestinian. All of them were very polite and said that they loved Italy. The meeting started and the woman from the embassy explained to the students what an embassy was and how it worked. To do so, she used her own career as an example. She had started in the offices of the Italian ministry of foreign affairs in Rome where she had been working in the domain of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. This experience had been an asset when she had applied to the position in the Italian embassy. Then, a man with a higher position in the office entered the room and took the seat of the woman. At this moment, the students were given the opportunity to ask questions. The first questions were about the life of a diplomat. The students were curious to know how the career of a diplomat happened. The man explained how the human resources system worked in the Italian ministry of foreign affairs. In this explanation, he told that diplomats were not fully free of choosing the destinations where they wanted to work and that the duration of their mission was limited to promote alternance in the offices. After that, a Palestinian girl asked why the press service of the Embassy would translate articles about the conflict in Hebrew and not articles from Palestinian news sources. The man replied that it was already a big effort from them to translate from the Hebrew and added: “Not all embassies do that. We are here (in Tel Aviv) so we only do the Israeli.” Then, someone asked about the Israeli-Italian relationship. The man said they were excellent. He added that Israel and Italy had in common that they were Mediterranean countries. He added that the relationship had been going on for seventy years and that the big Jewish community in Italy and the big Italian community in Israel were part of what made that relationship even better. Finally, he explained that both countries had cultural institutes in the other country and that they were working together for the building of infrastructure in the Mediterranean. As they were going on with the questions, I took some time to observe the students. Some of them were very well informed in terms of international affairs. They knew what they were talking about and they gave a hard time to the man of the embassy with their knowledge of the details. The others looked more shy. Some of them did not even asked any question. I was told later that many of the students at the meeting were coming for the first time. The meeting ended and the students exchanged their contacts with the people from the embassy. Most of them said that they wanted to become diplomats in the future. When we moved down the building, I had some conversation with the students from the group. They told me that they had come here on their own initiative and that they were actually using their free time to learn more about international matters and history.


A few days after, I met Steven in Hatikva near Tel Aviv where he lived. We met at the local market and we began to walk while he gave me a few facts about the neighborhood. It was a working-class neighborhood where many migrants lived. After that, he told me more about him. He was a Jewish Italian who had grew up in New-York and had emigrated in Israel during his twenties. After graduating, he had voluntarily served in the Israel Defense Force (the Israeli army) and, after that, he had started Debate for Peace. We arrived at his home where I had a glass of water while being given a lot of love by his two dogs. Steven was a natural guy that lived in a place full of books. We moved outside and we went for lunch. During that time, he told me about his students. He was very passionate by the results that he was able to achieve with them. He showed me a Whatsapp group where the students were debating on a daily basis of the hot topics of the Israel/Palestine conflict. In the conversations, none of them was afraid of expressing hard opinions or even to ridiculise the other’s side opinions and beliefs. I asked to Steven if they did not hate each other in the real world after such conversations and he told me that it was actually the opposite. After lunch, we discussed about his service in the Israel Defense Forces. Steven was very proud of having served in a medical unit. He told me that he had been asked to follow a strict code of ethics as a soldier. He even showed me a paper that he kept in his wallet with the code of ethics of the Israel Defense Force. At the end of the conversation, we discussed the difficulty of applying International Humanitarian Laws in the Israel/Palestine conflict and how the world misunderstood the situation.

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The next week, I went to Herzliya where I joined the students to take a bus that was going to the “End of the Year Celebration” of Debate for Peace. On the way there, I began a conversation with two girls. Both of them were Jewish but not Israeli. One was from Mexico and the other one from Venezuela and they were spending a year in Israel as part of an exchange program. Both told me that they loved Israel and that they hesitated to do “Aliya” (the right that is granted by the state of Israel to Jewish people to emigrate in Israel). One of them was enthusiastic to enter the mandatory military service of Israel and the other did not really wanted to do it. I asked them what motivated them to come to Debate for peace and one of them said that it was because she had a cousin who was a diplomat. The bus dropped us in front of a villa and we entered the garden. The ceremony had not started yet and so I took some time to try to have some conversation with the students. I met a Palestinian and an Israeli student who were hanging out together. I began to talk with them and they told me that they had met in a protest for the climate in Jerusalem. The Palestinian had been in Debate for peace for a while and this is why she had proposed to the Israeli to join her. Then, she added that the Israel/Palestine conflict had to be resolved so the people of the Holy Land could start discussing the climate issues. I don’t know why but I asked her if she was going to do her military service the next year when she would be eighteen. She laughed at my question and said that she would not enter an army that was fighting her own people. But, she said, she would have enjoyed to serve in an army to learn discipline and to create connections like the Israeli do. After that, I wanted to ask the same question to the Israeli. Her English was not really good so the Palestinian girl translated to Hebrew to help her understand. She replied in Hebrew that she was happy of serving in the army and the Palestinian translated that for me. Finally, I mentioned the conversations I had witnessed on Whatsapp and I asked them how come they could still be friend after that. The Palestinian girl replied: “We laugh about it to relieve ourselves. We use a lot of sarcasm!” Then, the Israeli girl said: “We are youth, we don’t fight each other.”  

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After that, the ceremony began. A woman that was from the United States Embassy introduced the event. After that, a student took the microphone and talked about her experience in Debate for Peace. She said: “When I came in Debate for Peace, I realized what it meant to have a social life.” Then, another student took the microphone to talk and said “There wouldn’t be any problems in the world if everyone had the same eye-opening experience as me.” When the two students had finished their speeches, Steven was invited on the stage to receive a book as a gift of gratitude. He took the microphone and said: “I’m not good at receiving people but I’m good at receiving books.” The crowd laughed and he continued. He explained that Debate for Peace was about sixty meetings in the last twelve months. Then he talked about the people’s face when they were seeing him traveling around the world with Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together. “People look at us when we take the plane. But we’re trying to become the norm.” He continued and talked about the skype sessions that he had organized with his students and people living in Gaza and in Iraq. 

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When he finished his speech, four students from a group called “Embassy Storytellers” came on stage. This group consisted of pairing an Israeli and a Palestinian student together to learn about each other’s story. The first one to share his experience was an Israeli student who visited a Palestinian family that had been expelled from their village during the 1948 war. After listening to their story, he had asked to the family: “How come you don’t hate us?” The man had replied to him: “History belongs to the past. He ended his presentation by saying that after going there, he had understood that the Palestinian must be given space to live. After that, a Palestinian took the microphone. As usual in these kinds of events, the microphone had troubles and would damage everybody’s ears once in a while. Nonetheless, she began her story about his Israeli partner in the program who was not there because he was doing his mandatory service in the army. She explained that his family was originally Jews from Iraq. They had good relationship with their community. So much that during Yom Kippur, the Muslims neighbors were turning of their music by respect for the Jewish practices. However, during the 1948 war, they were expelled and forced to emigrate to Israel. Another student explained her story but, to be honest, I did not understood what she said. At the end, she said: “I became aware of the reality in our land.” When they finished their presentation, it was time to ask them question. A young tall guy who was in the audience took the microphone and asked: “Who makes the better humus?” Everybody laughed and someone replied: “Palestinian makes the better humus but the Jewish improved it.” 


After that, the ceremony was about to end. But before that, all the students who had participated in Debate for Peace for the last year were given a certificate of accomplishment. Then, everybody when to the buffet to eat the incredible pizzas offered by the United States tax payers before leaving not too late because they had a meeting at the Belgian embassy the next day. 

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Two weeks after, I met Steven and the students at an office of the United States embassy in Tel Aviv. There, we met Ari Zahav, a researcher in policy making form the United States. The purpose of his meeting was to learn about his lessons from a research trip in Iraq. When I arrived, he was sitting with some of the students and chatting about basic things before starting his presentation: “What’s your least favorite food?”. Then, he began to introduce himself. Ari was a United States citizen who was also a former Israel Defense Force soldier who had been deployed in the West Bank two times. After his service, he graduated in the United States and became politically involved for the Kurds and made researches about the political relationships and identities in order to explain how political parties work. Recently, he had traveled in the Middle East and interviewed social media influencers from Jordan to try to understand how people informed themselves. “If this is 1980, and someone put a newspaper on your door, you would read it. Today, it’s very different.” he said about it. Then, he continued by explaining the concept of “information flow”, the way how information are transferred and how ideas are intended to get to individuals. He said: “There’s a whole industry about getting you to certain information. The more you like the information, the more you’ll trust us.” He continued by comparing the way people were being informed in the Middle Age and how they are informed in the twenty-first century. Next, he began an explanation about how people developed biases through the social networks that did not existed before: “When you produce information and receive a feedback, there’s a release of serotonin. It makes you feel good.” But, he added, there was a competition, a hyper competitive game that pushed people to hypersexualize themselves and commit violent acts in public. This was usually followed by an increase of the amount of followers. To illustrate what he was talking about, he used the example of Zarqawi a Jordanian militant of Al Qaeda who had operated in Iraq while being very popular on the social networks because of his extremely violent videos. To continue his presentation, he mentioned one of his teachers who considered that, until now, the Islamic State had won. He asked to the students why and no one really had an answer. However, everybody was listening to him with a lot of, attention and passion since the beginning of his presentation. Since no one had an answer to the question, he unveiled the mystery. There were two reasons why his teacher thought that the Islamic State had won. The first one was that the group had become immortal because of Internet. The second one was that the people who were fighting the Islamic State had themselves committed atrocities. Again, he asked why. No one had an answer except for me. I said that it was because of a series of mechanisms, due to group pressure, intense dehumanization and lawlessness, that extreme violence had become the norm in the areas where people were fighting the Islamic State. He agreed with it and added that it happened because of the social regulations that are created on the social networks. Finally, in this topic, he mentioned the “black and white thinking” that he considered to be a psychological issue. 

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“Is fake news always bad?” he asked. “Yes and no.” he replied to himself. He continued by explaining that there were three kinds of fake news: lie, distortions and confirmation bias. But the positive side of fake news was that if two people read the same fake news, at least, they were getting the same information and they could form a tribe. So, he asked, what could we do about fake news? The first thing was to break network rigidity. The second thing was to build trust with different people that would allow to create social regulations in the network. To create trust, there was a need for authenticity that would allow one to influence others.


He finished his presentation and he asked to the students what they wanted to do in the future. None of them really knew and all of them were still very much hypnotized by the amount of information that had just been given to them. So, in order to fill the blank, he explained what had motivated him to do what he was doing. One day, when he was serving in the Israel Defense Force, he was about to be sent into the Gaza strip. This day, the atmosphere around him was terrible. Artillery shells were falling all around and his fellow soldiers were in a complete state of panic. Some were even throwing up. At that moment, he understood that he wanted to make the world a better place. He added for the students that if that is what they wanted, they had to commit to it. Finally, he asked them if they were going to the army the next year. Most of the Israelis said yes and the Palestinians said that they were not really welcomed in the army. At that moment, the meeting was over. Everybody stood up and posed with Ari to take a group picture. When the students left, they all expressed a lot of gratitude to Ari for the presentation that, they thought was very interesting.