Israeli and Palestinian teens ‘MEET’ to create positive change

MIT program creates a space where high school students collaborate with those from "the other side."

Dana G. is a Christian Arab tenth grader. She spends her time dancing, debating in the Model United Nations and playing the piano.

As a resident of East Jerusalem, she is keenly aware of the friction between Arabs and Jews, a conflict she was born into. But whereas some of her friends and peers have been conditioned to hate Israelis or have developed an animosity through their life experience, Dana has decided to seek a dialogue with Jews of her age group (some of whom have also been conditioned in the ways of hate) and to try and bridge their differences through cooperation. An innovative program called MEET has given her the opportunity to do so. 

MEET, a program run in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has been around for 14 years. It brings together Palestinian and Israeli 15-17 year olds who are all gifted academically and involved socially. It is a highly selective program to which only 80 students are accepted out of over a thousand candidates, and it operates in two mixed localities: in Jerusalem (for East Jerusalem and West Bank Palestinians) and in Nazareth. 

The program runs during the sophomore and junior years, with the students meeting once a week for a shared learning experience focusing on computer science, entrepreneurship, and conflict resolution. Participation is extremely challenging (20 percent of participants will drop out) and is free of charge, but students receive no academic credit or other benefits other than the experience of studying and working along with peers "from the other side" in a collaborative, multi-lingual, multi-cultural environment that challenges their intellectual and emotional capabilities. 

All projects are assigned to work groups composed of 50 percent Jews and 50 percent Arabs, with an equal number of males and females. Through joint work on pragmatic projects with real world impact, students gain a deeper understanding of each other and the conflict that characterizes our region. The instructors who work with the MEET groups are all successful role-models from a variety of scientific disciplines, who combine academic training with education for co-existence. 

During the summer vacations at the end of freshman, sophomore, and junior years, participants are invited to a special MEET program which I recently had the chance to visit. The program is conducted within a boarding school in Jerusalem, where participants stay overnight for three weeks, sharing not only a classroom but also living spaces. The 22 program instructors include 15 advanced degree students from MIT and other leading universities in the United States who all come on a voluntary basis to spend three weeks with MEET students, including this year a Palestinian graduate student at MIT who himself is a MEET graduate. 

One instructor this year was Usman Ayyaz, a Pakistani native living in the States. Usman recently graduated MIT with an MSc degree in computer science. Another instructor is Australian-born Nina Hooper, who has a BA in Astrophysics from Harvard University and is currently studying for her Master's Degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Stanford. They are two of the volunteer instructors working with MEET students this year, helping them realize their scientific and entrepreneurship potential while mentoring them in co-existence and cooperation. The instructors are role models, each excelling in their field and bringing their own cultural background and history to the students.

The program is conducted in English, the common language to all participants and instructors. Forty percent of the time is dedicated to learning computer science, 40 percent is dedicated to entrepreneurship skills, and 20 percent is dedicated to deeper understanding in which there is full equality between Arabs and Jews, males and females. Every cohort is divided into working groups which set out to establish "start-up companies." They develop innovative ideas, research the market (both in the Jewish and Arab sector), build a product or an application, and compete with the other teams for the title of best project. All projects have real-world applications and provide feasible solutions to cross-border, cross-cultural needs.

The decision to use technology as a platform for collaboration and co-existence among Arab and Israeli youth came about because it is a common language that has the potential to empower youth. Technological challenges and solutions are cross-border and relevant to all. Instructors in the program teach more than just science: they teach a way of thinking, educating for design thinking, with real-world applications that include building cross-national bridges. 

MEET's goal is to educate and empower the next generation of young Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take action towards creating positive social and political change in the Middle East. The young men and women in the program are truly impressive and most certainly include some of the future leaders you will hear about in the coming years.  

Hopefully, through a positive shared experience with peers whom they otherwise would not have had the opportunity to meet, they will grow up to lead their communities -- our peoples -- towards a peaceful co-existence that has evaded too many generations already. 
Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.

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