Every summer, since 2003, a group of Palestinian and Israeli students (girls and boys) come together at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for the Middle East Education through Technology (MEET) project. This MIT-sponsored education initiative involves learning advanced technological and leadership tools to create positive social change in the community. But besides learning computers, MEET has helped students from the two warring countries bond and understand the others' viewpoint.
MEET's curriculum was formulated when Yaron Binur and Assaf Harlap, Israeli students at MIT (US), volunteered to go to Africa in the summer of 2002. They taught in a programme called AITI, a student-run initiative to bridge the digital divide in Kenya and teach students computer science (mainly Java). During their stay in Kenya, the two thought of a creative and positive way to utilize MIT resources to make a difference back home in Israel.
Harlap says, "I was motivated by my own frustration of the political, economic and social situation in Israel and Palestine, and the total lack of cooperation or joint effort on both sides. On a more personal level, I've never met Palestinians before I started MEET. I wanted to change things and I found the most critical, pressing and meaningful way to do this was to get young Israelis and Palestinians to meet and give them tools to become better, educated leaders. This would empower them individually and as a group."
Harlap and Binur succeeded in getting the support of a prestigious network of business and academic leaders from the Middle East, the United States and Europe. Launched as a not-for-profit and non-political grassroots programme, funds for MEET flowed from MIT, the Japanese government, international conglomerates like Daimler Chrysler & Sun Microsystems and from the local Israeli and Palestinian business sector. The Hebrew University granted the project computer labs on its campus.
The Israeli and Palestinian students (some from the camps) who join the programme dedicate five weeks of their summer vacation to the project. The MEET students receive a full scholarship, which covers all costs of the programme, including tuition, teaching materials, transportation and food.
Harlap says technology was chosen as a means to bridge the gap between Israeli and Palestinian youth for several reasons: "The technology focus and the demanding curriculum let the students relate on a professional basis, undermining their differences. The students learnt to thrive together as professional team-members in order to achieve their mutual goals. We believe that only a focus on a neutral professional common denominator, such as technology, can sustain participant relationships over a long period of time."
Miri Cohen, 16, an Israeli student, describes the initial tension in his class. During the first two days, when the two groups were exposed to each other, "the Israeli and Palestinian boys started arguing about the complicated situation in the area, accusing each other for the wrongs". Cohen says, "They reminded me of our politicians on TV. But soon, after we started learning Java and worked together on mutual computer projects, their arguments faded and friendship emerged."
Harlap adds, "After three-four days, the students hardly engaged in any Palestinian/Israeli issue. The problems or relationships reframed around professional or personal bases rather than national ones. We felt a professional common denominator - a professional language was an extremely effective way to promote teamwork and form a bridge between conflict-torn nations. The success of MEET is the proof that our countries can find a common language and make peace."
Intisar Salhab, 16, a Palestinian East Jerusalem, agrees. "The first time I heard about MEET," she says, "was in my school. The MEET project was presented to me as a computer course for Israelis and Palestinians taught by MIT instructors. I was quite excited about the idea of being introduced to new people from different backgrounds. I was even more interested in participating when I knew that no former knowledge of programming is required, only English skills and a strong will to learn. I was lucky I got chosen."
"I think technology is a very useful tool by which Israelis and Palestinians can connect with each other. Having Palestinian and Israeli youth working together and trying hard to achieve the same goals leads to better understanding of the other side and interaction with people from a different culture," feels Salhab.
Cohen says that the Israeli and Palestinian girls in the group created much more meaningful relationships and deeper friendships than the boys. "The boys," says Cohen, "were more focused on the technological goal, while the girls were more involved with the social aspect of the project as well. I feel besides the technological know-how that I received from the MIT instructors, I gained wonderful friends from East Jerusalem, like Intisar. Before MEET, I would never have never dreamt of having Palestinian friends. I also met inspiring MIT instructors, who exposed me to new skills and cultures," says Cohen.
Salhab agrees: "Everybody got in touch with the others within the group. All the students worked as a team. However, more girls than boys forged serious friendships. I believe women can play a very important role in the peace process. Women usually tend to care about understanding other people and their opinions. This helps in taking the first step of finding a solution that fits each country's needs," says Salhab.
Benji Sterling, 24, an MIT instructor for the class of 2005, says his motivation to be part of MEET came from the desire to contribute to the development process of the Middle East; visit and learn about this part of the world; and to improve his teaching skills. "I have not experienced teaching such a motivated group in the US. I have taught in American public schools before, and my experience in MEET was much more fun and rewarding. Israeli and Palestinian kids were respectful to the teachers, but in different ways. The Israeli students' style was more akin to the American style - less formal, more joking."
"Personally," says sterling, "I gained appreciation for both sides involved in the Middle East conflict and appreciation for the beauty of the region in general. It was an incredible experience."
By arrangement with Women's Feature Service