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What did YOU do in school this week? SEGL and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

What did YOU do in school last week?

Sometimes we can’t help asking that question after a particularly meaningful seven days at SEGL.  Our recent Israeli-Palestinian case study, and the way our intrepid cohort responded to it, exemplifies the “best possible opportunity” language of our mission, and we are delighted to share the highlights with you.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict looms over myriad contemporary problems. Countless leaders of the past and present have worked to address it in fits and starts and with limited success. This week our intrepid cohort of future leaders confronted the challenge, with hopeful results.

We began on Monday with a two-hour overview of the conflict. Stepping through the mine fields of loaded language and divergent narratives, we attempted to pin down key events and key negotiation sticking points (settlements, right of return, Jerusalem, etc.) and the various interpretations others have offered about them. The morning was filled with excellent questions and complex answers.

And then we walked across Dupont Circle to the Aspen Institute, one of our nation’s highest profile think tanks.  Thanks to a special reservation made on our behalf, we were able to witness a discussion between Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, UN Undersecretary for Political Affairs Jeffery Feltman, and former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority Salaam Fayyad.   Our students made up one quarter of the intimate, standing-room-only audience.  Two asked questions during the Q&A period afterward, and several were able to ask individual questions of Fayyad after the session was over.  (You can watch a video of the presentation here.  One of our students asks a question of Fayyad at 42:42.)

Our next meeting, on Wednesday morning, was a short Metro ride away at the Woodrow Wilson Center to meet with experienced negotiator, advisor, and academic Aaron David Miller. Miller, who was at the table for the United States during the 2000 Camp David II
negotiations and who has counseled six Secretaries of State, shared his perspectives on the conflict as well as some of the reasons it appears more intractable than ever. Chief among those reasons: a decreasing ability to focus for long periods of time on an issue due to technology and social media, and a lack of empathy. His words exhorting our students to overcome those challenges were scribbled earnestly in two dozen notebooks.

We then traveled to meet with with Jonathan Kessler, Leadership Development Director at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC, arguably one of the most influential lobbying groups in the country, has its high-security headquarters north of Judiciary Square in DC. Kessler’s articulate perspective got students thinking. What are the best ways for U.S. citizens who support Israel to do so? What do Israelis think about the United States’ role?

On Friday at SEGL we met with Ghaith al-Omari, Executive Director of the American Task Force on Palestine. Al-Omari was at the table for the Palestinians during Camp David II and has served as Director of the International Relations Department in the Office of the Palestinian President, and advisor to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. His thoughts, delivered in the organized prose of an Oxford-educated lawyer (as he is), made students think as well. Is the crisis best thought of, not as an arranged marriage, but as a complicated divorce settlement? What is the best way for college students to work on this issue?

After case studies end, we are particularly pleased when students ask to hear additional perspectives to increase their understanding.  This means that our students are becoming increasingly accountable for their own learning: someday they will have to grapple with these issues not as students, but as leaders.  This week was certainly no different: on Saturday at the start of English class they asked themselves if the case study had been biased toward a particular perspective and whether they had heard all they views they needed to hear. (As the semester progresses, we are often able to work with students to make additional encounters happen.)

Oh, and for good measure, on Thursday we paid homage to the upcoming 2014 midterm Congressional elections with a trip to the American Enterprise Institute to hear House Speaker John Boehner.  Boehner laid out his economic plan and took a few questions (you can see the event here; watch for a few SEGL students at the top of the screen at 24:18).

What did YOU do in school this week?

P.S. This week also marked our second foray to Thomson Elementary for our weekly Books and Basketball service activity. For half of each hour-plus session, our students provide one-on-one and small group reading opportunities at Thomson, a Title I school where the majority of students are English Language Learners (Spanish and Chinese). It is often their best opportunity to improve basic reading skills outside of school. For the other half, we provide an ongoing basketball clinic that works to improve teamwork, discipline, fine motor skills, and confidence. It is often the first and only organized sports activity of their lives. We hope to have some pictures up soon!

Sep 20, 2014

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