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U.S. Students Act Out Politics at Israeli Summer Camp

July 31, 1985|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Divide three dozen California teen-agers into small groups, assign each the role of a different participant in the Middle East conflict, give them the tools of the political trade ranging from the press release to the summit meeting, and the resulting "game" is bound to have its memorable moments.

At one point in the game recently, for example, "Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat" wanted to "assassinate" "U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger." But "God" wouldn't let him.

Then the "Soviet delegation" turned down a secret summit meeting with "President Reagan" because the proposed location was unsuitable. As "Mikhail S. Gorbachev," played by a San Francisco girl, explained in a diplomatic note: "I can't go into the men's room!"

It was all part of Arab-Israeli simulation day for the participants in an unusual six-week summer camp program for American high school students. The object: to help them better understand the conflicting interests in one of the world's most intractable political conflicts.

The students used the same Hebrew University Simulation Laboratory used to train officers at Israel's National Defense College and candidates for the Israeli Foreign Service. They could take any action they believed to be in the interests of their delegation with two exceptions: For any sort of terrorist act, or before declaring war, they had to have the permission of the game's controller, whom everyone called "God."

Simulation day is the highlight of an intensive summer program run by Camp Ramah, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the center of the Conservative Jewish movement in the United States.

The organization operates six summer camps for Jewish young people in the United States and Canada. In the summer between their sophomore and junior years in high school, selected students spend six or seven weeks in Israel learning about the country and its most important problems. One prerequisite: a minimum of five hours a week of Jewish studies during the previous academic year.

Participants camp out in the Negev, tour the Galilee and spend a day on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. They listen to a debate between representatives of the right-wing Gush Emunim settlers movement and the leftist Peace Now group. They form political parties and engage in their own coalition-bargaining to better understand the complex Israeli political system.

"We don't expect you to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict this afternoon, but we hope to give you a better understanding of it," Eytan Gilboa, director of the simulation laboratory, told the students as they arrived for the all-day simulation exercise.

The students were separated into seven teams, representing Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, the PLO, the United States and the Soviet Union. Three became "journalists" for "Voice of the Middle East" radio, and two others provided "intelligence information" on request to all the teams.

Monitored by 'God'

Teams were given individual meeting rooms arranged in a circle around a control center where "God"--high school history teacher Leah Prawer--monitored their activities through an elaborate sound system and one-way windows to each delegation's room.

In addition to a 45-minute introduction to the Arab-Israeli conflict given by Gilboa, each team was assigned an adult expert whose first job was to help the team set down long- and short-term goals and the methods planned to achieve those objectives.

"We're afraid that what happened with Egypt will happen with Jordan and Syria, and we'll be left out in the cold," PLO team adviser Gershon Baskin, the director of an education center here for Jewish-Arab coexistence, told his group.

As Yasser Arafat, Darin Spillman, from Hoover High School in Glendale, favored terrorism as a tactic. "Terrorism works," he argued. But Baskin insisted, "We have to convince the American people that our cause is just."

Israeli Call for Help

Meanwhile, the Israeli team issued its first call for help. "Israel doesn't have enough money for a paper clip, so we want the United States to send us one," messaged Matt Brenner, the Beverly Hills High School student who played Prime Minister Shimon Peres. "Israel: Financial aid from the U.S. is on the way," the controller responded.

As the teams moved to the next phase of their preparations--more specific lists of their goals in relation to each of the other groups--members of the Jordanian team revealed a Machiavellian turn of mind. While telling everyone else that they wanted peace with Israel, they listed as their objective in relations with the PLO the encouraging of terrorist activities that would undermine the peace process. The reason: They saw any Palestinian state on the West Bank as a threat to the Jordanian monarchy.

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