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

Times Staff Writer

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.

The Soviet team, meanwhile, prepared a statement for the press. “Don’t forget--it’s like a speech you deliver before the United Nations, and you can lie,” said team adviser Hanan Naveh, real-life news editor for Israel Radio.

Student as Gorbachev

Celeste Solod, the San Francisco student playing Soviet leader Gorbachev, did her best. Her statement offered unconditional support for the Middle East peace process, expressed thanks to “Syrian President Hafez Assad” for joining the fight against terrorism and announced that, as a good-will gesture, the Soviets would allow “freedom fighter Ida Nudel,” a long-time Soviet-Jewish activist, to emigrate to Israel.

Based on their statements of objectives and a scenario distributed by the controller, the students began the actual simulation game after lunch, using various forms to request intelligence information, communicate with other teams and issue press releases.

Copies of everything were dispatched to the control center, where Prawer tried through the growing bedlam to track and control the direction of the game.

“I’m trying to achieve two things,” Prawer said. “One is to show them there is no easy solution. That’s the main idea. Second, I want to control the game to make it more or less like reality.” The messages showed that the students had already learned a lot about the Middle East conflict.

“Syria” offered “Russian aid” to both “Egypt” and “Jordan” in return for their support of a “Soviet” proposal for an international peace conference on the Middle East.

The “PLO” asked for a meeting with “Jordan” about establishing a military base on the Israeli border.

The “Soviet Union” messaged “Israel” that it was ready for a low-level meeting to discuss the Middle East situation.

“The Soviets are pushing everyone to their side,” controller Prawer commented. “And for some reason, the U.S. isn’t very active today.” Trying to spur some action, Prawer told the U.S. team that “Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO” are meeting. But “Egypt” turned down a “U.S. offer” to chair the meeting.

“Jordan,” either out of paranoia or because the air conditioning was not working in its room, announced that it didn’t want its deliberations monitored and would no longer meet there. Shortly afterward, it asked permission to mobilize its troops against the “PLO.”

“Not yet, Jordan,” replied the controller.

According to a “Middle East Radio” news flash, “Syria” and the “PLO” planned new violence against “Israel,” and the “United States” had dispatched the 6th Fleet to the Mediterranean.

Request for Thumbtacks

“Israel” requested thumbtacks.

Meanwhile, a newly active “United States” sent a cryptic message to the “Soviets”: “USA--2 p.m. in the men’s room. Send Gorbachev.” That was the meeting Celeste Solod modestly declined.

An increasingly frustrated “PLO,” by now seemingly shut out of talks with anybody, asked permission to plant a “bomb” in downtown Jerusalem. “PLO--you have permission to go ahead with your mission,” the controller responded.

Almost immediately, another “Middle East Radio” news flash announced to all the teams that “a PLO bomb killed two and injured 16 in Jerusalem.” PLO team member Lori Siderman from Birmingham High School in Encino whooped with joy at the announcement and jumped up and down excitedly.

Soon afterward, a “PLO” press release announced its alliance with the “Soviet Union” and against the “United States.” Spillman, wearing a kaffiyeh headdress borrowed from a friend and increasingly enthusiastic in his Arafat role, raised his fingers in the V-sign for victory. “The ironic thing is that I’m probably the most anti-Arab one in the group,” he said.

Peace Conference at End

After two intensive hours, controller Prawer suggested a concluding peace conference under joint Soviet-American sponsorship, and all agreed.

Pleading discomfort from his recent operation, “President Reagan” (Hillel Abrams of Brentwood High School) asked “Caspar Weinberger” (Ami Kassar of La Jolla High School) to read the “U.S. statement.” It was harsh on the “PLO,” and Weinberger/Kassar noted that the guerrilla group would have killed him were it not for “God.” Spillman, as “Arafat,” made his concluding speech, then walked out when Brenner, as “Shimon Peres,” got up to give the “Israeli statement.”

There were no breakthroughs, as center director Gilboa had promised. But the students clearly played the game with relish.

“I never played a game I enjoyed that much,” said an enthusiastic Andrew Green, a “PLO delegate” from Polytechnic High School in Long Beach.

“It’s a lot better than sitting around listening to a lecture,” added another student.

In fact, the only time during the day that the students were less than animated was when a few nodded off during Gilboa’s introductory remarks.