Tel Aviv University campus 474 Tali Meir
Students at Tel Aviv University. Photo by Tali Meir
Text size

A new MA program at Tel Aviv University is attracting an increasing number of applicants in a burgeoning academic field: Conflict resolution and mediation. What is it that made students take a chance on the program when it launched in 2009?

In 2009, when Israel’s international reputation took a nosedive following Operation Cast Lead and the publication of the Goldstone Report, 38 students from 19 countries made a decision which might seem counter-intuitive: to study conflict resolution in Israel.
The program is one of TAU’s catalogue of eleven MA programs taught in English, and tackles conflict in an interdisciplinary fashion. The program’s teaching staff includes business negotiation experts, historians, anthropologists, psychologists and ex-government and IDF officials.

Maureen Meyer, program director, says the course architects aim “to make sure politics doesn’t enter the classroom.” Students pay $15,000 for the intensive ten-month course, which has attracted an unusual cross-section of students. So far, over half of the alumni have been non-Jews, including four Arab students, one of whom was Egyptian. This is “one of the biggest successes of our program,” says Professor Ephraim Yaar, head of TAU’s Evens Program in Mediation and Conflict Resolution.

Yaar and Meyer were convinced they had detected a gap in the market. In the four months they were open for applications, 100 people applied, mostly from Europe.
Antje Urban, 25, from Germany, saw the program as an opportunity to ‘live the conflict’. Her family and friends were shocked that she chose to live in a country they associate with “suicide attacks, rockets and military interventions.” But for Urban “the best way to approach such a topic is to actually live in a country that still struggles with a protracted and very complex conflict... Where else could I really learn how to do it and how not to do it?”

One benefit of studying conflict resolution in a conflict-ridden country is that there are plenty of people around with direct experience in efforts to resolve it. Gilead Sher, for example, whose career includes serving as co-chief negotiator under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the Camp David Summit, teaches a seminar on international law as part of the program. Pam Slater, 27, an America Jew who chose TAU’s program over similar ones in the U.S., says that its selling point was faculty experienced in “extreme emergency crisis situations.”

Monica Zaga, 30, a Mexican Jew, was interested in peace and in reconnecting with her Jewish heritage. “My family is Jewish, I had a chance to study in Israel and make aliyah,” she says. The program opened her eyes to a more nuanced view of Israel’s record in the conflict, and equipped her with skills which she is now applying in a non-profit organization she set up to promote peace in Mexico, a country rife with drug-related violence.

The program is also a way to become part of the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. For Dan Nissimyan, 27, an American Jew, "Conflict resolution represents both the problem and solution. This region is desperately in need of the solution.” After the program, Dan wanted to “hit the ground running locally.” Today, his start-up is developing the first joint waste to energy facility for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, inspired by a conversation with a fellow Palestinian student on the program.

Andrew Strahan, 32, from Australia, fell in love with Israel after visiting the country to see friends he met while traveling in India. He spent eight years working in IT, and wanted to pursue post-graduate study in the social sciences. The MA was a way to get to know Israel better, and would look good on his CV.

People back home reacted to Andrew’s plans with surprise. “The vast majority would say ‘why are you studying conflict there for? They clearly don’t know what they are doing’,” he says. “I acknowledge the irony. They are either really bad at it or they are really good at it because they do it every day."

'Seeing Israelis as humans'

Mohammad Ismail, 28, a Palestinian-American with a background in development, “wanted to figure out what Israeli people are thinking.”

“All my friends are very anti-Israeli, I was very anti-Israeli,” Mohamad says. “I started realizing that being so anti-Israeli was a form of escapism.” The program at TAU seemed like the perfect opportunity. “I prayed, I wanted to resolve this conflict, I wanted to free Falastin. For some reason Tel Aviv University came into my mind,” he says.

During the first month of the program, Mohamad traveled six hours a day from Ramallah in the West Bank and back to attend classes. He then moved to Yafo, and later Tel Aviv, to be nearer to university. The effort was worth it. He appreciated the honesty of Israeli faculty, who showed him the Israeli side of the story. One important outcome for him was “seeing Israelis as basic humans, that was very freeing.”

The program seems to be in demand. Applications doubled from 100 in the first year to 200 in the second, and TAU is now taking applications for the third intake. It may also be part of a larger trend. The IDC Herzliya offers a ‘Diplomacy and Conflict Studies’ specialization on their English-language MA in Government. Haifa University offers international students an MA in Peace and Conflict Management Studies, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev offers an MA in The Politics of Conflict taught in English.

Can this trend contribute to peaceful co-existence? At the very least, it might promote dialogue and a greater understanding of Israel’s difficult position. As Andrew Strahan says of his peers on the program: “The majority would take back a positive message of Israel and its attempts to resolve the conflict. If people brought up the BDS movement, they could talk about it with a level of complexity - its not as simple as boycotting everything that Israel does - I think everyone would do that.”