A Meeting Point for Palestinian and Israeli Teenagers, a Starting Point for Their Future

The MIT-sponsored Middle East Education through Technology (MEET) project does more than just bring Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together - it is producing some innovative ideas for start-ups.

Amin Manna, a Palestinian from Beit Hanina, and Anat Gilenson, an Israeli from Beit Shemesh, are both 17 years old. They are both in their last year of high school and both getting ready for big changes in their lives: Come September, Manna will be off to Boston to start classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a college freshman. Gilenson will marching off to begin two years of mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces.

Goodbye to living at home with parents! Le’hitraot to the high school dance troupe! Ma Salaama chess team! Ciao to status of cool senior year president! And farewell old friends!

But wait, wait – why say goodbye to your old friends? Manna and Gilenson, who have been part of a special group of friends for the past three years, want to stay in touch. And they have an idea how to do it, too.

“I didn't know any Palestinians before joining MEET,” says Gilenson matter-of-factly, referring to the innovative, Jerusalem-based education program run in partnership with MIT, “and I can’t honestly say I was ‘into’ Israeli-Palestinian relations.”

Manna echoes the sentiment. He had no Israeli friends at age 14, but nor did he feel the need to find any—and that was definitely not what drew him to dedicate three years to the Middle East Education through Technology (MEET) project. “Their aim is the whole Israeli-Palestinian ‘thing,’” he shrugs, "but for me, I really saw it as an opportunity to study computer science.”

Manna and Gilenson, together as part of an incoming class of 44 – recruited and rigorously selected from Israeli, Israeli-Arab and Palestinian high schools around the country – joined MEET after their first year of high school. They then spent three years studying together: intensively for five weeks each summer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem campus, and once a week at the MEET hub at the Jerusalem YMCA during the regular school year.

In total, that added up to some 800 hours of lectures and lab sessions, all paid for – to the tune of about $15,000 per student – by donors. They learned the basics of programming in Python and advanced programming technologies. They developed simple graphical user interface (GUI)-based applications. They honed their software engineering skills, and they learned some fundamentals of business. It is, as MEET graduates like to say, like a “mini MBA.”

“A few of my friends at first gave me looks, like ‘why do you want to hang out with Israelis?'” says Manna. “But later, when they saw what exposure I was getting, some of those same people asked me about applying.”

Started in 2004 by two Palestinians and three Israelis, the MEET model, explains Noa Epstein, one of the program’s co-CEOs, is the kind that is encountered in business around the world – where every day professionals work together to advance goals within culturally and politically diverse environments.

“The idea is to reframe identities around professional interests rather than political ideologies,” she says, explaining how stereotypes gradually begin to take a back seat to cooperation. “These high-schoolers apply because they want to gain the skill sets and the global networks. They want to code and program and build web sites,” she explains. “And they do that – but they also leave MEET with something much more powerful: the tools to make a difference, together, in their communities.”

“I remember the first day. I went in with the idea that it would be a real challenge to talk to Israelis, but I told myself I had to make the effort, because that just was part of the deal,” admits Manna. “In fact, getting to know them turned out to be the easiest part.”

“I think I stayed on, even when it really was taking up more time than I had imagined, out of respect for the group,” says Gilenson.

This year, 10 years after MEET launched its first class, they are expanding the project to include a venture lab, open to any of their alumni (there are now 163) who have start-up ideas and want to continue their connection with MEET.

Through a 10-week entrepreneurial development program, these alumni, typically self-organized into small groups comprising a mix of Palestinians and Israelis, flesh out their start-up plans, develop working prototypes or models, engage with potential customers and do mock pitches to judges and potential investors, all along being helped by a veritable army of professional volunteer mentors in their journeys to turn ideas into businesses.

And that is how Gilenson and Manna have been spending their time lately, squeezing in venture lab sessions between cramming for high-school final exams, and working extra hours, together with a third MEET friend, 18-year-old Alon Gromakov from Beit Shemesh, on their start-up, called Count Me In. It’s an application which, quite appropriately, is intended to help groups of friends stay in touch.

“The idea stemmed from our final class project at MEET,” says Gilenson, presenting the project at a recent venture lab get-together which was held—thanks to a partnership with Google—at the high-rise Google offices in Tel Aviv.

A professional presentation designer, Jan Schultink, has volunteered his time this particular evening to help the alumni brush up on their presentations. The small group, all, uniformly, wearing jeans and hoodies, sits around the table munching pizza and listening to each team put on a mock presentation of their product.

“We were trying to figure out a good way to stay connected and organize get-togethers efficiently. We needed a platform not only to help us create an event, but to know who was really going to show up,” begins Manna, as his group begins a PowerPoint presentation of Count Me In.

 “We are working with an algorithm that figures out the ‘trustworthiness’ of each guest in terms of percentage of times they have shown up for other events they ‘joined’ in the past,” continues Gilenson. They hope, says Gromakov, to have a prototype of the application ready by July.

Sure, they could have just chalked up the class project to a good learning experience and dropped it after MEET formally ended last summer, they say. But they were “inspired,” admits Manna, to see it through – hopefully to the market.

“And we also really liked working together,” notes Gilenson, off-hand, her casual reflection getting to the very core of the whole MEET philosophy. “At some point, for many of us, MEET became more than a three-year project,” she concludes. “It became a way of life.” 

David Bachar