They file in by twos and threes, nearly 100 teen-age boys and girls with school bags on their backs.
Some boys wear earrings, others kipot. A few have tzitzit dangling out from under T-shirts.
The students, who represent several diverse Jerusalem schools, have come to study peace.
They are participants in a program sponsored by the Education Minister and administered by the Van Leer Institute.
Each year, the ministry proposes a ventral theme for study and provides relevant educational materials to schools throughout Israel.
Last year, the theme was the environment; next year, the focus will be on industry. This year, the theme occupying the students is the peace process, and it has proven one of the most popular topics of all.
Although participation in the annual program is voluntary, more than “80 percent of schools run it, and this year it went up to over 90 percent,” says Dalia Goren, director and coordinator of the Education Ministry Programs.
“No other theme has encountered this much opposition, raised this much controversy, or been that popular,” she says of this year’s topic.
Although every school is free to devise its own program, or to choose one from several authorized institutions, some 450 high schools — more than 60 percent of Israel’s high schools — subscribed to this year’s program on the peace process.
The schools represent a cross section of Israeli society, ranging from a Druse village on the Golan Heights to schools in Eilat in the south. Islamic as well as Jewish schools participate, running the gamut from secular to religious institutions, arts and vocational, urban and rural, encompassing schools both within Israel and those in the territories.
Each school elects students to run the program. The students break up into teams along the lines of the different tracks of the peace process: Israel- Syria, Israel-Palestinians or Israel-United States. One school in the territories added a team to deal with government-settlers relations.
Every week the Van Leer Institute sends the schools a compilation of news clippings, which are discussed, analyzed and prepared for display on the school’s “Peace Wall.” Some schools organized additional programs, such as mock elections and public trials.
The program has a budget of $170,000, of which 60 percent comes from the government and 40 percent from the Van Leer Institute.
“The program is popular, precisely because it does not promote any particular position,” says Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, director of this year’s project.
“It allows the students to examine their opinions against facts and to develop a better comprehension of this complex process.”
“We all are part of the peace process, whether we support, oppose or are indifferent to it,” says Rothenberg, a senior fellow at the Van Leer Institute.
“All opinions are legitimate, barring those that incite violence, hatred or racism.”
As the students enter the institute, where they have come for a one-day conference to sum up what they have learned at their respective schools, they encounter a “peace bazaar,” replete with information and photographs about the peace process as well the flags of those involved in the process with Israel – - Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.
The students are asked to choose the 10 most crucial events that have influenced the Middle East peace process and to grade them on a scale — from damaging and helpful.
Later, in small teams, they discuss their choices.
The students are knowledgeable and opinionated, and they defend their views with fervor and conviction. Although everyone supports the idea of peace, very few believe that the current peace process can yield positive results.
Because of the controversial nature of the topic, this year’s program initially encountered opposition from politicians, officials representing Orthodox schools and some teachers.
“The political opposition parties feared that the theme would serve as an indoctrination tool for government policies,” says Goren, who was on a visit to the institute to see the program in action.
“A petition was filed with the Supreme Court, but once the justices read our proposal, they gave it their blessings.”
Rothenberg says that despite some opposition from the Education Ministry’s orthodox Department — which oversees Jewish religious schools — 60 religious schools, including high-school yeshivas in the settlements, joined the program.
Rothenberg says “the toughest opposition came from the teachers.”
“They had difficulties introducing a politically charged topic in the classrooms, and many felt ill-equipped to do it,” he said. “We overcame this obstacle by including them in the process.”
The participation of all involved becomes apparent during a lunch break, when several older students argue fiercely while munching on sandwiches and fruit.
“If we could get rid of them, fine. But we can’t. So all we’re left with is the peace process,” says Ayelet, a student from Rene Cassin High School, which lost six of its graduates this year in terrorist attacks and in fighting on the Lebanese border.
“You call this a peace process? What about the terrorist attacks, and the way they celebrate their martyrs? I say, first we go into Gaza and eliminate the terrorists,” says Avi, from Bezek High School.
“You want us back in Gaza?” reports Noah, also from Rebe Cassin.
“I definitely don’t want to chase kids in Gaza next year. May be increased pressure would make them desperate enough to turn against their own terrorists,” suggests Alon, another Bezek student.
“Desperation only produces more terrorists,” says Noa, and bites into an apple.
“No one has an answer to terrorism,” Ayelet argues. “And what’s your solution? A continued state of war? For us, our children and grandchildren?”
The students all agree on one thing: Not one of them has changed his or her opinions as a result of the program. If anything, they say, their convictions have strengthened.
Did they learn anything new?
“Absolutely,” says Ayelet. “I learned more about the other side and became more involved.”
“No,” Alon shrugs. “It just made a few things sharper.”
“It forced me to form an opinion,” says Noah.
“Before, we discussed these things only after a terrorist attack. Now we follow the peace process and talk about it all in the time,” concludes Avi and the rest agree.
Rothenberg puts in a few words about the program after the students have had their say.
“The program isn’t meant to change opinions,” he says, “only to increase comprehension and awareness. And if we raise their level of involvement, so much the better.”
Rothenberg, a former director of the World Zionist Organization’s Torah Education Department in North America, hopes to expand the educational program on the peace process.
Next year, he says, “we’d like to introduce the program in Diaspora schools, and continue to develop it here, make it more sophisticated.”
Goren of the Education Ministry says the tremendous success of the program was coupled with great frustration for those who tried to team up with schools on the Arab side.
“The Jordanians, Egyptians, even Palestinians said it was too soon,” she said.