Taking the Initiative
Equal parts dialogue and action, Tufts' New Initiative for Middle East Peace is creating an avenue for students to study Middle East affairs in depth.
The group at the table includes natives of Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Ukraine, Turkey, Netherlands, Australia and the United States. The topic is the upcoming Palestinian elections.
This isn't a recent meeting of United Nations officials. The participants are Tufts students; the location is a classroom at the Institute for Global Leadership. On this day in December 2005, the room is filled with thoughtful questions, genuine discussion and—despite the incendiary nature of the topic—an unmistakable air of collaboration and exchange.
Welcome to a weekly dialogue session of the New Initiative for Middle East Peace (NIMEP), a student-run organization founded in 2003 to facilitate student-led avenues of discussion, research and education in the Tufts community on issues surrounding the Middle East.
"NIMEP thrives at an intersection of so many different facets of learning—research, dialogue, travel and speakers," says Alex Zerden, a senior who, along with classmate Rachel Leven, will step into NIMEP's leadership role this year. "The opportunities available for personal enrichment are amazing."
The students who formed NIMEP came from divergent backgrounds, but according to co-founder and Israeli native Matan Chorev (A '05), their concerns were mutual.
"We got together because of our interests in the region, but also because we had a joint frustration with the nature of dialogue that was taking place on our campus and campuses across the country," says Chorev, who is currently entering his second year at The Fletcher School. "At a time when critical dialogue was so necessary, most interested parties were not talking to one another, and when they were, it was very combative and polemic."
'A Common Narrative'
Armed with a diversity of backgrounds, religions, ethnicities and opinions, NIMEP has blazed a trail outside the chosen route of many organizations centered on the region.
"Most models for these things are advocacy groups, which try to promote both cultural and political advocacy, and that's by nature polemic—they're trying to win you over," Chorev says. "NIMEP is anything but advocacy. Our goal is to have joint exploration and joint learning and discovery, but to actually produce outcomes that could potentially contribute to the realities on the ground in very powerful ways."
NIMEP's stunningly diverse membership reflects the international character of the Tufts'student body and falls on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian divide.
"This diversity of membership is NIMEP's strongest asset," Zerden says. "Instead of an outlet for mutual recriminations and fruitless polemical mud-slinging, NIMEP creates a venue for sensible, rational and productive discourse on the region, which is only possible through its diverse membership."
The group's members expect a level of disagreement and embrace the range of opinions held by its members.
"NIMEP isn't about coming out with these dramatic statements about one side of an issue or the other," says Negar Razavi, a 2006 Tufts graduate who co-led of the group during her senior year. "It's really about looking at all of the issues as complex issues and not oversimplifying them too much. And that's what NIMEP embraces – the ambiguity. We're not going to go out there and shove one point of view on people; we're really inviting people to exchange [differing viewpoints] in a safe environment."
The group facilitates this exchange through weekly student-led forums, which surround a current event or theme, and monthly "brown-bag lunches," informal seminars with a faculty expert on the region. These experiences are intended to help the students find the point where their backgrounds overlap.
"They've been immersed in those different narratives," says Sherman Teichman, director of the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts, which helps guide NIMEP. "And now they're suspending those narratives, to explain themselves and to dialogue with each other, but also to try to find a common narrative."
A large part of NIMEP's programming is its self-titled "fact-finding mission," an annual event in which students spend two weeks in an area of the Middle East, meeting with individuals in every walk of life, from different ethnic, religious and political background, including journalists, academics, government officials, peasants, students, and activists.
During its four-year existence, the group has taken trips to Israel and the West Bank, Egypt, Iran and, most recently, Turkey. The group's 2004 Iran Dialogue Initiative—in which students met with progressive-thinking Ayatollahs and students at Iranian universities—was the first university delegation allowed into the country since the 1979 revolution.
"Tufts is very supportive of what we call 'prudent risk-taking,' Chorev says. "Very few schools would send a group of students to the kinds of places they've sent us. They've given us the necessary contacts and support we need for successful, safe experiences. When I talk to my colleagues on other campuses, they don't have the kind of institutional support that we've been lucky to have."
With that support, NIMEP has pursued an action-based agenda, packing its calendar with programming, speakers and excursions all designed to effect real change in a region often resistant to it.
The group's on-campus programming has included a wide range of speakers: Ali Yahya, the first Arab-Israeli ambassador; Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israeli Security Agency; members of the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit; and former ABC Middle East correspondent Lucas Welch, who hosted a sit-down discussion following a screening of "Control Room," the critically acclaimed documentary about the Arab television network Al-Jazeera.
In addition, NIMEP published the second edition of its journal, Insights, this spring, featuring scholarly articles, memoirs and photography. And partnering with an educational webcasting organization called Soliya, Chorev and Razavi have headed an Experimental College course—soon to be taught out of the political science department—that connects Tufts students with students throughout the Middle East in weekly dialogue sessions.
It is efforts such as these that have NIMEP firmly entrenched in the community of global scholarship at Tufts.
"They're tested, these kids," Teichman says. "They've tested themselves in the world, and they're respected and acknowledged. They've begun a tradition which is a rather powerful one, and it's an absolute honor to be associated with them."
The tradition NIMEP hopes to continue, says Chorev, is that of open discourse on tough issues in a fragile corner of the world.
"Our ultimate goal was to change dialogue from something that was, at best, a feel-good attempt to something that is actually constructive," he explains, "that has focused outcomes aimed at really looking at the current dilemmas of the region and moving them forward."
Profile written by Elizabeth Hoffman, Class of 2008
Liz Hoffman is a junior majoring in political science and community health. She is now in her second semester as Executive Sports Editor of the Tufts Daily.
Homepage photo of Qatar by Carlo Allegri, Getty Images; Banner photo of Jerusalem by Pedro Ugarte, AFP/Getty Images; top left photo in Turkey by Elien Becque (A'08); center photo of NIMEP courtesy of Institute for Global Leadership; sidebar photo by Matt Edmundson (A'05)
This story originally ran on Aug. 14, 2006.