Standing before an auditorium filled with 130 high school students — many of whom seemed to be stuck in a post-lunch lull — Alan Luxenberg pointed to a screen where an unlabeled map of the Middle East appeared. He zoomed in on a portion of the image, then asked, "What are we looking at?"
He was met with silence.
"It's not a trick question," Luxenberg said to the students at Friends Select, a private Quaker school in Center City with a sizable portion of Jewish students.
One boy tentatively called out, "Israel," sounding more like he was asking a question than providing an answer.
Luxenberg, vice president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute — a Philadelphia-based think tank — and author of several textbooks geared for middle-school use on Islam and the Middle East, followed up with more questions.
"What was the area called before it was Israel?"
"Palestine?" a student offered.
From there, Luxenberg — a longtime Hebrew-school teacher — launched into an hourlong overview of the history of the land, from Roman times to the British Mandate of Palestine, and on to war between the Jews and neighboring Arab countries. There was one point he wanted to hit home: If you want to talk about the current conflict, you've got to understand that you're talking about 2,000 years of history.
The Global Impact
Luxenberg's talk fell smack-dab in the middle of a weeklong undertaking at the school. Regular classes and assignments were put on hold so students could explore the question: "What is the global impact of the Middle East — past, present and future?"
Students attended multiple lectures and panel discussions each day that discussed aspects of the history, politics, art, economy, geography and religion of the Middle East, while also viewing a series of films, including The Syrian Bride, about a Druze family in the Golan Heights.
Other topics included a panel discussion titled "Is Democracy Necessary in the Middle East?" featuring Rutgers University political scientist Eric Davis; Timothy Dibble, senior court analyst in the Abu Dhabi Judiciary Department; and Deborah Harrold, a political scientist at Bryn Mawr College.
They also worked on projects, such as writing their own news summaries; and even had the chance to gain exposure to Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi.
This marked the first time the school had ever undertaken such a project.
Why? The goal, said administrators, is to focus on a different world region each year: Next up, Central and South America.
When administrators and faculty at Friends Select began almost two years ago to plan for the intersession, they figured that some part of the vast region would make headlines when the program rolled around.
No one dreamed it would coincide with an uprising in Egypt, in addition to developments in Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen.
"It's amazing," said Rose Hagan, head of school, regarding the timing. "We felt we wanted to give students a basis, a foundation, to interpret the news that they are reading about."
Hagan asked students to keep a journal throughout the week and promised to read as many of them as possible.
The American Friends Service Committee — the international Quaker advocacy and relief organization based in Philadelphia — has for decades been considered a pro-Palestinian entity. There's no direct link between AFSC and the Friends schools.
But school officials said they hadn't heard concerns from parents or the wider Jewish community. Luxenberg said program planners appeared to be motivated only by a desire to educate kids and broaden their perspectives.
While he said that he tried hard to stick to the facts, Luxenberg did note that both sides have legitimate claims to statehood, and each needs to be prepared for compromises.
Ben Berhand, a junior and a member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, said he agreed with most of Luxenberg's presentation, but wished the speaker had presented a plausible solution to the conflict.
"I myself am an ardent supporter of the two-state solution, but it seems that every time a breakthrough might be made, something falls apart," Berhand wrote in an e-mail later that day.
A number of non-Jewish students said they appreciated the chance to learn more about the region in general and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular.
One senior, Darien Headen, said he wanted to learn more about "what can be done to lessen the tension and lessen the violence. Obviously, it's a really sad situation."