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How a group of high schoolers in NH are trying to grapple with the Israel-Hamas war

Sarah Gibson
Shivam Mathur, a junior, is representing France as his Model UN class debates how to resolve the Israel-Hamas war.

One recent morning at Alvirne High School in Hudson, six students huddled together, discussing an upcoming presentation. Placards with the names of countries — Lebanon, Syria, Qatar — stood on their desks. And a projection on the white board read, “General Assembly First Committee: Peaceful Resolution for Israel and Hamas.”

These students are part of an elective Model United Nations class. Much of the course involves a simulation: After learning about a real-world conflict, each student represents a different country and form alliances with other nations (in this case, their classmates) to find solutions. A hallmark is trying to understand a country’s position on a specific foreign policy issue, even if you personally don’t agree with it.

In October, soon after Hamas attacked Israel, students decided to focus on the Israel-Hamas war. The conflict has generated deep divisions on college campuses, the presidential primary campaign trail and social media. But in this classroom, teacher Tyler McAlevy said one of his goals is to help students understand the historical context for the conflict and to engage with the news thoughtfully.

“You have to watch the news and see how things unfold,” he said. “The curriculum is a lot more, kind of in a gray area right now, especially because it's an ongoing conflict.”

Sarah Gibson
Social Studies teacher Tyler McElevey looks on as Adam Wibowo, representing Saudia Arabia, asks about the possibility of future elections in Palestine.

None of the students have a personal connection to the conflict. With that in mind, McAlevy is trying to figure out how to make sure the gravity of the situation isn’t lost on them — particularly as it’s filtered through their social media feeds.

“They can at any moment take out their phone and see, like a dead Palestinian child just scrolling through TikTok or Instagram — like I've, I myself have unfortunately seen that,” McAlevy said. “And it does kind of, I guess, lessen the impact of the horrific images. And I don't know how to balance or offset that.”

One of his strategies was bringing in two guest speakers who live in New Hampshire: a former Israeli soldier with family in Israel, and a Muslim Lebanese-American columnist with friends in Palestine. Neither attempted to speak on behalf of Israelis or Palestinians, but they shared their perspectives on the conflict, its history and the lives it has destroyed. Senior Ryan Haley said those conversations were invaluable, especially given the relatively small Muslim and Jewish populations in New Hampshire.

“We don't have that much diversity, and it's hard to kind of relate and connect with an issue,” Haley said. “So I think it's important to be speaking with people and finding people through social media or in real life that are connected to this issue and understanding, um, kind of the repercussions of what's going on.”

As students sift through breaking news, they’ve had to get better at spotting misinformation. One student said he's found videos supporting Hamas that include blatant lies. Another, Ryan Dussault, noted the Israeli government’s claim that they found a document suggesting Hamas was holding hostages inside a Gaza hospital. In fact, as reported by NBC News and other outlets, it was a calendar in Arabic.

“I can't read Arabic,” Dussault said. “So I have to look that up to see what it means.”

Sarah Gibson
After debating different ways to resolve the Israel-Hamas war, students representing different countries draft up resolutions in the official format used by the United Nations.

McAlevy said they often devote time in class to discussing what they’re seeing on social media and in the news, and how to vet sources.

All this research sets the stage for the main goal of this unit: working with their classmates to come up with a potential solution to the war. And they’re using lots of different tools to figure out where their assigned countries stand, everything from the BBC to the popular artificial intelligence program, ChatGPT. Ryan Haley turned to a local news site to better understand his assigned country, Lebanon.

“It's a first hand account from a Lebanese citizen talking about their society as a whole and their economic structure,” he said. “And that was super helpful for me to get a grasp on what these people are actually feeling and how they feel about this war that's going on right next door.”

Aiden Nehiley, who is representing Syria, said the class has helped him practice understanding different perspectives. He said he holds very different beliefs than the actual Syrian government, which doesn’t recognize Israel as a country.

“I think it's a good skill to have, because you can look at the bigger picture of what both sides think, rather than just your own personal bias,” he said.

Preston Ball, a senior, said the class is forcing him to confront the complexity of foreign relations. Even though he’s participating in Model UN, he said he’s grown skeptical of the real UN’s ability to promote peace.

He’s representing Qatar, which has close ties to Hamas, but he personally sees Hamas as a terrorist organization.

As he’s tried to get into the mindset of his assigned country, he says he’s grown concerned about the lives of Palestinian civilians.

“I didn't know the historical information, the oppression that these people have been facing for over 60 years, since World War II,” Ball said. “So I would say the class has given me a train of thought of both parties versus just one.”

The class wrapped up its unit last week, but McAlevy, the teacher, urged students to keep paying attention — as the conflict for the real United Nations, and millions of people, is far from over.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.