The September normalization conference featured speakers from The Sons of Iraq movement, pictured here at their own conference in 2008.

What This Meeting of Iraqi Leaders Should Teach Us and Our Educators

More than 300 Iraqi leaders met in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil to demand their country join the Abraham Accords and forge ties with the Jewish state on September 24, 2021. The Abraham Accords, which were reached in August 2020, are a set of peace treaties between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Israel, and the United States of America. These agreements signified more Arab states’ willingness to recognize, and interact with, Israel in a meaningful way.

This unprecedented conference was initiated by a small private American organization called the Center for Peace Communications. The group’s president, Joseph Braude, is an Iraqi Jew, whose great-great-great-grandfather was the chief rabbi of Baghdad. He founded this organization with the mission of fostering people-to-people ties between Arabs and Israelis. 

The Arab leaders in attendance came from all over Iraq, and notably, adhered to both Sunni and Shia streams of Islam. Sunni and Shia, the two main sects of Islam, historically have had a bitter rivalry, and frequently refuse to work with each other in governments. The conference showed cooperation between many Arab factions, as has not been seen in years. Most importantly though, the demonstration showed the world that many in the Middle East are willing to forge ties with Israel, and Jews worldwide, with Iraqi officials stating that “they continue to stand by the victims of the Holocaust.” 

A particularly noteworthy highlight of the conference was delivered by the most well-known and influential speaker present, Sheikh Wisam Al-Hardan, who led the “Sons of Iraq Awakening” movement– the Sunni fighters who resisted against ISIS and Al-Qaeda by setting up checkpoints and patrols.

 At the conference in September, the Sheikh strongly demanded “full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel,” and dismissed Iraq’s anti-normalization laws that criminalize associating with Zionists. “We must choose between tyranny and chaos on the one hand, and an emerging axis of legality, decency, peace, and progress on the other,” Al-Hardan boldly proclaimed. 

Another notable speaker at the conference was Chemi Peres, the son of the late Israeli President Shimon Peres, who furthered the call for normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel.

The conference closed with a powerful speech given by Sahar al-Tai, the head of research at the Iraqi federal government’s culture ministry. She proclaimed, “No force, local or foreign, has the right to prevent this call.” Her speech further proved that Iraq is willing to move forward into the modern world and normalize and continue to develop diplomatic relations with Israel. 

While it might outwardly seem that the initiative was a success, many criticized it for its failures; arrest warrants for those in attendance were immediately put up after the conference came to a close, and many speakers issued statements saying they were coerced into declaring support for Zionism. Some began to deny they had attended in the first place. According to the Iraq News Agency (INA), Iraqi authorities announced that they would arrest all 300 participants once they had been identified.” 

When researching the content of this conference, I struggled to find trustworthy sources to work with. I needed to use specific key search words to find any coverage. It appeared to me that most news agencies viewed this unprecedented event, not by the actual speeches made, but by the major backlash it received.

In fact, the only reason I found out about this event in the first place, was not through mainstream channels like social media or newspapers, but through a specialized speaker who was recently invited by the captains of my school’s Model UN club, of which I am a member, to speak about the changing state of Arab-Israeli politics. To be clear, he was invited by students, not school administration, and only spoke to about 30 of us who were in attendance.

When I, and most of my classmates, learned about this conference, we were shocked that our Jewish day school had failed to report this event to us and that we hadn’t heard about it from other news or social media sources. 

This situation highlighted a pattern that my friends and I notice, which I feel inhibits Jewish teens from reaching their full potential, is the overprotectiveness of adults when it comes to creating space to discuss current events.  Shielding adolescents from failures– or deprioritizing this– prevents us from truly understanding the world, and learning to be advocates armed with the facts on the ground, however dark some realities may be. Further, I believe that even if something, like this conference, might be deemed a failure by others, it is still worth reporting it and learning from it. 

The dilemma that faces us is to what extent our schools are responsible for educating us about worldly news, and especially concerning Jewish day schools, news relating to Israel and worldwide Jewry. I believe the answer is that schools have a duty to report both significant wins and losses, as well as the uncensored truth which is often much messier. Schools should not be afraid that their students will crumble if they hear the truth.

Elizabeth Ciment is a sophomore at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in NYC. She is a staff writer for Fresh Ink for Teens. She enjoys rock climbing, doing flying trapeze, and baking desserts in her spare time.

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