As soon as the assembly finished, sophomore journalists Noam Goldberg-Kellman and Charlie Samuels weaved their way toward the man who today’s center of attention.
The bearded, bespectacled man in front of them in SAR High School’s auditorium wasn’t just anyone. It was former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.
Between the rush of students gathered around him, and the prime minister’s schedule, the teen reporters squeezed in two questions. Barak showed up at the West 259th Street school Monday to celebrate the 70th birthday of his country, and neither Samuels nor Goldberg-Kellman were afraid to raise difficult questions about Iran’s nuclear deal and the perception of Israel’s military.
“I was against the deal,” Barak said about the Barack Obama-era agreement that was supposed to bring an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons research in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. “It was a bad deal, but once it was signed by Obama, it became a reality. It’s not Obama alone, it’s the other five parties part of it. And then we have Trump, and he basically tries to deal with issues that are out of the agreement.”
During the assembly, which was a fireside chat between principal Tully Harcsztark and the former Israeli official, students beyond the young journalists were able to ask Barak questions that only a former prime minister could answer.
“It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and an especially interesting time he came down with everything occurring in the Israeli and Palestinian conflict,” Samuels said. “I try my best to be informed on a lot of these issues, and a lot of the problem comes from lack of knowledge. Hearing from these people in person, you’re really getting some truth about what is actually going on.”
Barak’s visit coincided with Israeli snipers gunning down 60 Palestinians in Gaza, who reports say were protesting the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, the uniqueness of May 14 only grows, as on that same date in 1948, first prime minister Ben Gurion publicly read the country’s declaration of becoming an independent state for the first time.
“I see people on their phones and they’re not texting,” Samuels said. “People are Googling ‘Iran’ and ‘Palestine,’ and it shows how much we as students are affected.”
Samuels and Goldberg-Kellman keep their peers informed of Israeli politics through their newsletter, Ha Oketz, which translated from Hebrew means “The Sting.” Not only do they cover politics, but other interests like technology and innovation.
When Goldberg-Kellman asked Barak about Israel’s military, the prime minister said, solemnly, “One too many die, but I hardly see a way to avoid it.”
Barak served as the 10th prime minister of Israel from 1999 to 2001 and is one of the most decorated soldiers in Israel’s history.
Goldberg-Kellman refers to Barak as a living source of information, not only because of his knowledge, but his first-hand accounts as well.
“We can ask our teacher about Trump pulling out of the Iran deal, or we can ask him,” Goldberg-Kellman said of Barak. “This day is very politically charged.”
The former prime minister spoke on the unpredictability of America and shared how nonsensical it seemed to make an agreement with America when the next president could easily change their mind and select a different path. At the assembly, Barak also encouraged students to read his book “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace.”
“The exam is early next week,” he joked.
Barak’s presence at the school helped provide a sense of relief and comfort, at least for Samuels.
“This interaction stifled some of the fears we’ve been having,” he said.
Saying that the “border should be respected,” Barak spoke to the SAR students about protecting the security of Israel from anyone, Palestinian or not. He spoke about “putting a wedge” on what he called a “slippery slope.” Barak also took the time to commend SAR on its commitment to instilling Jewish values within their students.
“Keeping Jewish community in the diaspora is as important as training Jewish soldiers,” Barak said. “You are the living core of this Jewish continuum.”