Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Invest in Peace Through Environmentalism and Social Justice

Amidst all the noise of “Israeli Apartheid Week,” it’s sometimes hard to hear the voices of calm and reason, from people more concerned to make the world a better place than just make a point.

My students had the opportunity to do just that last week when representatives of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies came to the class on secular Jewish culture that Rachel Rubinstein and I teach together. Located at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert on the border of Israel and Jordan, the Institute was an early outgrowth of the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries. Students from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and other Middle Eastern lands as well as North America work and study together in four accredited programs, ranging from summer study to a full two-year Master’s in Desert and Environmental Studies.

As both Special Projects Director Michael Cohen and the two visiting graduates assured us, the undertaking is challenging and rewarding in equal measure. The Israeli student noted that, although she came from a left-wing family and of course encountered Arabs in daily life, it was only at the Institute that she had an opportunity for real personal engagement with them and came to understand their experience and perspectives. The Jordanian related the difficulties that students from Arab or Muslim lands face just by virtue of deciding to participate in the program. Some are unable to tell their families that they will be living in Israel, and have to pretend that they are in Egypt or another "acceptable" locale. In Jordan, the peace treaty notwithstanding, several professional organizations (including both engineers and journalists) have blacklisted colleagues for having dealings with Israelis or visiting Israel. Coming together out of a shared desire for environmental activism and peace cannot eliminate differences in political convictions and narratives, yet the commitment to a common goal coupled with the fact of daily shared tasks and physical space forces participants to emphasize commonalities and keep any disagreements within civil bounds.

The motto of the institute is “preserving nature, building peace,” and it rests on the conviction that “nature has no borders.” As the visiting Jordanian engineer explained, trying to solve an environmental problem in a national context can actually cause a greater problem. Restoring the health of the Jordan River and preventing the Dead Sea from disappearing are challenges that require Arab-Israeli cooperation. In that sense, the practical lesson of the environment can serve as a metaphor for the political world, as well. Students come to understand that their home is not just a country, but the entire region.

As Executive Director David Lehrer says, “if one side loses, both sides lose.” Another teacher observes,“We are 20 years ahead of the rest of the country, 20 years ahead of the rest of the region.” Isn’t that a lesson we should all learn, and isn’t that where we should all strive to be?

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