Guest post by Annie Jacobs
One highway travels from the north of Israel to Eilat, straight through the desert landscape and flat-topped Acacia trees of the Arava Rift Valley. This valley is a great seam stretching between Israel’s chalky Eilat Mountains, and Jordan’s rippled Edom Mountains. It’s all part of the Syrio-African Rift Valley—a twenty million-year-old geological tear extending from Southern Turkey south through Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, and along eastern Africa to Mozambique. Such geology predates political borders; it is far older than human conflict.
I get off the bus before it reaches Eilat, at The Arava Institute For Environmental Studies. Over the course of a decade, I’ve attended the Institute as an American student and intern three times, for a total of two and half years. This place has given me the hope I carry for peace in a region where two peoples—Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs—are in conflict over land, water, and religious sites.
With the premise that “Nature Knows No Borders,” the Institute is an undergraduate and graduate college program for Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and international students. Courses and fieldwork address regional environmental topics, such as water policy, alternative energy, and wildlife ecology, and there is also a weekly peace-building seminar.
Young men and women travel across boundaries to be here. As they learn to live and work with together, each must challenge questions within themselves and their societies. For many Israelis and Palestinians, the relationships formed are unprecedented, as they’ve known mostly distance or violence in regard to each other.
Witnessing new connections and ongoing conversations, I have begun to believe that a peaceful society for Israelis and Palestinians might be possible, but only if individuals and larger institutions on both sides can fully recognize the other’s right to live in safety and comfort. From where might such recognition arise?
Perhaps the most important thing we learn in the Arava Rift Valley, is to hear each other’s stories. Where are you from, and what is your home? Why are you here? How can we work together? From there, we become family. What will we do for our world, once we leave this quiet desert, this family?
During a recent Arava alumni retreat in Wadi Rum, Jordan, I interviewed several women who had studied at the Institute. Among smooth sandstone hills, I asked them where they were from, what brought them to the Institute, the challenges and changes they experienced, and what they are doing now.
I spoke with Noa, a 32-year old woman from Israel, and Abeer, a 25-year old woman from the West Bank.
AJ: Where are you from, and what is your home now?
Noa: I have a home where my stuff is—right now I live in Jaffa, a Jewish and Arab mixed city. I come from Ashdod, a city near Tel Aviv. My mother’s parents came from Hungary. They are Holocaust survivors who were in Aushwitz. They made Aliya [immigration to Israel] in 1947 and went to Afula. My father’s family is from Tunisia. He was born there and then made Aliya.
Abeer: I am from Palestine, from a village and agricultural village near Bethlehem that grows grapes. I am the 5th in the family. The village is between a refugee camp and our original village, outside of Hebron. We are not refugees, but my elementary school was in the refugee camp.
AJ: How did you choose the Arava Insitute?
Abeer: After finishing my undergraduate degree in chemistry, I asked my teachers at Bethlehem University about environmental studies, and they said it is a good option for the future. I told them I would be studying in Israel and asked if I would still be able to work with Palestinians afterwards, and they said yes. But it was a difficult decision, considering the conflict, and in the beginning my father didn’t agree with the idea.
Noa: Nature—I was interested in nature—animals and plants, and I really wanted to know more about them. Then I understood that the program was also about the conflict, and I felt I also wanted to know more about this.
Describe your experience at the Institute and what changed for you.
Abeer: At Arava, I found something new, to live with the Jewish people for one year. We were eating together, doing everything together as a family—these different cultures, different backgrounds, different perspectives. When we talked about the history, it was difficult. We told different histories, like what happened in 1948 [when Israel won the War of Independence]. This is what we call the Nakba, or the Disaster, when Palestinians were forced to leave their homes.
Noa: I think that I got some answers about the conflict. I got to know what to ask, and began to understand this thing between Palestinians and Jews. The Institute introduced me to the idea that I can speak freely with Arabs, that we can have a common language. Before, I never had the opportunity to speak with them—especially people of my age and asking similar questions, such as “what are we doing with our lives?”
AJ: What are you doing now?
Noa: I have done different community art projects that I see my studies at Arava as a central motivation for. Now I am running a photography workshop for women in Jaffa—Arab women, Jewish women, Muslim & Christian—that has to do with making a statement. For women to create her own surroundings, her environment, taking a stand for what she believes in.
Abeer: I decided to continue with Arava to do my masters degree in environmental studies. I heard about the Arava Institute’s biogas renewable energy project in Susya, a Palestinian village in South Mount Hebron in the West Bank. Me and another girl, from Canada, had an idea for summer camp or some activity with children. So we created activities for the children about biogas, and also programs for adults.
AJ: These sound like fantastic projects. Noa, can you describe your photography project?
Noa: It is for my masters degree in Art Therapy, and it is a “participatory action research project.” The group met sixteen times during the last year and studied photography together, and the women were asked to bring up questions in their lives, and then go out and take pictures for their own personal projects. After that we had an exhibition in Jaffa. After the exhibition, we had gallery talks for the public.
Most of the questions were about Jaffa, about being a woman in Jaffa, about being Arab or Jewish. Some were about children, some were about a specific group of people living in Jaffa. Each woman tried to describe her faith in her community, or her environment.
AJ: What do you see coming out of the project?
Noa: The women are sharing their stories with each other. One of the strongest projects is from a Jewish woman who had grown up in Ajami, a poor neighborhood. When her parents died, she couldn’t afford to buy their home from the housing authority. After that, she didn’t go back to her home for ten years, even though she lived close by. Through this project, she went to the house and talked to the neighbors, and now it’s very alive experience for her. Another story is of an Arab woman who learned through the project that she really wants to make her own business and work independently, and so now she is starting to do that with photography and graphic design.
AJ: Abeer, can you describe your work in Susya?
Abeer: With the Arava Institute, we are doing the biogas work. Also, I am volunteering with “The Villages Group,” an organization of Israelis and Palestinians who help improve life in Palestinian villages. We’re starting an embroidery project for the women to have an income—selling pouches and other products, and I am the coordinator of that project. And, I am volunteering with an NGO in Ramalla: The Livestock Cooperative Union of Palestine. In Susya they are teaching livestock care for better-quality milk, and how to market dairy products. We’re hoping to have a festival for all of this and we will invite everyone involved—Israelis, Palestinians, and The Arava Institute.
AJ: Do you think you will continue working on projects in the West Bank?
Abeer: Yes. In Palestine, we need more environmental projects. For me, my life is full of work and I am busy all the time. This is good, even though it takes a long time to travel and sometimes my father is upset, when I come home late from work. But I say to him, “Really, what is the other option? This is a good job.” But also, there is something else—I can’t leave Susya and the work there now. I feel I am part of the community.
AJ: Is your family proud of you?
Abeer: They know that I want this and I love this. And for my family, the first thing that matters is that I do something that I want. Really I want to invite my family to Susya. Without my mother and father I couldn’t do all of these things, because they support me in what I do.
Annie Jacobs has worked for ten years in environmental non-profits and was a student and staff at the Arava Institute For Environmental Studies in Israel. She was an editor for the 15th issue of the literary journal, Whole Terrain. Annie writes poetry, essays, non-fiction, and enjoys visual art and writing for children. Among her adventures, Annie has lived in New England, Delaware, and Israel. Wherever she goes, she is sure to take walks in nature.