Monday, December 17, 2012

A step in the right direction by Sarah Friedman

I spent the weekend at Kibbutz Ketura, home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where I interned this summer. I was excited to go back and meet the students who arrived for the semester after I left - Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, Jordanians. Throughout the semester or year, they learn together about the environment and examine their political and personal preconceptions through a periodic Peace and Environmental Leadership seminar. The idea is to create regional leaders who will use shared understanding of shared environmental problems to improve regional cooperation on the environment and beyond. (“Nature knows no borders” is the Institute's slogan.) I was attracted to the Institute because of this approach, the extension of which was the foundation of my interest in the environment of the Middle East: the idea of peacebuilding through shared environmental concerns, that developing trust in a practical and emotionally lower-stakes area will enable existing partnerships – among students, academics, NGOs, governments - to more effectively tackle the greater political challenge of creating a mutually agreed-upon peace.

I loved being a part of the AIES community over the summer, but this time I got the full experience. With students, the place is spectacular: in the gorgeous emptiness of the Arava, in Israel but also in its own world, young people who would never otherwise interact are roommates and friends, spending every waking minute together in class, in the kibbutz dining hall, in the common spaces of the newly built dormitory, on hikes through the surrounding desert. Though their narratives are different, even conflicting, they build connections and understanding that will influence their professional and personal careers forever. Twice during the weekend, students and I discussed how we could solve the whole conflict. Our plans ranged from the ridiculous - build a second floor on top of the entire land so both sides can have it all! - to the painfully practical - '67 lines with land swaps, East Jerusalem to Palestine and West Jerusalem to Israel with some form of international control over the Holy Basin. It goes without saying that we were oversimplifying, but for people of such different backgrounds, each with divergent and dearly held narratives, to speak candidly if lightheartedly about solutions is a step in the right direction. We weren’t being flippant. We were joking around because the situation feels so hopeless: when individuals can connect on a meaningful level but our leaders and people cannot, it’s so sad that when our weeks of working toward a solution end, we have to laugh. It’s a step.

There are many of these small-scale, person-to-person, interfaith/intercultural/international peacebuilding efforts. They make a huge difference in the lives of participants, even if the participants are self-selecting from the start, already inclined to want to understand the other side. So these kinds of programs aren't a society-wide panacea. But hopefully participants will become effective leaders and inspire the rest. At the J Street conference in March, renowned Israeli author Amos Oz said it best: "I don't know who will be the leader or the leaders, who will carry out the necessary surgeries, but I know those leaders are already amongst us; they are alive. I wish I knew how old they are."

At the end of the weekend, the last night of Chanukah, I stood on the top floor of the dorms and looked at the mountain I'd hiked that morning. "Electricity Mountain" has nine big barrels of gas that are lit as a chanukiah every year. The kibbutz kids who became bar and bat mitzvahs that year hike up to light the "candles" every night. It's a beautiful site, visible from the whole kibbutz, the highway, and probably low-flying planes. I hope in the near future, that chanukiah will shine over a nation at peace, and thanks may be due to AIES alumni and others like them.