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The best kept secret in the Middle East?

This past weekend, a peculiar group of people filled the Faculty Club of Harvard University. Some wore suits, and some had dreadlocks. Some wore a kippah (the traditional Jewish head covering for men), and others wore a Palestinian keffiyeh. Some people were Jewish, some were Arab, and some just had no shoes on.

Depending on one’s level of exposure to the Israel-Palestine conflict, this description of diversity might elicit warm feelings from some, and eye rolls from others. From my experience studying the conflict, I’ve learned that both reactions are valid, and both are true.

The event was the alumni conference of the Arava Institute, a small organization based in Israel that brings Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and internationals together for transboundary environmental research and study. I spent four months at the Institute last winter, living amongst one of the most interesting, diverse, and frankly bizarre communities in the Middle East.

I was thrilled to reunite with a few of the alumni from last year, mostly the American students, and one friend who ventured all the way from Ecuador. The alumni conference felt just like old times. We caught up on our lives, discussed the conflict with passion and frustration, and made politically incorrect jokes that I won’t repeat.

However, the American side to the organization felt different. We were no longer sitting barefoot in a hyper-arid desert, dancing dabke with Palestinian students to Britney Spears’ Toxic. Rather we were at Harvard, mixing with the Institute’s board of directors, wealthy donors, and a few celebrities on their public council.

I wasn’t sure what to make of all the pomp and circumstance. I have great love for the Institute, and the community it fosters. But this experience seemed to reinforce the criticism of peace-building NGOs, that they obscure power dynamics and make it seem like all we need to do to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict is get Muslims and Jews in a room together and give each other a hug (and from the Institute’s recent history, maybe a generation of biracial babies).

I don’t believe that hugs or procreation will solve the conflict. In addition to sharing a plate of hummus and learning about cross-border water scarcity, we need a radical re-distribution of power that involves the end to occupation and an affirmation of Palestinian rights. NGOs such as the Arava Institute can be an incredible voice for justice, and mediate inequality in an active and pragmatic manner. However, I don’t always see that happening. It isn’t enough simply to study and work together, or implement waste-water treatment systems in Bedouin communities. We can do more to ally ourselves with political justice, and I know that many of my fellow alumni agree.

When one of the board members said that he believed the Arava Institute was the best-kept secret in the Middle East, I just couldn’t get behind that statement. After all, many alumni are frustrated with the Institute. Not least of our dilemmas is the money that the Institute receives from the Jewish National Fund, a funding organization that is also complicit in demolishing Palestinian homes. How are we to maintain our integrity if we take money from them? It upset me to see the JNF’s logo on the Institute’s promotional material, with sugary professions such as “from conflict to cooperation,” simplifying both the work the Institute does and the power dynamics involved. We wish that we could get our funding elsewhere. But the Institute is a 20-year-old project, should it divest from itself? That would be both bravery and suicide. As alumni, we possess little power to make these kinds of decisions.

What the Arava Institute does at its best is not remove politics from environmental issues, but rather creates a space in which meaningful, constructive dialogue is possible. These are spaces in which a Palestinian hydrologist can demand answers on Gaza’s water crisis from the chief Israeli environmental negotiator of the Oslo Accords, and everyone else can chime in on the conversation.

My friend Jess, who was my rock when I was living there, put the essence of the Arava beautifully:

“At AIES, we were not fed bullshit. Nearly every single day, we talked about the conflict. We learned how the JNF destroyed Bedouin and Palestinian villages and disguised it as environmentalism. I heard a Palestinian tell stories of having family members arrested by Israeli police and being turned away at the border, even after receiving a permit to enter Israel. I heard an Israeli describe the PTSD that she lives with as a result of having bricks thrown at her while serving in the West Bank. These people were my friends. We argued and yelled, but we also listened. We sat through the pain of hearing what had been done to our friends at the hands of our own people.”

These types of spaces, in which we can deconstruct, contend with, and come to terms with the horrors of conflict shatter expectations and stereotypes of the Middle East. These conversations don’t happen in the U.N., and they certainly don’t happen enough on Dal’s campus. They happen because a grassroots network of people has the will and the creativity to expand their perspectives and bring diverse actors together.

Done right, transboundary work of any kind can mediate unequal power dynamics while maintaining respect for the diversity of identity, not just between Arabs and Jews but among them. At the conference, the Jewish student alumni (myself included) discussed with fervor how we might get our own communities to be better allies against the occupation. Not only in solidarity with Palestinians but also to save Israel from itself.

I believe in the vision of the Arava Institute wholeheartedly, because it is one of the few organizations that makes these conversations possible. I am also deeply critical of its structure, its leadership, and sometimes its lack of political will to contend with the problematic layers of power involved with development work in Israel-Palestine. Therefore, I don’t agree that the Institute itself is the best-kept secret in the Middle East, and it is especially not the solution to the conflict.

However, what gives me hope is that as a network of water engineers, activists, Fulbright scholars, and hippies, this group of people I am fortunate to be a part of continues to push for change. There is incredible bravery in fighting out loud for Palestinian rights through demonstrations and boycotts. Many of the Institute’s alumni attend and support both.

I also think there is bravery in resisting oppression in quiet ways. Through grassroots joint water management initiatives, and engaging in dialogue with the other.

The Arava Institute fosters a network in which people from vastly different backgrounds build trust and respect for one another. A group that can commemorate the Nakba (“catastrophe” for Palestinians) and Israeli independence day together is incredibly powerful. These communities, in which winning an argument matters less than understanding how two people can view the same land differently, have value and importance. While there are clear instances of right and wrong in the Israel-Palestine conflict, I defend dialogue initiatives because I’ve seen how people use them to ally with justice. A person who grows up with an attachment to Israel won’t fight against the occupation by being told their beliefs are illegitimate, but rather through an invitation to learn the history their narrative forgets.

That a small organization manages to create today what the Middle East could look like in a best-case scenario I believe is something to be proud of. The Arava Institute is far from perfect, but the community it creates might just be the Middle East’s best kept secret. Its alumni promote dialogue, but also assert to leaders that environmental issues are political and we won’t forget it. For now, we can only hope that they listen.


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