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Nature has no borders at Arava

sraeli, Palestinian and Jordanian students of the Arava Institute attend a required class where they are encouraged to ‘talk about what they don’t want to talk about.


WHAT happens to a peace dialogue when peace is shattered?

David Lehrer — a big believer in dialogue between Middle East antagonists — provides a stark if unsurprising answer.

“If you bring people together just around the concept of peace, then when something happens like what happened two weeks ago between Gaza and Israel, your program disintegrates because you have nothing to discuss.”

Lehrer, the executive director of the Arava Institute, thinks a far more workable platform for fruitful Israeli-Arab discussion is when they are gathered around “an issue that doesn’t go away just because people start lobbing bombs at each other.”

Such as land.

“After the smoke clears,” Lehrer says of Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and others in the region, “we’re still sharing the same water, the same air, the same issues about conservation and natural resource management.”

There might be official borders between their countries and territories, there might be different languages, cultures, religions and political systems dividing them, but Middle Easterners have no choice but to accept the fact that they share the same land.

“Is there any more basic natural resource than land?” Lehrer asks.

“That’s what the whole conflict is about. We’re trying to focus people on what the real issues are, and that the only way to deal with those real issues is to work through them cooperatively.”

That’s the mission of the Arava Institute, an institution he describes as an “academic research center for environmental leadership in the Middle East.”

Among its current students are Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. In previous years, it has also included Moroccans, Tunisians, Egyptians and Turks.

They all study land — how to keep it sustainable, how not to waste or destroy it, how to make it work for the humans whose lives depend upon it.

In the process, they learn how to work together — even when bullets and missiles are flying.

“A lot of people look at the Middle East and see the source of all the world’s ills,” Lehrer says. “They see war, they see nuclear threats, they see oil, they see deserts.”

Lehrer sees something quite different.

“I want to show the world that working together is going to bring a lot more benefits to us than constantly fighting,” he says.

“While cooperation and conciliation are not necessarily the business we’re in, it’s the way we do business.”

THE American-born Lehrer has worked in economics and management for much of his life, but his interest in environmental activism started early. He states with pride that he was a 13-year-old participant in the first-ever Earth Day parade which took place in 1970.

He has been an Israeli since 1978 and resides today on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s Arava Valley, a hyper-arid and ultra-remote region that is climatically and geologically distinct from, but still a part of, the Negev Desert.

He jokes that his current profession is “kibbutznik,” but it’s obvious that his work with the Arava Institute — located on Kibbutz Ketura — is a very time-consuming and demanding responsibility.  He is also currently enrolled in a PhD program in environmental economics at Ben Gurion University.

Lehrer was in Denver last week to raise local awareness of, and funds for, the institute. His visit was organized by supporters of the Mountain States region of JNF, which considers the Arava Institute a partner organization.

According to local activist Michael Marcus, an executive committee member of the Denver chapter of Friends of the Arava Institute, Colorado supporters raised $1 million over the last four years for construction of a new dormitory at the Arava Institute.

The new dorm is scheduled to be formally dedicated later this month.

The students who will be residing in that dorm will be participants in the institute’s BGU-accredited academic program that runs along master’s and undergraduate study tracks, offering degrees in several environmental studies disciplines.

“We usually teach about 10 courses a semester,” Lehrer says, “a mix of natural sciences such as renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, environmental studies, ecology and social studies such as environmental law and policy, environmental education, ethics, religion and the environment.”

In a nutshell: “We bring Jews and Arabs together — Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians — to teach that nature has no borders. Our philosophy is we live in a very small area, together with our neighbors, and the environmental challenges that we face are the same environmental challenges that our neighbors face.

“The only way to deal with them is to work in a cooperative manner on the natural resources which are all shared — water, air, ecosystems.”

In Kibbutz Ketura, the diverse students live and study side by side.

“You’ve got Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and international students all sitting together, learning in the same classroom, living on the same campuses, eating together in the same dining room.

“We bring people together to show the common concerns and interests that we have for the region, and to highlight the fact that our mutual concerns are much greater than our differences.”

The Arava Institute also has a wide range of research programs in several concentrations: renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, trans-boundary water management, nature conservation and ecosystem studies. All the research centers have both Israeli and Arab researchers.

Lehrer calls it “cross-border research on an academic level.”

The program is already bringing tangible results.

One is the formation of the Arava Power Company, Israel’s leading renewable energy company with a five-megawatt solar power station and plans to eventually generate up to 300 megawatts of exclusively solar-sourced electricity.

The firm’s genesis came when a visiting scholar and a Jordanian student at the institute got together to talk.

“That conversation turned into an idea which turned into an business plan which turned into a Power Point presentation,” Lehrer says. “We went from a Power Point to a power station.”

ALTHOUGH located in the Arava, the Arava Institute does not limit its research to — or even concentrate primarily on — that beautiful, arid valley.

It considers its main area of environmental interest the region incorporating Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. On a larger scale, the entire Middle East is of significant concern.

The environmental concerns within this region are no less troubling to Lehrer than the political strife that seem inimical to it.

“If we continue to disregard the needs of this land, this land that we all claim we love, that we love so much we’re killing each other over it; if we continue to disregard what we’re doing to the water resources, how we’re overdeveloping the country, how we’re eating up all of our biodiversity by building, building, building, by neglect, by not being thoughtful about what we should do with those limited natural resources . . . ”

Lehrer does not complete his sentence, but the dire implications he puts forward are clear enough.

The Jordan River, despite its religious and historical importance — Lehrer calls it “an inspiration to three religions” — is today essentially a conduit for sewage.

The Dead Sea, a major tourist attraction for all of the peoples in the region, is polluted and drying up, largely because, in Lehrer’s opinion, “we’re sucking all of the water out of the Dead Sea basin.”

Israel’s fabled wetlands, a crucial stopping place for millions of migratory birds, are also drying up at an alarming rate.

Global warming, a meteorological trend that Lehrer wholly accepts as reality, is already affecting an already hot and bone dry region. His own Arava, he says, is receiving about one-half of the annual rainfall it received 25 years ago.

“So there’s no question that we all need to work together to find solutions.”

THAT, Lehrer says, is precisely why the Arava Institute exists. It not only teaches, but is actively involved with, such projects as sharing water resources between Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians; water desalination projects; wastewater treatment and recycling programs; sustainable agriculture methods.

For example, the institute is researching the cultivation of trees in regions that are hot and dry and in soil that is highly saline. The objective is to develop trees that not only grow and thrive in such conditions but produce cash crops and gradually enrich the soil in which they are grown.

In many of these areas, Israel has already established a global reputation for innovative and successful approaches to environmental challenges, Lehrer points out.

“Israel has the technology,” he says, “but it’s not being shared. Solving Israel’s water problems will not solve the Palestinian and Jordanian water problems. It’s leaving an open wound, a source of conflict for the future.”

Israel’s last significant open and undeveloped region, the Negev Desert, is another area of major concern to the Arava Institute.

While Lehrer acknowledges that human development — Israeli and perhaps also Palestinian, depending on what sort of peace agreement might one day be signed — is almost surely going to take place in the Negev, he wants such development to happen gradually and intelligently, with environmental concerns in mind.

“It’s certainly one of the last areas of open space that Israel has for expanding cities and town,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s the last area of open space that Israel has, so it’s also something that we want to think about in terms of conservation and nature.

“World trends today are actually going toward urbanization,” Lehrer says, mentioning “mega-cities” and concentrated urban centers with largely “vertical” construction.

He is hopeful that this trend will help preserve at least some of the Negev’s natural state.

“In terms of environment and the limited resources that Israel and the Palestinians have, we want to see how we can best utilize our limited resources and not necessarily spread ourselves all over the desert, a place which has its own value.”

THE people who will dedicate their intelligence and energy to such issues include today’s students at the Arava Institute, most of whom, Lehrer says, will find work in environmental fields and stick with those careers.

He is unreserved in his admiration for them, especially considering some of the difficulties they face.

Palestinian students at the institute must go through exhaustive security procedures to attend the institute.

It’s even more challenging for prospective Jordanian students.

“Israel doesn’t make it easy for Jordanians to come to Israel,” Lehrer says. “There’s a pretty serious security process.

“Also, while Jordan officially has a peace treaty with Israel and the government is in favor of cross-border cooperation, Jordanian society as a whole doesn’t support it. For many of them, I think they’re quite brave that they choose to do so.”

Nor is it easy, at least at first, for the institute’s students to get along with each other. Although all are interested in the ecology of their region, they don’t necessarily leave their emotional or ideological baggage at home.

“What I think is unique about the Arava Institute in this cross-border dialogue is the fact that we’re really the only place in the Middle East, maybe in the world, where Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians are living together, studying together and working together,” Lehrer says

“They’re in a long-term intensive program where they have to find a way to communicate.”

The institute originally believed that the students would discuss and perhaps even resolve political, religious and social concerns among themselves, out of the classroom environment.

“But we realized after a short time that if students could actually live together for a semester or a year, they would just sort of smile at each other and not say what they really thought, or sometimes it could come out in a non-constructive way,” Lehrer says.

“So we realized that we needed something more formal and began to develop a program that is unique to the Arava Institute called the Peace-building and Environmental Leadership Seminar, or PELS.

“That’s a once-a-week required program for all students, not for credit, where we talk about what they don’t want to talk about. We talk about history, politics, religion, terrorism, occupation, war, borders.”

The PELS sessions, Lehrer says, are not usually placid affairs.

“They are often quite loud, and students at the end of the session will stomp out of the room, yelling at each other and slamming the door.

“But what makes the institute so special is that after the session is over, as angry as they are at each other, they all have to go back to the same campus where they’re living together, Jews and Arabs in the same room, sharing coffee and tea, sharing space.”

After all, Lehrer says with a smile, in the middle of the Arava there’s really no place to go.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere, so they have to get along. It’s a bit of a metaphor for the Middle East. It’s just too small a place to not get along.”

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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