While the Arava Institute is located
in somewhat of a remote area of the desert, far from the action of Tel Aviv or
Jerusalem, or Ashdod or Gaza for that matter, it is certainly not insulated
from the news that affects it participants - be they Israeli, Palestinian,
Jordanian, or of other nationalities.
Students, alumni, faculty, and staff of the Arava Institute live within
the very real context of a region in conflict.
That conflict is in a way both the raison d'etre for the Institute's
existence and, at times, the greatest threat to its success. The triumph of the Arava Institute, over
almost fifteen years and various instances of regional strife, has been its
ability to create transcendent relationships based on the recognition that the
environment is a higher calling that links those in the region, regardless of
their political and cultural differences, and the heightened emotions that
sometimes accompany those differences.
We would be remiss in our
communications with you, our supporters, if this issue of the E-News did not
reference the very difficult circumstances regarding the Gaza flotilla incident
that occurred in the past few weeks.
Such situations are one of the true tests of the relationships built at
the Institute and their ability to withstand what can be severe divides in
order to continue working together for the betterment of people throughout the
With that being said, a significant
portion of this issue is dedicated to a special report from Arava Institute
Executive Director David Lehrer, providing his first-hand account of the
reaction of both the Arava Institute and its students to the recent conflict,
which is more than just a news story but instead a reality in their lives.
I encourage you not only to read David
Lehrer's account but also to share it with interested friends, family, and
colleagues by clicking here.
|Flotilla Incident Leads to Conflict, Communication
by Arava Institute Director David Lehrer
Weeks of heightened political tension
in the Middle East are the most difficult times for students and staff at the
Arava Institute. The flotilla incident off the coast of Gaza generated
anger and conflict among our students. At the same time, the mixed feelings of
both staff and students towards the situation also created internal conflicts
inside each one of us as we listened to the news and watched the television
Before the week started, we had been planning on sending the students on a two-day
trip to Jerusalem as part of the Peace Building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS).
On Monday, when the events began to unfold on the news, the staff met to
discuss whether or not it was right and safe to send the students on the trip.
The original program of the trip was to meet with politicians, journalists,
human rights activists, and alumni involved in an environmental project. The
staff decided to go ahead with the trip but to make some adjustments to the
program in order to avoid meetings in East Jerusalem.
In the meantime, the student life staff worked to create a safe space for the
students to release their feelings in a way that would avoid hurting each other
and would enable the program to continue to function. That evening, the staff helped
the students organize an internal discussion that allowed them to exchange
opinions and to get out their anger. It was a difficult discussion, but the
students used the many tools they had learned in PELS which enabled them to say
difficult things to one another without things falling apart. Michelle Shachar,
head of PELS and Student Life, and I made a strategic decision not to participate
in the discussion but to give the students their space. Program associates
were present, but the students ran the discussion themselves, and it went on
until the wee hours of the night. We understand that it was a very difficult
discussion and that some students left still angry and conflicted.
Despite the difficulty, it seems that this session was enough to enable
students to continue in the day-to-day campus life, going to class together,
eating in the dining room, and preparing for the upcoming field trip. The night after the flotilla incident, I sat in front of the
television, falling deeper and deeper into depression as I watched the Israeli
and international coverage of the tragic events off the coast of Gaza.
Suddenly I was reminded of a birthday party for Shira Kronich, one of our staff
members. My wife Barbara and I were both happy to escape the television and
We walked into the coffee house as if we were entering a dream. About thirty
students had organized a surprise party for Shira. The students, Israelis,
Palestinians, Jordanians and North Americans, were all sitting
together around one long table, smiling, laughing, and telling jokes. As soon
as Shira walked in, they burst into singing "Happy Birthday" in three languages.
They acted like a group of students anywhere else in the world, happy to take a
break from studies and just enjoy being together.
On Thursday afternoon, the students left for the field trip. In Tel Aviv, they
met with Tania Hary, Director of International Relations of Gisha,
an Israeli NGO whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians
through the Israeli legal system. Gisha was the organization which helped the
Arava Institute win its case to allow Palestinian students to study at the Institute.
Tania gave the students a vivid description of life in Gaza and some of the
challenges faced by Gazan and West Bank Palestinians to travel.
Obviously, many of our own students had no problem relating to these issues on
a personal level.
The next morning, the students heard from two journalists, Amira Hass, who writes for
the Israeli daily newspaper "Haaretz," and Tom Weiss, who hosts an American
radio program called "The Ambassadors Show." Amira and Tom
(both Israelis) represent very different perspectives on the blockade of Gaza
and the discussion was quite lively. Students participated fully in the
discussions, asking questions, arguing, and engaging in an issue that even for
the North American students is very personal. After lunch, the field trip
closed with a talk from the co-directors of the Israel Palestine Center for Research
and Information, Gershon Baskin and Hanna Senora. Hanna spoke
as a Palestinian about the general mood of the Palestinian people, while
Gershon concentrated on what he believes must happen in order for the proximity talks to succeed.
Surprisingly, with all that is happening in the Middle East, both Hanna and
Gershon are optimistic that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is within
reach. It was nice to finish the field
trip and the week in general with a hopeful message.
As this tough week came to a close, I was filled with awe at the continued
courage and resilience of our students. It is an unfortunate reality in this part
of the world that as soon as conflict breaks out, the first thing that happens
is the end of discourse. It is perceived as not honorable for enemies to speak
to enemies, and so often the secondary casualties of violence in the Middle
East are the very coexistence activities between Palestinians and Jews that are
designed to lead us out of the cycle of violence. The small revolution that is
taking place at the Arava Institute is that the first thing that our students
do in a time of conflict and crisis is to meet and talk. The
talks are difficult, but that is how trust is built, by knowing you can say
harsh things and still remain friends.
Canadian Premier, Delegation Visit Institute
Arava Students Meet Premier McGuinty In May, the Premier
of Ontario, Canada, Dalton McGuinty, the Canadian Ambassador to Israel, Jon
a group of Ontario business leaders and reporters visited the Arava Institute.
The Premier met with students in the Kibbutz Community Center (which also
serves as a classroom for the institute). Students, staff, regional council
staff, members of the Jewish Agency
staff, and the Ontario delegation crowded into the classroom in order to hear
four Arava Institute students, a Jordanian, a Palestinian, an Israeli, and a Canadian,
introduce themselves and tell a little bit about their background and about the Institute.
Afterwards, the Premier himself gave a very inspiring speech to the
students, recognizing the uniqueness of the Institute and the importance of the
message that only by working together can we achieve sustainability and peace
for the planet. The Premier praised the work of the Institute and the courage
of the students. Udi
Gat, the Hevel Eilot Regional Council Chair, closed the session
by thanking the Premier for visiting the institute and the region. After the
meeting, the Premier was taken on a tour of the Center for Renewable
Energy and Energy Conservation by Dr. Tareq Abu Hamed.
While the fact that the students and
alumni of the Arava Institute have risen above the politics of the recent
flotilla incident is certainly moving, it should - to those who are familiar
with the Arava Institute story - perhaps no longer be surprising.
Throughout the past fourteen years in
decades of Middle East conflict, whether it be the stories that
make the front page of the world's newspapers or the everyday challenges that
exist living in such a challenging region, the students and alumni of the Arava
Institute have stuck together, bound by the glue, the common cause that is the
While it is our hope that someday this
type of cooperation will lead to a time when conflict diminishes and eventually disappears, the Arava
Institute's magic is in its understanding that the ultimate path to coexistence
will most likely not be achieved by politicians working on the macro-level but
by people- and particularly young people - working together on the micro-level
to build trust and understanding in order to improve the quality of life for those on all
sides of the borders.
If you were moved by the stories in
this month's issue of the E-news and wish to continue enabling the heroic work
of Arava Institute students and alumni, I encourage you to consider making a
contribution today by clicking here.
David Weisberg, Executive Director
Friends of the Arava Institute
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in the News
Hila Ackerman, an Arava Institute
graduate from the 2004-2005 year,
continued her research work on rehabilitating streams at the Institute for
Desert Studies in Sde Boker, receiving her master's degree in 2007.
Today, Hila is the Director of the Environmental Unit at Ramat HaNegev Regional
Council, which is the largest Regional Council in Israel (covering about 22% of
Israel's territory). Hila's work incorporates environmental education,
environmental planning, waste recycling, and other environmental hazards. Hila
is the first person to fill this role with the Council, and works to raise
environmental awareness among authorities and residents. Her work resulted in a
number of significant achievements including initiating the "Eco-cinema
Desert Festival," establishment of recycling facilities and separation of
household waste in the Council, and working on a master plan for the
sustainable development of the Negev.
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October 19-26, 2010