Nature Knows No Borders www.friendsofarava.org
June 2010www.arava.org
Dear Friend,  

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 region.

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.

Thank you.


RotaryFlotilla 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 reports.

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 walked over.

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 Allen,and 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 environment.

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.


Thank you.

Best Always,
 
 
 


David Weisberg, Executive Director
Friends of the Arava Institute

In This Issue
Flotilla Incident Affects Campus
Canadian Premier Visits
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Alumni Profile:
Hila Ackerman


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
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Friends of the Arava Institute is the North American fundraising arm of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, the premier teaching and research program in the Middle East, preparing future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region's environmental challenges.  For more information or to make a donation, please visit www.friendsofarava.org or contact us at 1-866-31-ARAVA (1-866-312-7282) or info@friendsofarava.org.