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NGOs and the Peace Process: The Arava Institute as a Case Study

February 2, 2013

by Rabbi Michael Cohen

The Israeli Declaration of Independence, in explaining the basis on which the State of Israel was to be established, states, “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” A Provisional State Council was immediately created, to be replaced within a year by the seating of the First Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, on the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat, February 14, 1949. The function of the Knesset, like other institutions within democratic systems around the world, is to make political decisions for the nation. But there is another layer to democracies, which may not get as much attention (or funding), but serve a very important role: the Non-Government Organizations, or NGOs.

It can be argued in some ways the NGOs are more effective than the governments themselves when it comes to implementing policy. One area where that can be seen is when it comes to relations among Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians.

Some history first. If, ninety years ago, someone had said that England, France, and Germany would become the strongest of allies, with integrated economies, he would have been laughed out of the room. Forty years later, that impossible vision had become a reality. It was made possible because a lesson of history was not lost; the mistake made after World War I of severely punishing Germany through the Treaty of Versailles was not repeated after World War II. Rather, Germany was allowed to rebuild, both economically and politically.

In addition, through the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan, the countries of Europe moved toward integration. With the exception of the Balkan wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia, that integration has led to a period of peace in Europe that has not been seen for centuries. One of the key ingredients to that success has been that nations were pushed to work with each other in various endeavors and formats, and in the process relationships were forged.

That lesson has been lost on successive U.S. administrations regarding the Middle East. Billions and billions of taxpayers dollars have been invested in the separate economies of Egypt, Israel, and Jordan — much of it directed toward military aid. While these dollars were intended to bolster the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaties of 1979 and 1994, they largely failed to move relations among the countries beyond a cold peace.

Neither aid for separate economies, nor military aid, strengthens peace. The weakening of these two peace treaties in the wake of the Arab Spring has happened, in large part, because those billions of dollars in U.S. aid did nothing to bring Israelis and their Jordanian and Egyptian neighbors together. The peace treaties between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan, were treaties between governments and not people. Israelis, Jordanians, and Egyptians simply don’t know each other enough. The most successful ways that Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians do, however, get to know each other are through the scores and scores of people-to-people NGOs in the region, which bring individuals together from across borders to forge personal and professional relationships.

One of those NGOs is the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, located in Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Arava desert of Israel. Established in 1996, the Arava Institute is the home of an academic program made up Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, North American (as a study abroad option), and other college students from around the world. The raison d’être of the Institute is to create a cadre of environmental leaders for the region. In addition, the Institute is the home of a very active research department involved in environmental research with Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Moroccans. These activities include cutting-edge research in solar and hydrogen technologies, the development of sustainable agriculture in environments of high salinity and very limited water, and the seeking of solutions to transboundary water issues. The Institute is also involved in a seed-exchange program with Jordanian and Moroccan organizations, reminding us that the sharing of knowledge is a two-way street.

With all of these technologies and projects having application beyond the borders of Israel, the Arava Institute was approached by MASHAV, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation within the Ministry of Affairs, a few years ago. MASHAV, which is akin to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was created in 1957 by Minister of Foreign Affairs Golda Meir. The goal of MASHAV is to share Israel’s know-how with the developing world. Arava is now involved with work in Kenya that provides training in rainwater harvesting and irrigation to farmers in the Sauri village district. MASHAV has also brought representatives from Brazil, China, Kenya, India, Nigeria, and Samoa to the Institute to learn about sustainable agriculture in arid climates.

Arava alumni have taken the environmental knowledge they gained at the Institute and they have become involved with the establishment of environmental projects in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan. These include Israeli and Palestinian Arava alumni building bio-digesters in Palestinian communities and working on river restoration activities with the rivers that start in the Palestinian Authority and make their way into Israel. Another Arava alum is in charge of outreach educational programming for Al Quds University, leading science education for Palestinian high school pupils. Jordanian alumni have created a new environmental NGO, Green Echo, to nurture environmental projects in Amman, while another is involved with solar technology in Jordan.

The long-term success of these Arava projects is dependent on a number of factors. The first is the environment of the Arava desert. All of Arava’s participants bring their strong individual national, cultural, and religious identities with them to the program, of course, and difficult political issues can’t be avoided with such a constellation of young leaders. Yet the Arava environment acts as the “level playing field,” shared experience, and common concern. Through the ebb and flow of peace negotiations, the on-again, off-again violence and war, the environment is a constant that the students share. Reduced to one of its core components, this Mideast conflict is about land — more precisely, the borders that nations draw on the land. When the land is looked upon solely as a geo-political instrument, it will be viewed as one of the major stumbling blocks to any reconciliation efforts between the various nations and peoples in the region. However, when the land is viewed from an environmental perspective — which does not know from political borders, walls, and fences — a new framework opens up, and we are invited not be afraid of each other.

In addition, the Arava Institute’s interdisciplinary program does not last for a weekend, a week, or even a few weeks. Participants are together for between four months and two years. This allows them to forge the trust and friendships that transcend (but do not negate) their national and religious identities, so that the students can confront directly, honestly, and painfully the harsh realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arava Institute uses the groundbreaking work of Dr. Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University and the late Dr. Dan Baron of Ben-Gurion University, and their notion of the double narrative, which teaches that there is more than one narrative about how the events are recounted and understood. Within the Peace-building and Leadership Seminar (PELS) of the program, students confront directly the issues of the conflict, as well cultural and religious differences that shape their own narratives about those events. Reflecting on those sessions, Zein, a Jordanian said: “The biggest change was to accept others, and coexist for the sake of peace. Frankly, that wasn’t easy at all; it was hard and challenging, like sitting and eating together after a hot emotional discussion, but that was the best part!”

Siting the program on Kibbutz Ketura also plays an important role in Arava’s success. Students live in special dormitories built on the kibbutz for the Arava Institute, but eat their meals in the communal dining room of the kibbutz and are ‘adopted’ by kibbutz families. The kibbutz, a community by intent, on the micro level provides an important model of sharing and cooperation with clear implications for the peace and the environment on the macro level.

Students live in the isolation of the desert while in the program. There are no big-city distractions, and so they are forced to create community among themselves. Haya, a Palestinian student, volunteered to work in one of Ketura’s children’s homes. “In the first meeting I spent a nice two hours with them. First I introduced myself, and when they found out that I am Muslim they said, ‘We don’t want to see you,’ and asked, ‘Are you going to throw stones at us?’ But when they saw that I was not really different from them, they asked me to play and draw pictures with them. They asked me questions like, ‘How are you living? Is your house beautiful? Do you live like us? At the end, one of the little girls drew a nice flower and asked me to keep it. I believe we still have a lot to learn about each other. But I really enjoyed working with those cute children, and I hope in the next semester we will continue working together towards peace and understanding between our cultures.”

Finally the Arava Institute is located in the Middle East, not in Europe or the United States, literally on the border of Israel and Jordan, and a few miles from the Egyptian border. This makes the experience that much more real and tangible. On weekends students can go and visit each other in their homes in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, and discover their neighbors. As Gonen, an Israeli, said of his experience at the Arava Institute, “It will forever be a home for me; it allowed me for the first time in my life to have a personal encounter with my neighbors from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, to get to know my human and natural environment in profound ways, and to change within me. Sharing dorms and learning with Palestinians, Jordanians, Arabs, and Jews from Israel and students from the U.S.A was incredibly educating. Today my understanding of multiculturalism of Israel and the neighboring countries is significantly deeper; I now understand the ways we can cooperate, and what are the key ways to partner with people in Israel and the region. The ‘Other’ that used to be an enigmatic, is now a partner for common positive goals and motives.”

We will soon observe the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Peace Talks and Accord. For two decades, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority have failed to deliver to their people a peace agreement. Parallel to these efforts, the nearly hundred member organizations of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) have modeled realistic relationships and cooperation between the peoples of the region.

Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is the author of Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul.

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