On Sept. 22, Brown Students for Israel (BSI) heralded the start of the new school year with an event titled “Coexistence and the Environment: Cooperation at the Arava Institute.”
The event, held at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and co-sponsored by Watson and the International Relations Department, featured two speakers who are alumni of the Arava Institute.
Situated on a desert kibbutz in the southern region of the Negev in Israel, the institute is a leading environmental studies and research program in the Middle East. Arava houses academic programs in partnership with Ben Gurion University, research centers, and international cooperation initiatives focusing on a range of environmental concerns and challenges.
At the institute, students from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, the United States, and around the world study to become the next generation of regional and environmental leaders. The institute and its leadership believe that the best way to solve environmental issues is to work cooperatively throughout the region, and to ensure that “Nature Knows No Borders.”
The speakers at BSI’s forum, Palestinian Nasr Al-Qadi, from Hebron; and Israeli Kama Lee-Tal, from Jerusalem, spoke about their family and educational backgrounds and their reasons for deciding to live and study on a kibbutz that forces the integration of people who otherwise would not have a chance to interact.
Al-Qadi said as a young adult in Hebron, he was confused and frustrated with his inability to communicate with the Israeli officers he encountered as he made his way from his town to his university. He realized he would never be able to connect with his Israeli neighbors or share his feelings about the situation on the ground if he did not learn their language. As a result, he set out to learn Hebrew and become educated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which brought him into contact with the Arava Institute. At the institute, he learned about coexistence and peace-building, in addition to furthering his studies in biology and, specifically, food shortage and waste.
Lee-Tal is Jewish, but was raised in a secular home and found herself with little affinity for either side in the conflict. She discovered the Arava Institute through her interest in environmental studies; she is pursuing a degree in this field at Hebrew University.
Both speakers spoke of their deep desire for real coexistence, which can develop from respect for humanity and religion and from communication and cooperation, on an issue that has no borders, such as protecting the environment.
But many of the students in the audience asked pointed questions about the reality of cooperation on the ground outside the Arava Institute.
Al-Qadi and Lee-Tal said people on both sides of the conflict need to be brought together to not only learn each others’ languages but also to have conversations about the conflict and the toll it takes on everyone involved. On this note, Al-Qadi said part of the importance of the Arava Institute is as a space that forces weekly forums, as well as direct conversations, among students from across the region.
The institute is unique in that it welcomes students ages 18 to 30 to pursue research, internships, and academics, as well as peace and coalition-building. It is this blend of study and conversations about peace that made it such an attractive topic for a forum at Brown University, where groups are often polarized on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The perspectives and backgrounds of both Arava alumni attracted an audience from beyond the usual pro-Israel crowd, drawing students from Middle East Studies, Environmental Studies, and International Relations Departmental Undergraduate Groups.
Based on the success of the forum, Brown Students for Israel plans to sponsor more events that attract a new crowd of students to participate in the conversation on Israel on campus.
MICHELLE SCHEIN is vice president of Brown Students for Israel.