I travelled to Israel alone this past spring as part of my sabbatical. My goal was to meet with organizations and leaders modeling collaboration between peoples otherwise cast in conflict. I came to experience a different, more hopeful reality between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, one we’re not accustomed to hearing about. With the advice of friends in the local Jewish community, and with the benefit of 20 years of relationships in Israel, I built an itinerary of organizations that fall into three distinct areas: education, economic development and advocacy. This article highlights one of the 15 amazing organizations with whom I met, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.
The Institute, based at Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel (30 minutes from Eilat), is a leading environmental studies and research program in the Middle East. It houses accredited academic programs, research centers and international cooperation initiatives. AIES’s research and development focuses on water management, renewable energy, ecology, sustainable agriculture, environmental politics and more.
One of the Institute’s highly publicized breakthroughs in recent years has been the renewed life sprouting from a 2,000-year-old, biblical-era palm seed. Coined “Methuselah,” AIES’s Dr. Elaine Solowey, who I had the privilege of meeting, understands that her project is much more than a biblical novelty. The Institute’s research will help ensure that endangered plant species don’t disappear from the Israeli landscape.
On its own, the environmental studies and research program is critical, not only to sustain life in Israel, but also to contribute to environmental sustainability around the globe. Yet, the impact of AIES goes well beyond the environmental landscape. What distinguishes AIES is the impact it is having on the landscape of humanity. At a time when the prospects for a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians seem doomed to wilt in the impenetrable soil of failed leadership, the Institute has created a different paradigm on the ground.
During my visit, I had the honor of meeting Amr and Arik. Amr is a Jordanian Muslim college student studying at AIES. Arik is an Israeli Jew, a veteran commander in the IDF, who grew up in an Orthodox settlement on the West Bank. Even though Israel has had a political peace agreement with Jordan for almost 25 years, Arik is the first Israeli and the first Jew Amr has ever met. Amr grew up with no love lost for Israelis or Jews. On the flip side of the coin, the same is true for Arik. Amr is the first Arab and the first Muslim Arik has ever met, other than those he encountered as an IDF officer.
The genius of AIES is providing a safe, masterfully facilitated environment for students like Amr and Arik to hear one another’s narratives for the first time; to honestly and respectfully struggle with the paradigm of hatred of the “other” on which they were weaned. What I witnessed was the hard work of planting seeds for a sustainable peace — Amr and Arik discovering the humanity in the other for the first time. This will prove to be AIES’s greatest contribution and most enduring legacy.
I traveled to Israel alone — and returned with narratives of unlikely relationships. Deb Rochford, National Campaign Director of the Jewish National Fund — a major funder of the Arava Institute — and Temple Solel are partnering to host an evening with two AIES alumni. Please join us on Thursday evening, August 22, 7 p.m., at Temple Solel, 6805 E. McDonald Drive, Paradise Valley. Come hear their stories first-hand. What you will hear is not pie-in-the sky optimism, but rather the difficult spade work of cultivating peace-making on the ground. From this soil, God-willing, olive branches will bloom. JN
Rabbi John A. Linder is one of the spiritual leaders of Temple Solel.