Two decades after Oslo Accords, Arava Institute seeks conservation over conflict

By Robert Gluck/JNS.org

Sept. 13 marked the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, and Middle East peace remains elusive. But rather than focusing on the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES) aims to train a new generation of environmental leaders and professionals to transform the Middle East from a conflict zone into a region of conciliation and sustainability.

Click photo to download. Caption: Students from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, situated in the heart of Israel's Arava desert, at a stream. Credit: Arava Institute.

Located on Kibbutz Ketura near Eilat, in the heart of Israel’s Arava desert, the research and education institute offers academic programs (accredited by Ben-Gurion University) on cross-border environmental issues for undergraduate and graduate students from various backgrounds, including Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Americans, and others.

“A justifiable concern for security and political justice overshadows long-term concerns for sustainable natural resource management and nature conservation,” David Lehrer, the executive director of AIES, tells JNS.org. “When you are concerned about your immediate future or if your current situation is intolerable, it is impossible to worry about conserving resources for the next generation. If left unaddressed, this conundrum will lead to an ever-increasing degradation of the very land that both sides are fighting over.”

Ongoing AIES projects include the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which works on developing crops and plants appropriate for arid lands suffering from desertification, limited water resources, and saline soil; the Long-Term Sociological and Ecological Research Platform, which partners with Jordanian researchers to study the Arava Valley, a shared desert eco-system between Israel and Jordan; the Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation, part of a renewable energy effort by the residents of the Hevel Eilot region in the southern Arava Valley; and the Arava Center for Sustainable Development, which enables rural societies in the developing world to benefit from knowledge and technology developed in the Arava region.

More than 75 percent of AIES students remain involved in environmental causes as professionals and lay leaders after graduation. Alumni projects—facilitated by an alumni network—include the implementation of sustainable energy and water purification techniques in off-grid communities in the Negev, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan, as well as cross-cultural environmental education for Jewish and Arab pupils.

Many of the undergraduate classes at AIES, and the institute’s research departments, focus on water. Rabbi Michael Cohen—who became a founding faculty member of the institute in 1996, while he was on sabbatical from the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vt.—notes that one AIES initiative to address the Middle East’s water challenges involves the distribution of small-scale solar powered desalination kits for basic neighborhoods and homes.

“AIES is a place with all my passions in one place. Peace, the environment, cross-cultural education,” Cohen tells JNS.org.

Boston-based Friends of the Arava Institute (FAI) works with lay leaders overseas to develop resources for the institute in Israel, through the stewardship of donors, foundation and government grant applications, student recruitment, and public relations. 

“Critical to our success in the U.S. has been the development of our fundraising partnership with the Jewish National Fund, which raises over $500,000 a year for the Institute,” Cohen says. “Another FAI initiative, partnered with Hazon (a Jewish nonprofit), is the Arava Institute Hazon Israel Ride, which brings over 100 bike riders to Israel for our annual fundraising ride from Jerusalem to Eilat to ride for peace, the environment and cooperation.”       

Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie, Pa., became the first carbon-neutral synagogue in the U.S. through collaboration with AIES.

Anshe Hesed neutralized its carbon footprint—the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions for which it is responsible—by collaborating in a carbon-offset program with AIES. Through a carbon-offset program, an organization pays for technology to meet another organization’s energy needs without creating carbon emissions. Anshe Hesed purchased solar panels, which were installed by AIES, to generate electricity for its campus.

The Pennsylvania synagogue enlisted Tara Fortier, at the time a student at Allegheny College, to develop a plan to participate in the AIES offset program—a program Anshe Hesed’s rabbi, John Bush, learned about during a summer 2007 visit to Israel. Fortier, a double major in environmental studies and religious studies, found that Anshe Hesed emitted 36.5 tons of carbon dioxide in 2007 from the use of electricity and natural gas.

Bush tells JNS.org that his congregation would like to inspire other synagogues to “offset our impact on the environment while having a positive impact on our religious movement.”

In Israel, meanwhile, Arava seeks to help Jews and Arabs cooperate when it comes to environmental challenges.

“Though water is often cited as a scarce resource in the region, it is not the scarcest,” says Arava’s director, Lehrer, who worked as a business consultant for kibbutzim and twice served as an emissary for the Jewish Agency for Israel in the U.S. “The scarcest resource in the region is trust.”

Lehrer says Arava aims to build that trust through the Peace Building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS), a once-a-week required seminar for all students consisting of a combination of outside speakers, Arab and Jewish facilitators, student-run programs, and field trips. Discussions center on “things that students don’t want to talk about,” such as religion, history, politics, borders, war, and terrorism, Lehrer says.

“Since this is the Middle East, these sessions are not quiet, often ending with students screaming and yelling at each other, slamming the door and stomping out of the room back to the campus,” he says.

“What is unique about the Arava Institute is, as angry as the students are at each other after a PELS session, they all have to go back to the same small campus where 30 to 40 students a semester are living together sharing text books, coffee, tea and space,” Lehrer adds, explaining that many students “do not necessarily enjoy the PELS program” but ultimately conclude that it was “the most important thing they did while studying at the Arava Institute.”

Lehrer believes that Arab-Israeli peace “cannot be made over the Internet” and also requires more than the signing of peace treaties by political leaders.

“Only by putting a human face on the enemy will trust be restored in the region, and this can only be accomplished when enemies meet face to face,” he says.

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Posted on September 15, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel.