Monday, December 20, 2010
Monday, December 13, 2010
Can you hear the prayers of the children, aching for home, for something of their very own?
Empty eyes with no more tears to cry, turning heavenward toward the light. For when darkness
clears I know You’re near, giving loving arms away from harm. [We need a source]
[We need an intro to explain why and with whom–group, individuals–you made this trip]
After my first day in Oswiecim, Poland, I was unsure how to feel. Having spent several
hours at Auschwitz, now very preserved and museum-like, I was shocked that I did not cry at
all that first day. I thought maybe it was due to the historical distance between my present life
and when these atrocities occurred. I assumed that, for a Jew, the Holocaust narrative would feel
close to home, but in Oswiecim I felt sad and disconnected.
After that first day, I did not return to Auschwitz, instead I spent the daylight hours of the
next four days at Auschwitz II–Birkenau. On the third day at Birkenau, the tears finally came–in
the women’s barracks, the first barracks I saw from the inside. The moment I walked in, it all
erupted. Birkenau is a perfectly appropriate place to bear witness for crimes against humanity.
We were told a story about a woman who was punished by being forced to spend the
night outside, naked, in the middle of the winter (she did survive), but inside the barrack there
was a fireplace. I cried for the women whose souls inhabit the space I walked through at that
moment. I was crying for the grandchildren of those women–the grandchildren so traumatized by
the experiences of their forebears. I was crying for everybody everywhere across history whose
identity and livelihood was stripped from them for illegitimate reasons of hatred and fear.
More of such thinking and crying and bearing witness continued as we visited the
children’s barracks, met survivors, visited the crematoriums and ash fields. After a full five days
in Oswiecim, it was time to move on to visit the old cities of Krakow and Warsaw and try to get a
sense of what life might have been like there pre-war. We saw some interesting sights–museums,
monuments, etc.--but I spent the second five days in Poland eager to move on to Vilnius.
My great-grandparents, like many American Jews, came from Vilnius, or Vilna as they
called it. It was once the Jerusalem of Europe, overflowing with Jewish culture and life,
integrated with Lithuanian culture and life. The Jews were generally accepted and embraced in
Vilna, allowed to thrive and prosper there (relatively speaking). By the time I got there, sixty-
nine years after the city rid itself of its Jewish residents, all signs of Jews were gone.
I found the city generally to be far more welcoming, beautiful, and friendly than any of
the Polish cities I visited. Most people seemed eager to express their anger over what the Nazis
did to them, their wish for peace with their past, for a Jewish life again in Vilnius. But as I passed
church after church–every other block had a church from any given decade over the last five
hundred years–I was struck by the realization that the entire country of Lithuania has only two
functional synagogues left. People lined the streets, straining to hear the mass coming out of the
church of the Gates of Dawn, but the Jewish Community Center of Vilnius has to pay ten men to
ensure that there is a minyan at the Choral synagogue every Shabbat.
There was not much memorialized of the former Jewish residents of Vilnius. The old
ghetto is unmarked, the Jewish Museum is about four rooms. After I visited these four rooms, the
curator gave me directions to the “Holocaust exhibit” down the street. It was not a Holocaust
exhibit. It was a museum dedicated to the slaughter of Lithuanian nationals by the Soviet
occupation following the Nazi occupation. Though fascinating, important and equally as
horrifying as any other crime against humanity, it is not the Holocaust. This misunderstanding
was likely due to the language barrier, but to me it felt like a reinforcement of the silence
surrounding the Lithuanian involvement in the murder of our people. If it’s not discussed, if we
group together different atrocities as one, then blame cannot be placed. I fear, if responsibility is
shrugged off and never accepted, then the lessons history has to teach are not fully learned.
Although I experienced a great deal of sadness and anger during my two weeks abroad,
the trip filled me with inspiration to continue to bear witness and to continue to teach others how
to bear witness. And, in this way, maybe the next time we say “Never Again!” it might be true.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Can you hear the prayers of the children, aching for home, for something of their very own? Empty eyes with no more tears to cry, turning heavenward toward the light. For when darkness clears I know You’re near, giving loving arms away from harm.
After my first day in Oswiecim, I was unsure how to feel. Having spent several hours at Auschwitz I, now very preserved and museum-like, I was shocked that I did not cry at all that first day. I thought maybe it was due to the distance in history between myself and when these atrocities occurred. I assumed that as a Jew, the Holocaust narrative would feel close to home, but in Oswiecim, I felt sad but disconnected. I thought maybe I should visit Srebenica, an attempt at genocide that I actually remember happening. Maybe that would reach deeper.
After that first day, I did not return to Auschwitz I, instead spent the most of the daylight hours for the four days at Auschwitz II – Birkenau. On the third day in Oswiecim, the second day at Birkenau, the tears finally came. In the women’s barracks, the first barracks I saw from the inside. The moment I walked in, it all erupted in me. And I realized, yes, it would be interesting to see Srebenica and Bear Witness to something I remember, but the distance in history means very little in actuality. Acts of atrocious inhumanity are acts of atrocious inhumanity, and not much has changed in the world in the last seventy years. Birkenau is a perfectly appropriate place to Bear Witness for all the crimes against humanity. We were told a story about a woman who was punished by being forced to spend the night outside, naked, in the middle of the winter (she did survive), but inside the barrack there was a fireplace. Where is the line drawn when monsters are deciding what basic human needs can be afforded to people seen as cockroaches? As I cried for the women whose souls inhabit the space I walked through that moment, I was also crying for the woman of the Argentine Dirty War whose captors fed her a full hot meal to bring her back from the brink of death, only to send her back to the torture chambers afterwards. I was crying for the grandchildren of the women whose souls inhabit the space I walked through; the grandchildren so traumatized by the experiences of their forebears as well as the terror in their own lives that they have felt forced into exposing another group into inhumane circumstances that we as Jews should be all too familiar with. I was crying for the disenfranchised disabled people, sexual minorities, and lower class Americans still kept apart from the “desirables” even in a free country. I was crying for everybody everywhere across history whose identity and livelihood was stripped from them for illegitimate reasons of hatred and fear.
More of such thinking and crying and Bearing Witness continued as we visited the children’s barracks, met survivors, visited the crematoriums and ash fields. After a full five days in Oswiecim, it was time to move on to Krakow and Warsaw to visit the old cities, and try to get a sense of what life might have been like there pre-war. Or even if there had not been a war. I found Poland to be cold and uninviting. I had fun with new friends I met on the retreat, saw some interesting sights (museums, monuments, etc) but spent the second five days in Poland eager to move in to Vilnius.
My great-grandparents, like many American Jews, came from Vilnius, or Vilna as they called it. It was once the Jerusalem of Europe, overflowing with Jewish culture and life, integrated in with Lithuanian culture and life. The Jews were generally accepted and embraced in Vilna, allowed to thrive and prosper there (relatively speaking). By the time I got there, sixty-nine years after the city rid itself of its Jewish residents, all signs of us were gone. I found the city generally to be far more welcoming, beautiful, and friendly than any of the Polish cities I visited, and most people seemed eager to express their anger toward what the Nazis did to them, their wish for peace with their past, for a Jewish life again in Vilnius. But as I passed church after church, every other block had a church from any given decade over the last five hundred years. But the entire country of Lithuania has only two functional synagogues left. People lined the streets, straining to hear the mass coming out of the church of the Gates of Dawn, but the Jewish Community Center of Vilnius has to pay ten men to ensure that there is a minyan at the Choral synagogue every Shabbat. There was not much even memorialized for the former Jewish residents of Vilnius. The old ghetto is unmarked, the Jewish Museum is about four rooms. After I visited these four rooms the curator gave me directions down the street to the “Holocaust exhibit.” It was not a Holocaust exhibit. It was a museum dedicated to the slaughter of Lithuanian nationals by the Soviet occupation following the Nazi occupation. Though fascinating, important, and equally horrifying to any other crime against humanity, it is not the Holocaust. This misunderstanding was likely due to the language barrier, but to me it felt a reinforcement of the silence surrounding the Lithuanian involvement in the murder of our people. If it’s not discussed, if we group together different atrocities as one, then blame cannot be placed. And I’m not looking for someone to blame, really. It’s been seventy years; let’s move on. But my fear is if responsibility is shrugged around and never accepted, than the lessons history has to teach are not fully learned.
After reading all this sadness and anger I experienced during my two weeks abroad, it may sound like I didn’t enjoy the trip. On the contrary, it filled me with such inspiration to continue to Bear Witness. Continue to teach others how to Bear Witness. And in this way maybe the next time we say, “Never Again!” it might be true.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz/Birkenau
November 1 - 5, 2010
Tragedy and Healing
"Auschwitz not only represents one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, but perhaps, in the nature of a profound paradox, a potential source of great healing." - from Michael O' Keefe's Raising the Ashes. Click below to watch the Raising the Ashes trailer and learn why people from a variety of faiths and nations have been bearing witness at Auschwitz for over a decade.
"This retreat at Auschwitz offered profound affirmation that when we continue to listen to ourselves and others with an open mind and heart, death and pain of body and spirit, however terrible, can never offer a final answer," explains Jiko McIntosh in a Bearing Witness Blog article. Stay tuned for e-mails next week for more descriptions of the Bearing Witness experience. Would you like to participate? Read more. Register.
Do you want to support bearing witness at Auschwitz, but you are unable to attend this November? We are offering our ten remaining copies of the Raising the Ashes documentary as gifts to people who contribute scholarship money to bring together at Auschwitz young adults from key conflict areas. Your contribution of $500 matched by an equal contribution from the Zen Peacemakers, could, for example, make it possible for a young Palestinian to join a young Jewish Israeli to practice listening and sharing from the heart.
Read more and/or Register at the Auschwitz Retreat web page. Visit the Auschwitz page of the Bearing Witness Blog to view photos, read accounts of and listen to talks about last June's retreat, as well as to read teachings from Bernie Glassman regarding Bearing Witness at Auschwitz as spiritual practice.
Friday, October 1, 2010
As my first academic year outside of school begins, I am thinking about how to put my education on genocide and human rights to use. I'm teaching 7th graders how to put the "mitzvah" in Bar Mitzvah, I'm going on a Bearing Witness retreat to Auschwitz and Birkenau, followed by my own pilgrimage to Vilnius, and most importantly, I'm working in a deli. In a lot of ways I'm still burnt out from Div III and I'm not sure how to go about saving the world on my own time now. But then I read this article about the Congo and I think, "Man people are so stupid!" and realize that I guess I just need to stay up on this soapbox a little longer and then maybe I won't be alone in this whole world-saving thing.
Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
I just read Joe Sacco's The Fixer, Soba, and Christmas with Karadzic, and now Bosnia is putting to rest a newly identified 700-ish victims of the Srebenica massacre. I'm not sure how to feel about the fact that the Serbian president is attending the mass funeral. I guess its a significant gesture of neigbourliness, but if I were any of the family members of the deceased, I would not want him there. I can't believe its fifteen years later and they're still identifying bodies. I wonder whose job that is?
Thursday, June 17, 2010
This experience left Elizabeth with a much deeper understanding of how environmental issues -- especially access to water and its use -- are centrally affected by the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. It also led her to consider a significant question: to what extent, if at all, can collaborative environmental work contribute to peace between the two peoples? Her Division III final paper thoughtfully and intelligently speaks to both of these concerns.
Elizabeth's paper addresses these subjects in three chapters. Chapter One provides a history of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians over water-sharing, starting with an extremely interesting investigation of the origins and meaning of the phrase "making the desert bloom" that is often associated with the Zionist enterprise of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The second chapter opens with a quotation from Arava founder Alon Tal that asks, "Is there a systematic environmental injustice towards Israel's Arab residents?" and proceeds to answer the question with a definitive yes, backed up by carefully marshaled historical and contemporary evidence. Asserting, however, that the future need not replicate the past, this chapter also goes on to survey a number of the more promising environmental initiatives currently underway in the region, ranging from the Palestinian National Renewable Energy Company, which was recently founded by a Palestinian Arava alumnus as the West Bank's first wholly "green" business, to the Israeli-Jordanian- Palestinian transboundary project called the "Red-Dead Conduit" that facilitates water transfer between the Red and Dead Seas, to Friends of the Earth Middle East, a regional NGO that is currently implementing a "Good Water Neighbors" project.
Chapter Three concludes the study with a closer look at the Arava Institute, its students, and their diverse perspectives, based both on Elizabeth's own experiences there and on interviews that she did one year later with approximately 12 students and staff, some Israeli, some Palestinian, and some American and international. This provides a sensitive portrait of both how people were drawn closer by their time together at Arava, and also of where points of disagreement or tension remain. In summing up Elizabeth is drawn back to one of her original questions: can this kind of environmental collaboration lead to peace? While she can't avoid acknowledging that the enormity of the current barriers to both peace and environmental equity leave her at times feeling "weighed down by our self-assigned task of creating peace in the Middle East and ecological stability at the same time," Elizabeth also allows that the human connections formed at Arava have left her with "a newfound patience for the small steps towards our goal."
By focusing on the environmental aspects of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, especially the crucial question of water sharing, Elizabeth enables her reader to see the entire situation from a less familiar perspective that highlights the problems of power imbalance and unequal access to resources. A particular strength of the paper, in addition, is that because Elizabeth brings the historical and political story of Israeli-Palestinian relations together with the human story of the relationships of Arab and Jewish students at Arava, she is able to make insightful observations about how the dynamics of unequal power play out at both the national and the individual level. She points out, for example, that the PELS seminars, in which students were encouraged to discuss their views on the political situation, often devolved into sessions of what Elizabeth calls "competing victimhood," where students on each "side" would invoke their grandparents' experiences in the Holocaust or the Naqba, death by suicide bomber versus death by IDF bullets, Hamas rockets versus Israeli checkpoints, to claim they had suffered the most. While noting the seeming futility of these sessions (and the frequent tears accompanying them), Elizabeth also observes that the Israeli students seem more able to empathize with the Palestinians' pain than vice versa, and considers why this might be. Her answer highlights again "the state of occupation, and the power dynamics" that this creates, suggesting that those in a position of power can afford more easily to listen to the stories of the less powerful, while "the Palestinian students needed... to assert the truth of their hardships over those of the Israelis" in order to claim the basic human rights that are denied them.
Elizabeth skillfully weaves together the paper's different elements -- historical, political, environmental, human -- into a unified text, and draws on a variety of different sources and methods in doing so. Her bibliography ranges from primary sources such as Theodor Herzl's nineteenth century works on Zionism, to recent articles on regional water issues, to important theoretical works, like Homer-Dixon's "Environment, Violence, and Scarcity" or Mamdami's "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim" that help provide a context for the work. The interviews Elizabeth conducted, which are provided in their entirety in an Appendix that makes wonderful reading in itself, add tremendously to the richness of whole.
Because Elizabeth initially had a difficult time finding a structure for her project, the committee commends her for her persistence in continuing to struggle to figure out how the pieces of what she was writing fit together. We also note that her final revisions resulted in tremendous progress, taking her draft from a somewhat disjointed sequence of parts to the smooth and integrated final paper that it became. She responded well to our concerns and criticisms, but this was always her own project and she exercised a great deal of independence in framing the material and persuading us of her reasons for doing so in particular ways.
Another strength is the balance that Elizabeth finds in writing about a highly contested subject, sacrificing neither her own clear, unambiguous thesis nor open-minded consideration of multiple perspectives. Avoiding any rhetoric or sloganeering, she makes her points convincingly by thoughtful analysis of the evidence. This piece demonstrates, as the committee knows first-hand from working with her, that Elizabeth is an empathetic, caring, and compassionate individual who is committed to contributing to peace, equity, and increased connection among people.
The committee applauds Elizabeth's accomplishment of this project, which is a fine culmination to her undergraduate studies of environment, peace, and social justice, and looks forward to her future efforts to contribute to a better world.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
On January 30th, 2009, I wrote in my field notes as I sat in the Ramallah home of my Machon Arava roommate, Bissan:
All in all, it’s been a great semester. Despite all the bullshit, the shouting and arguing in PELS, the disorganization of the administration of the Institute, the tension between Machon Arava students and Kibbutz Ketura members, the mutual racism of Zionists and Palestinian nationalists, despite all that, I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world. The studying, the student life, the coexistence, the traveling, the people. I think I’ll miss it here, even though I spent a lot of time this semester complaining that this experience has jaded me. I now fear that people do not want to change. People do not want to listen to each other, even when they are friends. Bureaucracy is strong and difficult to weed through. The great Revolution may never happen, world peace may never happen, and I’ll have to accept that I really can only save the world in small steps, throwing one starfish at a time back in the ocean. But this semester has given me the patience to do that. I guess I’ll just have to add Arava to the list of places I call home.
Now, reflecting back on those words, I see there really is not more to say about my personal experiences. I saw people shouting horrible, racially derogative, emotional things at each other, and saw the same people drinking coffee and smoking nargilah together later that same day. When the war in Gaza broke out at the end of December, I saw an Israeli girl, whose brother was fighting for the IDF somewhere in Gaza, and a Palestinian girl, who had relatives and old family friends living in Gaza, go off and cry together. Because even though they were coming from opposing sides, we had all realized at that point that it was the same pain. The next day, I saw Israeli after Israeli (strangers), come out to our peace vigil and shout in people’s faces. I saw them ask Conservative Jews why they were anti-Semitic, and say nasty racist things to the Palestinians, and threaten to arrest us all (which potentially meant deportation for all non-Israelis). This was at a unified peace vigil, a protest not just to Israel’s most recent actions in Gaza, but also to the Qassams falling on Sderot, and the suicide bombs in Jerusalem, and to the roots of such violence. But people see what they want to see. They saw our signs had Arabic, and they didn’t bother to read the Hebrew, and they just started shouting. After seeing so much pain and so much love from the same people, after the shared tears of 38 people coming from a diversity of backgrounds in race, nationality, education, families, and viewpoints, it is hard not to feel weighed down by our self-assigned task of creating peace in the Middle East and ecological stability at the same time. But seeing that there are 38 people from a diversity of backgrounds in race, nationality, education, families, and viewpoints who are willing to share pain and love and tears in the name of Middle Eastern peace and ecological stability, it is hard not to gain a newfound patience for the small steps towards our goal.
As for the facts on the ground, Israel remains in hegemonic control of water resources in the Occupied Territories. Since the Gaza War, nothing has changed for Gazans, or for the residents of Sderot. Everyone continues to live in fear of constant war and resource depletion. A recent Israeli order requires permits for Palestinians to live in the West Bank. Those who cannot prove they belong there will be sent to Gaza, which is already overcrowded and under fed. Even with the Israeli exploitation of land and water resources in the West Bank, life there is considerably more comfortable. The movement of people into Gaza will only increase the pressures on the natural environment and lead to more tension and violence.
If Alon Tal and Thomas Homer-Dixon are right about disaster bringing social change, I have to wonder how big does the disaster have to be before things will change? How many Palestinians must die? How many Israelis must live in constant fear? How much water must be depleted? How much desert irresponsibly built and farmed upon? How many Peace Now protests will it take for the Israeli government to remove settlements and reroute the Barrier? How many summer days without running water will it take for the Palestinian Authority to make compromises to ease the immediate suffering of their people, perhaps at the cost of immediate justice or pride?
I was hoping to conclude this Division III with optimism. To tell the world that Israel steals water and land from Palestinians and it feeds the broader conflict, but through this neutral starting ground, water sharing plans could be built. Daibes’ vague plan in Water in Palestine on how to begin the mediation process seems easy enough to follow, with step-by-step small scale agreements to build trust on before pursuing bigger peace plans, but since her death last March, it looks like no one else is picking up that torch. It may just be up to the alumni of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies to keep pushing for small transboundary environmental projects and hope that our message is heard far and wide until we are no longer in the minority.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
(From Interview with “Sawsan”)
The demographics of the fall 2008 students were 13 Israelis, 15 Americans, seven Palestinians, and three Jordanians. Of the American students, one was raised Christian but was in the process of converting to Judaism and becoming an Israeli citizen, one was born in Israel and had dual citizenship (though she spent the majority of her life in New York state), one had made aliyah that semester and would not be going back to the United States anytime soon (aliyah means “ascent,” and is the term for moving to Israel and becoming a citizen), and the rest were Jewish Americans, mostly of Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) descent and white-skinned. The staff of the Machon, too, reflected diversity. Though most of the staff were Jews, they hailed from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Curacaos, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Venezuela, and of course Israel. There was also a Palestinian professor, and a couple of Jordanians who worked in the office (the Jordanians were all Arava alumni).
I am a part of this ethnography as well, as I was also a student at the Machon Arava, growing and learning right alongside those whose stories appear in this chapter. It is important to note this aspect of my study, in order to properly understand my own opinions which I’m sure have become clear in various parts of this thesis. Most of the observations I make from the time that I was there, I make as a friend and colleague of the people I observed. The interviews I conducted one year after our semester together were each tailored individually to the student I was interviewing, based on what I already knew of them and what they told me during the interview. When I first sent out the email asking my friends to let me interview them, I received responses from the following: four American students, two Palestinian students, and an Israeli student, as well as a British teacher’s assistant (TA) and an Israeli teacher (a married couple, though interviewed separately). When the Arava recruitment group came to Hampshire, I was able to have brief interviews with another Israeli student from my semester, and a Jordanian who was in his second year of the Arava Masters program during my semester at Arava. Though this meant he was living and studying in Beer Sheva, at the Desert Studies campus of Ben-Gurion University, we had the same Kibbutz host family, and he came back to the Kibbutz to visit them often. He also worked on developing the solar power with our “father” at the Arava Power Company, so I met him many times in my stay in Israel.
Certain questions were specific and presented to everyone: “What is your family background/how were you raised to view this conflict?” “Can you name one moment from Machon Arava that sticks out to you or encapsulates your experience there?” and most importantly, “Do you really believe that this environmental approach to conflict resolution can help bring about peace for Israel and Palestine?” Other questions regarding their studies or where life has led them in the last year varied according to the interviewee. The interviews were mostly conducted via Skype, not in person, and were directed more through casual conversation than formal interrogation, though each interviewee knew that these questions were specifically for my academic purposes. As certain students requested specifically that their names be changed, I have decided that most names in this study be changed, to protect their privacy.
Sawsan, quoted at the top of this chapter, was the only Jordanian student in our semester that did not have Palestinian roots. She was also the most guarded in our interviews. She was the first to insist upon a name change. During our interview via Skype, for which she was using a computer in a public internet café, she had to type the words “Israel,” “Zionist,” “UN,” “Palestinian,” or “liberal,” in case anyone else in the café could hear or understand her. By coming to the Arava Institute, she estranged half of her extended family, and the other half only still speaks to her under the assumption that she will never return to the land of the “Zionist Enemies” (Sawsan, personal interview). Sawsan found at the Arava Institute a world where people cared about one another. In Jordan, she has fellow liberal friends, but outside her circle of communists, there is no one she can talk to about Palestine, or really about her political beliefs at all. At the Arava Institute, even the people who disagree with her are safe to talk to, to be honest with. This liberal bubble outside of corrupt, negative influences inspired to Sawsan to continue fulfill her dreams of transboundary environmental education (in secret from her family), and is exactly what the Arava Institute should be all about.
The Machon is located on Kibbutz Ketura, in the Southern Arava Valley of the Southern Negev. The Southern Arava Valley is just over 30 miles north of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost port city. Kibbutz Ketura was about six miles from the Egyptian border, and three miles from Jordan. It is possible to walk to Jordan from the Kibbutz, though it is a dangerous endeavor. There is no fence or any sort of border mark on the other side of Kibbutz Ketura’s date fields, but if one walks too far out, even accidentally (as some Machon Arava students and Kibbutz Ketura volunteers have done), the military will track the border-jumper down, and arrests could be made. However, these soldiers are used to this sort of foreigner accident and I was told they were more likely to come and intimidate the volunteer or student who crossed the border rather than actually arrest him/her.
Kibbutz Ketura as a whole consists of a handful of Israeli-born kibbutz chaverim (meaning “comrade,” a term carried over from when all kibbutzim were actually communist), and some Jewish immigrants from South America, South Africa, and a single Arab family (the family of a professor at the Machon), though the vast majority of the 140 adult members of the kibbutz are Americans who have made aliyah, mostly in the 1970s. The founders of Kibbutz Ketura were a part of the Young Judea youth movement, a non-sectarian Jewish-American organization for education on Zionism. As such, Kibbutz Ketura is a “pluralistic religious” kibbutz, unlike others in the area, which are mostly secular. Religious pluralism, in this case, means that prayer services are lay-lead by a different Kibbutz member every Friday night/Saturday morning/holiday in the traditional Conservative fashion, which falls in the middle of the orthodox-liberal spectrum of Judaism, and is egalitarian, but otherwise includes a traditional prayer service. The Kibbutz store, pub, coffee shop and library are shut down for the Sabbath, and everyone gets the Sabbath off from work. However, being religious is in no way a part of the Kibbutz Ketura rules, and there is always a Kibbutz car going to one of the neighboring kibbutzim for Friday night pub, and one can take the regional bus to Eilat on Saturday, for those less traditional. The idea is that a middle-ground approach provides an atmosphere that is most accommodating to the varying degrees of observance among the chaverim.
Relations between Machon Arava students and the majority of the Ketura chaverim are passive, at best. The students live in housing units in their own neighborhood, separated from the other Kibbutznikim, but are otherwise meant to be integrated in Kibbutz living. The founders of the Machon Arava (such as Alon Tal) happened to be members of the kibbutz who felt that environmentalism was an under-taught discipline in Israel, and saw that it could be a path toward peace for Israel with its neighbors that share so many of the same resources. As a result, they were able to create this institute on Kibbutz Ketura land. Perhaps at first the chaverim were more open to the idea of foreign students. Considering that everything on the Kibbutz must be voted on by various committees, it seems likely that they must have been friendlier in the beginning, to have let the institute open on Kibbutz Ketura. By the time I studied there, twelve years after the founding of Machon Arava, most chaverim were less than pleased by the presence of these students because of problems that had arisen in the past. Mostly, the chaverim felt that the Arava students were self-righteous Leftists and were fed up with being told how they should water their gardens, though there were a few incidents of pub brawls within the student community that the chaverim resented being brought into their living spaces.
Students do, however, have their allies among the chaverim. There are still several Arava professors, office staff, and sympathizers of our cause living on the kibbutz. However, even some of these sympathizers cannot always leave aside their personal opinions to perpetuate the message of peace and equality the Machon is trying to spread. When the war in Gaza broke out, Machon Arava staged a peace vigil. We thought our signs were benign (messages like “We refuse to be enemies,” “Violence is not the answer,” “Jews and Arabs stand together”); we were not trying to scold Israel for its military actions, but to speak for peace for all. But because the signs were in Arabic, as well as Hebrew and English, the vigil raised a ruckus in the area, among neighboring kibbutzim as well as Ketura. The timing may have also been an issue, as the Hamas rockets had been striking Israel for years, and only when Israel reacted was there a response from the “yafeh nefesh,” as one angry Israeli called us (meaning “beautiful soul,” which is like calling someone a “bleeding heart”). During my interview with Rinat, who was raised in a religious Jewish home, she recalled being asked “why she hates Jews” in response to her involvement in protesting Israel’s actions, to which she had no answer at the time. The vigil was cathartic for the student body; my roommate who went home to Ramallah every weekend to take a class there stayed in Ramallah for over a week after the outbreak of the Gaza War. It was only after our peace vigil that she felt comfortable coming back to us. We know we did the right thing for the Machon, but Kibbutz Ketura felt as though Machon Arava had betrayed and insulted them as hosts, and tensions were high for the remaining month and a half of the semester.
Though Kibbutz Ketura is made up of mostly American-born Jews who would probably consider themselves liberal, and some of them even work for this idealistic cooperative environmentalist network, it is important to remember that these American-born Jews uprooted their lives with their families to move to Israel. They were raised to be Zionists, Jewish nationalists, though still living in Diaspora, to believe that Israel belonged to the Jews, that it is the birthright of the Jews that has finally been restored after 2,500 years of Diaspora, as though in apology for the Holocaust, the latest and most brutal attempt – of many – to annihilate Jews. They believed in Zionism enough to end Diaspora for themselves and become Israeli. To them, each war Israel fights is a holy nationalist war for the very survival of the Jewish people. This is the atmosphere in which Machon Arava is placed.
The student body itself has similar difficulties drawing lines between Palestinian Solidarity and Zionism. Moti, the one Israeli who responded to my interview requests, told me how his family and friends were all moderately left wing, and yet he and his father and most of his friends and their fathers all fought in combative tank units during their military service. Moti served in Gaza and on the Lebanese border during the Second Intifada, and was called up from the reserves to fight in the Lebanon War in 2006. He believes in defending his country, but also, he and his family would gladly leave their home in the Golan Heights if it truly meant peace with Syria. Then there’s Mordecai, the one self-proclaimed Zionist American student, who spent a lot of the semester defending Israel against all the criticism of the rest of the students, but who came to the Arava Institute in the first place to find a new perspective because he is not “a stereotypical Zionist” and was fed up with the racism found in some of his Zionist circles in the U.S. Alice, the teacher’s assistant for the mandatory climate change class, told me that in her university days she was just starting to be involved in environmental and anti-Iraq War activism but was still also involved with Zionist organizations. It took her a while (and a fact-finding tour through Israel) to be comfortable confronting her hypocrisy of being anti-war but pro-Israel without asking questions. For students like this, I imagine the complex relationship with the Kibbutz was all the more reflective of what they were going through internally at the Arava Institute.
Once a week at Machon Arava, there is a mandatory, but uncredited, three-hour peace seminar, Peace-Building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS). In my experience, most often these PELS sessions would dissolve into what I would call “competing victimhood”: shouting or crying, or both. The PELS session would start out as Israelis and Palestinians trying to relate to one another the personal pain the conflict has caused them, while the Jordanians and especially the Americans tried to understand what it means to live in a state of constant war, or at least the threat of it. These discussions would seem promising for a while. How else do we start to create peace than to put faces to the targets that bullets and rockets hit, faces to those on the buses that get bombed, faces to those starving in Gaza? Once each side realizes young enough that to continue the fight would be to potentially hurt someone they love, they will not have the desire to continue the fight. Since leaving Machon Arava, anytime Israel or Palestine make it into the news, Mordecai now thinks “What does this mean for my friends?” before making a decision to support or oppose any action Israel does (Mordecai, personal interview). Sadly, though, during the semester itself, the PELS would often end with people feeling as though they had to impress upon the “other” that their pain was worse. Conversation among ten people who shared a deep friendship would become a rivalry starting all the way back with grandparents, the Holocaust and the Naqba and continue chronologically to competing about the pain in their personal lives of suicide bombers, checkpoints, Hamas rockets, bombs.
Rinat notes that throughout most of the semester, we were able to leave PELS at PELS: to shout and cry for three hours, break for lunch, and come back together for an afternoon of laughing and fun together. But at the end of the semester, with the violence in Gaza, there was a short period of time where we could not leave PELS out of our social life. Groups split off by nationality and a general sense of sadness descended upon us. Still, we bounced back quickly with our vigil at Yotvata (pictured below), and Sawsan even says that the intensity of those few weeks made us finally realize how to run a PELS session and our dialogue more meaningful (Rinat and Sawsan, personal interviews).
Throughout the semester, in PELS, everyone participated in the counter-productive blaming and competing victimhood, including Jordanians and Americans on occasions (often “siding” with those who share their ethnic background). However, it was noticeable how much the Israeli students took the stories of the Palestinians to heart. Although they would fall into the same trap of blaming “the other side” eventually, it became clear that of the students in our PELS, the Israelis were more inclined to see the Palestinian pain than the Palestinians were to see the Israeli pain. I noted this in my field notes toward the end of the semester, January 21st, that “it hurts me to say this, as I was never raised a Zionist, and have always been more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause,” but it was not possible to ignore that observation. To observe how stuck in their own narrative the Palestinians were, felt like a betrayal of the recognition of Palestinian oppression under Israel. The complete lack of balance of power makes the violence from the Palestinian side more understandable. But violence is still violence, and being understandable is not the same as justifiable.
In one of the more emotional PELS, the discussion was about the balance of violence, power, and the comparison of life on one side of the conflict versus the other. It was December, the week following the first air raids on Gaza, and the discussion started because the count of Israelis killed by Hamas rockets had reached maybe seven by that point, and the Israeli military had already killed hundreds of Palestinians. Gaza is a small and crowded territory. It is not possible to shoot large weapons from planes and hit only Hamas targets. In the process of defending nationality and the “competing victimhoods” once again, someone mentioned Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier who was kidnapped during the violence of 2006. In exchange for his release, Hamas demanded 450 Palestinian captives. The same story flipped: one life for hundreds. Israel refused to release any of their Palestinian prisoners, and Gilad Shalit remains a hostage. The Israeli student sitting next to me pointed out that an Israeli prison is more humane than whatever hole Hamas keeps Shalit in, where the Israeli public is not even sure if he is alive or dead. The tensions rose, and we were dismissed for a break by the PELS facilitator. A Palestinian student approached the Israeli beside me, in tears, and said, “The prisons are only humane for the names the public pays attention to. There are other prisons where Palestinians ‘disappear’ to. Women and children, Neta. Why would children need to disappear?” I do not know of the reality of such prisons, but the energy that is created by believing them to exist is moving enough. I think it’s this level of emotion that makes Bridget nervous about “fact-checking.” In addition to the need to check gut reactions with reality, there is also a level of sensitivity that is missing from fact-based discussion. “Common ground is not in the facts,” Bridget says, “A lot of gray developed,” (Bridget, personal interview) and the question of secret prisons is certainly a gray area that requires sensitivity along with the questioning of its truth.
I cannot condone acts of terrorism from Hamas anymore than from the IDF, but I can comprehend why my Palestinian friends do. To understand the lack of acknowledgement of Israeli pain from the Palestinians in our PELS sessions, it is necessary to deeply examine the state of occupation, and the power dynamics in which they live. I found Michel Foucault’s theory on Sovereignty and the balance of power a perfect template to understand the persistence of the Palestinian “competing victimhood.” Foucault speaks of the relations between “truth” and “force” (Foucault, 53), getting to the heart of my investigation. He explains that to de-center oneself – that is, to choose a side – allows for clarity in the perception of the conflict, and thereby allows for that clarity in truth to be used as a tool to assert one’s rights, and this conflict will only end when the “truthful” are the victors. Although that explanation leads to new questions on these matters, it does at least explain the philosophy behind the dynamic of the PELS that surprised me so. Within this historic-political discourse, the Palestinian students needed (even if this need is subconscious, as I suspect it is) to assert the truth of their hardships over those of the Israelis in order to assert their demands to human rights, currently denied them by the Israeli government. Only by using truth as their weapon can they establish victory over the current Sovereignty that occupies them, thus ending their constant state of war. My roommate, Bissan, told me that living in the bubble at the Arava Institute was often difficult because of the “conflict between the peaceful life that I had with my friends inside the Institute and the real painful life outside the Institute,” (Bissan, personal interview). This conflict fed the need to cling to the Palestinian pain, as though in fear that listening to Israelis would be a betrayal of those dying in Gaza and a denial of the truth as their only weapon left.
In Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book, Environment, Scarcity, and Violence, he analyzes the debate surrounding environmental scarcity and its effects on society. The debate dates back to Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth century economist who believed that “finite resources place strict limits on the growth of human population and consumption” (Homer-Dixon, 28), and that once we’ve exceeded those limits to reach a point where the world has an unsustainable number of inhabitants, society will break down in the fight over remaining resources. Optimistic economists argue with Malthusian thinkers, believing that technological advances, along with properly functioning economic and political institutions, will allow infinite population and consumption growth. Distributionists (whom I agree with most) argue that neither view is quite correct, because imbalances of power will always occur and the unfair distribution of scarce resources – not the scarcity itself – will cause the breakdown of society. The Malthusian argument prevails within most environmental movements, especially among ecologically disadvantaged groups – those that are socially marginalized and therefore subjected to higher environmental risks, such as industrial parks being built near their homes – because it drives the lobby for environmental conservation, whereas the optimistic argument prevails within the World Bank (Homer-Dixon, 28) because it allows for the developed world to continue to grow and consume under the assumption that technology and social reform will clean up the environmental degradation before the Earth becomes unlivable. Distributionists are often left out of the mainstream debate because their view puts too much emphasis on the problems of social and economic inequalities that those in power are trying hard to ignore.
Homer-Dixon names five general types of violent conflict, though I will only talk about two here. They are ethnic clashes arising from population migration and deepened social cleavages due to environmental scarcity, and civil strife caused by environmental scarcity that affects economic productivity, and, in turn, people’s livelihoods, the behaviors of the elite, ability of the state to meet changing needs, etc. (Homer-Dixon, 5). Environmental scarcity is the rarity of natural resources basic and necessary to life: water, land, etc. There are different forms and causes of scarcity, but in the case of Israel, it is the “structural scarcity” – the unequal distribution of resources – that is the key to the violence. Structural scarcity is likely to occur when the resource is excludable, meaning that access can be easily blocked by some actors with the aid of property rights and other institutions. Water, being that it can only be accessed at certain extraction points in the desert regions of Israel/Palestine, is an easy resource to control in this way. The natural water scarcity alone would not need to cause violence, if the resource was used cooperatively, but since Israel blocks Palestinian access and uses three times more water per capita than the Palestinians, the structural scarcity of water becomes a vital point in the larger conflict. Homer-Dixon uses the Israeli/Palestinian water conflict as an example of “resource capture” (Homer-Dixon, 15), one form of interaction between supply, demand, and structural scarcities that lead to violent conflict. He defines resource capture as the occurrence of powerful groups within a society using their power to shift in their favor the laws and institutions governing a scarce resource. As the populations of both Israelis and Palestinians rise, the resource comes into higher demand, lower supply, and stricter distribution laws are enforced by Israel, the powerful party, against the Palestinians, the ecologically and politically disadvantaged party, as a result.
Ideally, environmental issues, Homer-Dixon says, may be used as vehicles to rally dissent, and the movement that arises can end up bettering institutions and governance, as well as fairly distributing resources. If the government is perceived to be responsible for the people’s hardships, then the people will revolt. The likelihood that this will lead to physical violence is higher in societies that already have “clear social cleavages” (Homer-Dixon, 145), such as ethnicity or nationalism, as Israel/Palestine does. Change cannot happen if grievances are not addressed, and Homer-Dixon implies that even violent social movements can produce positive results, but does not offer examples of this working. Of course, the environment is often also used as a weapon and becomes a victim of war, so violent conflict of natural resources – even if it ends with a more just system of allocation – will likely end up destroying resources in the meantime, and self-reinforcing this spiral of violence, institutional dysfunction, and social fragmentation, before any stabilization occurs. In the case of Israel/Palestine, this cycle has been continuing for forty years, and there’s little hope at the moment of any fair distribution of water or stabilization of negotiations any time soon.
But how do the students of the Arava Institute view the hopes for the future? Bridget “feels like there’s a solution because there has to be a solution… life goes on after shit happens.” It’s not clear what the solution will be, but the fighting can’t go on forever. Mordecai and Rebecca both think that more focused should be placed on the environment. As Rebecca says, “you need something for [Israelis and Palestinians] to talk positively about and work together for,” but as Mordecai points out, first more resources need to be fed into that route. A lot of money and emotional energy goes into getting politicians around a conference table, but maybe more resources should be put to use through alternative environmental methods that “could definitely do a lot for peace-building.” Rinat and Bissan are less certain of the efficacy of environment in peace-building, but agree that in the meantime it is essential. Bissan is now “a strong believer in peace negotiations” because of the faith in people that grew out of her interactions at Arava, and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Environmental Policy. Rinat says that the conflict still feels too far away to know if environmental cooperation will truly lead there, but in any case, transboundary environmental work is essential for the betterment of the world, and Arava has certainly taught us all that “Nature Knows No Borders” (personal interviews).
Others from the Arava Institute feel less secure speculating on the future. Sawsan and Moti seemed to have positive outlooks, but did not want to directly comment on the possibilities for positive change in the Palestinian struggle or environmental conflict. Hazem completely ignored the question, but his new company working toward making Palestine more environmentally sustainable in their development efforts, spreads more optimism on the change Arava inspires in people. Amitai and Alice, on the other hand, the two faculty members I was able to interview, are less inspiring. Alice talked about feeling out of place in Israel, and how malleable identity is there, and insinuated to me that because she doesn’t belong there, she is not allowed to speculate on the possibilities for change in other people’s futures. Amitai outright says he does not think environmental cooperation or organizations like the Arava Institute make a difference. He has little hope for the future, and any solution there could be will only come through serious peace negotiations within the political realm. What we do at the Arava is “virtuous and beautiful” (personal interviews), but ultimately too small and marginalized by the greater politics of the situation. It concerns me to see his pessimism, and that he keeps teaching at the Arava Institute, perpetuating hope he doesn’t actually feel.