Thursday, May 20, 2010

Welcome to the Arava Institute

“Arava Institute provided a liberal and free atmosphere I thought existed only in my dreams.”
(From Interview with “Sawsan”)
Many of the Israelis and Arabs I met at the Arava institute in the fall of 2008 still hold onto the pains of history. Israel still occupies the Palestinian Territories; Palestinian refugees continue to live in slums in the West Bank as though they are still waiting to go home to a place they have not lived in for sixty years. Despite increasingly limited freedom of movement, Palestinian terrorists continue to penetrate Israeli society, reminding many Israeli Jews feelings of Holocaust-era anti-Semitism. Israel still awaits recognition of its right to exist from many of its neighbors, without recognizing its responsibility for its own provocation of the terrorism it faces; all the while, Palestinians continue to wait for recognition of their right to a state of their own. These continue to be arguments among my friends, the students of Machon Arava.
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.

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