Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Div III Evaluation by my wonderful adviser, Stephanie Levin

Elizabeth Goldstein's Division III grew out of the life-changing semester she spent at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a peace-building research and education institute that seeks to prepare future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the Middle East's environmental challenges. Although headquartered in Israel in the Negev, Arava brings together Palestinian, Jordanian, and other Arab students with Israeli Jews and internationals to study and do research on environmental issues under the motto "nature knows no borders." While there, Elizabeth took a full program of environmental studies courses and also participated in a peace-building and leadership seminar (PELS) focused on dialogue among the students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as making deep connections with her diverse colleagues outside of class.

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.