Arava building network of scientists, policymakers

Manar Sarie, an Arab Israeli who grew up in Haifa, remembers driving past a kibbutz as a child and hearing her father say, “That’s for Jews.”

Years later, with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Technion, she spent 2009-2010 on Kibbutz Ketura near Israel’s southern tip as a fellow at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, working with Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and others on transnational environmental and development projects. She helped set up the first biogas system, a renewable, alternative energy source, in a West Bank village, and advised local Bedouin women transitioning to a cash economy.

“When I went to a kibbutz for the first time, to be actually inside, it was very interesting,” she said of her arrival at Ketura and the Arava program. “I grew up in Haifa, which is more integrated than other cities, but still — it was eye-opening.”

Now a doctoral candidate in engineering and public policy at Carnegie-Mellon University, the 31-year-old Sarie was at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley last week along with the institute’s executive director, David Lehrer, telling the story of what they consider to be the program’s real success: not its long list of innovative projects and much-heralded research in such areas as renewable energy, water management, desert agriculture and sustainable development, but something more intangible yet just as essential to the region’s future: trust between people.

Arava Institute executive director David Lehrer joined Manar Sarie at Congregation Netivot Shalom. photo/sue fishkoff

“Water is not the scarcest resource in the Middle East, trust is,” said Lehrer, who has led the institute for the past 15 years. “That’s what we do — build trust between students and between researchers. We’ve built a great network of people who see the region not as Israel, Jordan and Palestine, but as one basin that is connected, a shared eco-system.”

The institute opened at Ketura in 1996 aiming to facilitate cross-border cooperation in the face of conflict. By focusing on finding real-world solutions to environmental problems affecting the region, the institute has forged ahead through wars, terror scares and regime changes, bringing together a diverse group of students each year: one-third Israeli Jews, one-third Arabs and one-third international.

The Arava Institute is a grantee of Jewish National Fund-Northern California, which hosted Lehrer and Sarie during their visit.

The institute has gotten a lot of press coverage, including a recent New York Times story on the institute’s $100,000 solar power project in the West Bank village of Auja, the first to include Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims on its technical team.

Lehrer and Sarie emphasize, though, that it’s hard work learning to get along in Israel’s politically charged atmosphere.

“In ’96, we thought we could just bring a bunch of Jews and Arabs together, throw them in a room and the rest would take care of itself,” said Lehrer, who grew up in North Carolina as a Young Judaea activist and made aliyah in 1978. “Very quickly we realized we had to initiate the conversation.”

That’s why Arava Institute students must participate in a peace-building leadership seminar, to forge the social and political tools organizers see as essential to productive working relationships. It’s a yearlong course, as much a part of the curriculum as the academic classes held in conjunction with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“We talk about what they don’t want to talk about,” Lehrer says. “There’s a lot of yelling and screaming, and stomping out of the room. They’re angry, but they have nowhere to go except back to the dorm rooms they share, Jews and Arabs together.

“Some of the students say, ‘I didn’t come here to do this.’ We say, you can’t live in peace with nature until you live in peace with your neighbor.” 

One skill they learn is compassionate listening, a buzzword in New Age mindfulness circles that is less well known in the cauldrons of Mideast politics. Sarie recalls eight-hour workshops that left her “exhausted,” but which she said changed the way she and fellow students interacted.

She roomed with a Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem, a religious Muslim who led a much more restricted life than hers. One day halfway through the year, the roommate was boarding a bus in Jerusalem for the five-hour ride back to the institute when she realized she was seated next to an Israeli soldier in full uniform, with a gun. Her father told her to take another bus, but the young woman declined.

“She told her father, ‘Don’t worry, he’s just a human being,’ ” Sarie told the Berkeley audience. “For me, to see people change and be able to see the human being behind the clothing, that was amazing.”

There are more than 1,000 Arava alumni, and a global network was created in 2005 to keep alive the partnerships forged in the program. The group meets at annual conferences and networks, and partners on environmental projects. This year a fund was created to give small grants to Arab-Jewish cross-border projects proposed by institute alumni; initial grantees include a for-profit R&D concern producing hydrogen fuel for cars, and the West Bank’s first wildlife conservation initiative.

That, says Lehrer, is the institute’s true legacy: fostering a global network of trained environmental experts, adept at working across cultural and religious divides to create what he calls “a more peaceful, sustainable world.”

“That’s what I’m proudest of, not the papers we publish,” he said.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].