Hebrew, Arabic, and English words filled the air weaving its own colorful tapestry as the bus made its way into Aqaba, Jordan having just crossed the border from Eilat, Israel. The bus contained alumni of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies who were traveling together for the founding conference of their newly established alumni organization - the Arava Peace and Environmental Network (APEN). Since 1996, the Institute ( has successfully brought together Christian, Muslim, and Jewish college students from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Egypt, Tunisia, the United States, Canada and the rest of the world to live together and to study the environment on the undergraduate and graduate levels.
The Arava Institute is the premier environmental teaching and research program in the Middle East, preparing future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region's environmental challenges. This can only happen if we are able to create the right conditions while our students are with us, resulting in a dynamic that reaches beyond the time they spend on our campus on Kibbutz Ketura. The establishment of APEN is proof of the success of this approach. We have alumni involved in a number of cross-border research projects between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan, ranging from river restoration, air quality, bio-diversity, bio-gas, and the Dead Sea to name a few. In addition, our alumni have founded a number of environmental organizations, and are taking up positions of environmental leadership where they live. Seventy-five percent of our alumni work in the environment. The Arava Institute's long-term goal is that the future ministers of the Environment from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan will all be graduates of the program.
The success of the long-term effects of this people-to-people program is due to a number of factors. The first is the environment itself. All of our participants bring their strong individual national, cultural and religious identities with them to the program. While never negating their identity, our interdisciplinary program creates a framework that allows the environment to act as the metaphor, the level playing field, and, most importantly, the glue that allows us to deal with the more difficult political issues that can't be avoided with such a constellation of young leaders.

The Environment Invites Us Not to be Afraid

Reduced to one of its core components, this conflict is about land-more precisely the borders that nations draw on the land. When thinking about what divides nations in this conflict, the land is often viewed as one of the major stumbling blocks to any reconciliation efforts between the various nations and peoples in the region. When the land is looked upon solely as a geo-political instrument, this is true. However, when viewed from the perspective of the environment, a new framework opens up. The environment, which does not recognize political borders, invites us to not be afraid of the other.
In addition, this program is not a weekend, or a week, or a few weeks. Participants are together for between four months and two years. This allows for the time that is required to forge the trust and friendships so that the students can confront directly, honestly, and painfully the harsh realties of the Arab-Israeli conflict. We work with Dr. Sami Adwan, of Bethlehem University, and Dr. Dan Baron, of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, and the notion of the double narrative that teaches that there is more than one narrative of how events are recounted and understood. This takes place within the Peace-Building and Leadership Seminar (PELS) of the program where we confront directly the issues of the conflict, as well as cultural and religious differences.
Having the program on Kibbutz Ketura also plays an important role. Students live in special dormitories built on the kibbutz for the Arava Institute, but eat their meals in the communal dining room of the kibbutz and are "adopted" by kibbutz families. The kibbutz, a community by intent, on the micro level provides an important model of sharing and cooperation with clear implications for the peace and the environment on the macro level. Students live in the isolation of the desert while in the program. There are no big city distractions and so they are forced to create a community among themselves.
Our program is located in the Middle East, not in Europe or the United States, literally on the border of Israel and Jordan, and a few kilometers from the Egyptian border. This makes the experience that much more real and tangible. On weekends, students can go and visit each other in their homes in Israel, the PA, and Jordan. For example, this past year a group of students went to Amman, Jordan for the wedding of the sister of one of our students.
We, on the staff, try to be sensitive both to the needs of students, as well as to use the differences as an opportunity to teach each other. At our orientation this year, which fell during the last week of Ramadan, we made sure that the meal (called iftar during Ramadan) was served soon after sunset. During the meal, one of the Muslim students explained the meaning of Ramadan, and then a Jordanian Christian explained what it was like to be a Christian in Jordan during the month of Ramadan. When there is a Jewish wedding on the kibbutz, the first Jewish wedding most of the Arab students have ever attended, we make sure that explanations are provided.

"Home, Earth and Identity"

At our orientation, that always takes place in the vast beautiful landscape of the Arava Valley, we set the stage for the semester by offering a bio-centric approach to dealing with the religious, political, and cultural differences that are all too real here, in an activity that we call "Home, Earth, and Identity." As we walked past the 500 to 100 million year old multicolored sandstone giant Pillars of Amram carved by the great primordial rivers that once covered the earth, we paused and noted how all of us, then represented by our ancestral amphibians, had crawled out of the primordial muck of that layer some 350 million years ago. Later on we read from the Book of Genesis (2:7 & 3:19) and talked about how we are all but walking dust.
These are our common identities, those similarities that overlap our differences, which can be the tools for the needed reconciliation between Jews and Arabs. At the Arava Institute we have learned that the environment can serve as one of the vehicles for that important task.