Arava Panel: Environmental Concerns Transcend Middle East Borders

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Hershel Richman at a podium at an Arava event
Hershel Richman, a member of the board of directors of the Friends of the Arava Institute, introduces alumni Odeliya Matter, Mohammad Azraq and Vivian Futran Fuhrman. (Photo courtesy of Friends of the Arava Institute)

Water scarcity, renewable energy, increasing desertification — these are just some of the major environmental challenges facing the Middle East.

And as far as those at The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel can tell, these issues don’t discriminate between Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians or any of the region’s other ethnicities or nationalities.

At some point soon, groups that historically haven’t worked so well together may not have a choice but to start, if not out of goodwill then for the sake of survival. Arava is already leading the transborder cooperation necessary to prevent that kind of bleak eventuality. In doing so, Arava’s created a jumping off point for members of historically adversarial communities.

“The foundation that the institute was created on is that everybody in this region needs to address renewable energy, everyone needs to address clean water,” explained Rachel Kalikow, director of development for Friends of the Arava Institute, Arava’s Boston-based fundraising and recruitment arm. “And so by starting from this common need and using it as the bridge to address peace-building, there’s a unifying starting point … and then perhaps it opens up entry to address harder issues.”

Arava alumni spoke on these issues, about the institute’s micro and macro objectives, on Oct. 20 at the Germantown Jewish Centre, as part of Arava’s Dialogue Project.

Each year, the Dialogue Project sends two Arava alumni, one from Palestine or Jordan and one Jewish-Israeli, on a speaking tour of American communities and universities, primarily to recruit prospective American students but also to let Diaspora communities know that there are those on both sides actively giving peace-building a chance.

This year’s speakers are Odeliya Matter, a Jewish-Israeli, and Mohammad Azraq, a Kuwaiti-Palestinian.

Matter, 25, is the daughter of two American Jews who made aliyah. After studying environmental sustainability models throughout Europe to see which might be applicable to her native region, she found herself doing humanitarian aid work in the refugee settlements of Lesvos, Greece, where refugee camps swelled with Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis fleeing war at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis.

While there, Matter encountered families seeking better lives who’d fled places mere miles from where she grew up in a Jewish-Israeli neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

“That’s when I realized there’s no point doing humanitarian work elsewhere when there’s a lot of work to be done where I grew up,” she said.

Mohammad Azraq, 38, is from a family of Palestinian educators and was born and raised in Kuwait but has lived in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia. He is an electrical engineer by training. And that training taught him about electricity generation via conventional methods — coal, gas and oil. But he’s become most interested in alternative sources of electricity.

Azraq grew up curious and felt that his understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was incomplete.

“That coupled with my interest in renewable energy really made (Arava) the optimal opportunity to combine my social interests, learning about Israeli society and Jewish life, with (my interest in) renewable energy,” he said.

Students from Israel, the Arab world, North America and Europe have been drawn to Arava because of its combination of hard and soft goals, the science and the social. It’s through success with the former that a chance at the latter is thought to be possible.

“When we have projects, where two of our alumni, a Palestinian and an Israeli both working together … a community can see this and see that if both parties are working together intimately, it must be beneficial to both sides,” Matter said.

But Arava isn’t a strum-the-guitar-and-sing-“Kumbaya” type of place, at least not exclusively. There’s also serious environmental work happening, some of it making inroads in what were once thought to be the most unlikely of communities.

Recently, Matter was assisting an Arab Israeli friend with a project aimed at reducing waste from single-use plastics in Israel’s haredi Orthodox communities.

They began importing edible, easily biodegradable, single-use plates, bowls and utensils.

They’ve drawn interest advertising to cafes and catering businesses, which isn’t surprising. Going green is good for business.

But they’ve also gained access to the haredi Orthodox community through an unlikely ambassador. The grandfather of one of Matter’s classmates at Arava is one of the most Conservative (and controversial) rabbis in Israel, Matter said.

“But,” she continued, “he’s also very influenced by his grandchildren who care about the environment, and he started a rabbis’ letter — and has had many influential rabbis sign this — to tell Jewish families to stop using single-use plastic over the holidays. It’s been highly influential; the ultra- Orthodox community very much listens to their rabbis.”

Meanwhile, Azraq is working on bringing wind and solar-generated energy to the territories and changing perceptions.

“When Israelis bring in wind turbines and connect them to Palestinian village households, that perception of Israelis in boots, carrying machine guns changes because they’re no longer that. They’re the people that are now connecting … and collaborating.”

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