As the first semester of my program comes to a close, I can’t help but reflect on this other-worldly experience here. Over the past four months, I have seen desert rain, smelled the sweet scent of fresh earth in the desert, and watched the dusty plants turn green in anticipation of a few, precious raindrops. I watched countless sunsets over the Arava mountains and saw the mountains on the Jordanian side of the valley turn bright red, baby pink, deep purple, and gray under the setting sun. I stepped outside my comfort zone when I traveled for research. I experienced Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, but also shared Jewish and American holidays with friends from many cultural backgrounds. I helped the Track II Environmental Forum progress in their on-the-ground environmental projects in the region. At the end of the semester, I climbed one of the highest peaks in the Arava Valley.
It is impossible to describe every incredible experience or even the general ambiance of life in a multi-cultural community in the middle of nowhere (amid a terrain that looks like the moon) on a socialist kibbutz. I even find it difficult to sum up my reflections in a short blog post. Yet, stepping back from the semester, I realize that the biggest takeaways come from the communal and peacebuilding aspects of the program. Now that I look at my experience holistically, I am struggling with how to move forward with my growth in the “real world.”
I am most grateful for the beautiful people here who made our community like a family. Each person brought warmth, deep thought, and care with them. The program is self-selective—everyone comes here for some combination of reasons that includes getting experience in the environmental field, building coexistence, or desiring to live in a multicultural community. Here, campfires happen a few times a week. I never eat a meal alone; there is always someone in the dining hall. When I needed help making latkes for the Hanukah party, people came to help because they care about me and they care about the community. When an intern went to the ICU for health reasons, each day, a group of students and interns visited him in the hospital.
My question now is this: How can this great sense of community be replicated in my lonely adventure years of my 20s? Of course, I will never again live in such a multi-cultural community; this is an unique experience that I am appreciating in this moment. At the same time, I enjoy the social aspect of the community and the support that is mutual among all of us. Once I leave the Arava Institute in June, I most likely will return to the United States to begin a job in some major American city. I will live in an apartment either by myself or with a roommate that I find on Craigslist. I may have a few college friends in the city, or maybe not. How will I find community in such isolation? Yes, I am sure that I can make a few new friends and try new activities to meet people, but is that really the same sense of interconnection? I do not want to live life in isolation, yet right now, I feel like I have no choice about this future path. It is the American Way.
Another important source of personal growth came from the Peacebuilding Leadership Seminar (PLS). As I said in my earlier blog post, once a week we had PLS and all sat in a circle and spoke about our political beliefs about the region. During the seminar, my staunchly pro-Israel viewpoints were challenged, and I often felt frustrated with the program, as I was accustomed to being surrounded by people who share very similar views on Israel. I learned the importance of empathy and listening—both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered in ways that I never have in a place that they both call home. I learned how the Israeli government does not provide basic services to unrecognized Bedouin villages and towns in Area C of the West Bank. As I said earlier, I had to confront the uncomfortable, which is no easy task.
Ultimately, my views on the conflict have shifted. Even though I agree that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, I see how Trump’s announcement about Jerusalem slowed the Arava Institute’s environmental work and personally impacted my Palestinian friends. I truly believe in the two-state solution, and I feel that small steps need to begin now to build trust and start the building blocks of a Palestinian state. Despite these statements, I am reluctant to criticize Israel too strongly. I think that it is important for Jewish Americans to build a relationship with Israel in order to keep Judaism alive as a religion, and I worry that strong criticism of Israel can be a barrier for American Jews. I also feel that Israel gets unfair international reproach that in some ways stems from anti-Semitism, and Palestinians need to recognize Israel’s right to exist. My challenge now is to decide how to advocate for my vision for the region. I feel like I do not fit the “box” of any Israeli advocacy organization and I am still unclear what my role is as a Jewish American. To be honest, I also feel hopeless that a two-state solution will happen anytime soon.
I still have another semester here, and perhaps my impressions will shift. I will continue to grow and learn. I continue to be open to change, to new friendships, to difficult conversations—and to more long hikes in this beautiful and strange landscape. I am thankful to have this experience as my first post-graduate venture, and I also appreciate the support that I receive from friends. Thank you, todah, shukran.
Via: Allison Marill, Fall 2017 intern