This week, Jews around the world celebrated Tu’bishvat, also known as the “Jewish Arbor/Earth Day.” The holiday is meant to remind us of our connection to the earth and to our role as caretakers of the environment. Traditionally, Jews observe Tu’bishvat with a festive meal, and some modern practices include donating money to plant trees. Zionists who planted trees after the founding of Israel are said to have “made the desert bloom,” and the practice continues to today. Nature is miraculous, as recently shown through the work of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Researchers at the Institute planted a date palm from an ancient seed which has grown into a healthy tree they have aptly named “Methuselah.” Methuselah is a male tree that won’t bear fruit, but they are also beginning female trees and we might soon know what dates tasted like in ancient times.
Reviving ancient trees is only a small part of the work of the Arava Institute. At the Institute, Palestinians, Jordanians, and others work together to address the region’s deepest environmental concerns. As Thomas Friedman recently pointed out in the New York Times, environmental issues know no borders and therefore make fertile ground for cooperation. As a byproduct of living and studying together, participants develop mutual understanding of one another, which leads to tolerance and ultimately trust.
This past Thursday, February 6th, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to hear from two recent alumni of the program, Shira Fisch of Moshav Yaad (Arava Institute ’19) and Mohammed Jarrad of Tulkarem (Arava Institute ’17).The two engaged in conversation about their experience participating in a peacebuilding and conflict resolution seminar alongside their work in environmental studies. For both, it was the first time meeting ”the other” on neutral terms. They explained that by engaging in environmental learning together, participants in the program not only from friendships but cross-border partnerships that are vital to ensuring the region’s environmental sustainability. Upon his return, Mohammed’s time at the Institute motivated him to create a recycling initiative in his town to educate his community and alleviate their trash issue.
While reflecting on her experience, Shira said, “I realized I have to decide which stories from my upbringing I want to hold onto and which to let go and relearn.” Often, Israelis and Palestinians are not exposed to each other’s narratives and the way each views their history. Mohammed and Shira agreed that it was challenging to hear from the other side and having to reconcile both stories. Mutual understanding is vital if Israelis and Palestinians are going to live on the same land, improve their environmental conditions, and create prosperous societies.