The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES) is the premier environmental studies institute in the Middle East and is accredited under the auspices of the Ben Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev. Since 1996, the Institute has been teaching environmental studies to university students from the Middle East and other parts of the world. The unique approach of the Institute is to teach the environment, in which all share, as a bridge to cooperation and peacebuilding in the Middle East.

Students come to the Arava Institute from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, as well as from the US and Canada. Students fluent in English can also come from any other place in the world. The Institute’s focus is on the immediate Middle East region of these three focus countries. While others are more than welcome, the Institute’s resource development program ensures scholarships for students from these areas. Typically, students may be Israelis who have completed army service but not yet begun university studies (in their early 20s) or students from elsewhere who have finished their first-degree program, are looking for specific knowledge, or are looking for a master’s program that suits them. Some students are enrolled in a two-year master’s track shared by the Arava institute and BGU. North Americans often come for a semester or a year study abroad. The costs are comparable or even lower than their normal university fees, so this is the largest non-Middle Eastern sector at the Arava Institute. Other students may be curious about the environment or the opportunity to “meet the other.” Average ages are between 20 and 35 with many exceptions — including an occasional retiree taking classes. An average semester includes 30–40 students.

At the Arava Institute, students are asked to bring their whole selves into the program. No one checks his or her identity at the door, and the staff invest a tremendous amount of energy working with students to bring their personal history, experience, and knowledge to bear on all discussions. The student’s personal or family experiences inform all discussions and include voices from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities as well as those whose families have immigrated before or during their lifetime and whose town of origin often defines their personal identity. For example, a student may state “my family is from Hebron” even though the last four generations were born in Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Another student will state “I am Israeli” despite having been born in Argentina and brought to Israel with her family at age five. Each family and each culture has a different attitude towards answering even a seemingly simple question such as “where are you from”? These attitudes are explored and shared by the students as part of learning about identity in the framework of a special seminar (explained in more detail later in this essay).

There are many aspects of the experience of the students at the Arava Institute that extend well beyond the usual confines of a classroom. The staff and faculty invest tremendous attention and energy in making students feel welcome, informed, and safe. The base of the program is the high-level university coursework in environmental issues, using the region and real life examples to bring the material to life. The environment studies courses include: Transboundary Water Resource Management, Comparative Environmental Law, Environmental Economics, Chemistry and Physics for the Environment, Human Aspects of Environmental Science, Applied Sustainability, Organic Gardening, Environmental Ethics, Sustainable Development, Environmental Policy, Eco-health, Environmental Mediation, Ecology, Environment Science, Environmental Politics, Sustainable Agriculture, Environmental Education, and others.

In addition to academic courses, students pursue independent research in which they are guided and mentored by professionals in the field. Very often this research can be incorporated into a future graduate research project or may link into an existing project of the Arava Institute. All students review research methodology, prepare research questions, and conduct their work. The location of the Institute and network of faculty, ongoing environmental activity in the immediate area, and alumni from previous years provide opportunities for students to be very creative in choosing and carrying out these research projects. Presentations at the end of the semester are very informative and well attended.

Within the framework of the Arava Program, all students participate in field trips that take them out of the classroom and theoretical studies and deepen their connections to regional environmental issues and efforts to prevent and reduce these problems. These field trips are adapted each semester to the current situation, and may include travel within Israel, to Jordan, and, situation permitting, to areas in the Palestinian Authority. A trip might include a visit to installations along the Dead Sea and the Jordan River in order to see the agreements about water allocation between Israel and Jordan in action, and to see the state of the river at more than one point along its path. Another trip may include Jerusalem and a meeting with major government officials or journalists about their view of the political and environmental situation in the region. Visits to communities that face unique environmental challenges are included in order to allow students to fully appreciate the issues. Most students never realized that if one lives in Tel Aviv or Boston water comes from the tap at a reasonable price any time you want, but if one lives in Bethlehem or Amman, water is available only once or twice a week and tanks store each family or business’ water allotment until the next time.

The Arava Institute is much more than just another university — it is a place of learning infused with values where students get a loud, clear message that they are expected to be themselves, to learn about the other(s), to work to make the world a better place. An additional component of the student experience is the required course called the Peace-building and Environmental Leadership Seminar (PELS). The PELS is an original compulsory course designed and implemented by the Arava Institute for the Arava Program. The PELS Coordinators, Michelle Shachar and Dr. Uri Gordon, work closely with other coexistence organizations and bodies in the region in order to ensure the content of the course is constantly updated and is sensitive to the diversity of the student body.

The PELS is an excellent forum for mitigating tension arising from differences in political or religious beliefs, as well as misunderstandings arising from cultural and social interactions. With each year of its implementation, evaluations from the course have highlighted the positive effect PELS has had on students’ perceptions of each other. The PELS sessions offer a safe and facilitated forum for discussions that encourage self-expression while building mutual respect across the religious, political, and social differences that are strong elements of each student’s identity. Skills acquired by participants during the course are indispensable throughout their professional careers as they pursue solutions to environmental conflicts after they finish their studies at the Arava Institute.

The Goals of the PELS Program

The PELS program provides a framework for dialogue and tools to communicate, creating a shared vision of the Middle East together. It offers encounters with role models and training in a wide array of skills (emotional, cognitive, and technical) to empower future action.

The students will develop:

Cultural understanding, respect, empathy, and self-reflection

A sense of empowerment, agency, and initiative

A sense of shared community, even during times of conflict

The students will acquire:

Skills for effective and open communication

Skills for effective environmental campaigning and advocacy

Informed perspectives on the politics of the Middle East and the politics of the environment

A general understanding of coexistence initiatives and environmental campaigns today

Participants emerge from the PELS better equipped to manage cultural differences that inhibit environmental collaboration as they reach new understandings of each other’s cultures, backgrounds, and traditions. First and foremost, they gain the understanding that each person has a cultural and family narrative and that their belief system is impacted by how and where they have been raised and educated. The PELS seminar opens the students’ minds to the understanding and existence of other narratives while allowing them the safety to maintain their own. Throughout the course participants also build their competency as leaders in order to face the challenges presented by the search for environmental justice in the Middle East. Students are trained to apply the principles of PELS to their future professions through exercises, discussions, and lectures.

In PELS sessions, students explore differences related to nationality, race, religion, age, politics, region, language, and social norms. There is a focus on internal group dynamics, stereotypes, politics and coexistence, religion, and “heritage” events including cuisine, music, and story-telling. An emphasis is placed on developing students’ individual leadership skills and building trust through teamwork. In addition to the sessions facilitated within the Institute, professionals from other programs and projects are invited to talk to the participants. Several workshops facilitated by experts in communication, dialogue, historical perspectives, conflict resolution, and leadership training are also included. This broad range of lectures and workshops encourage a thorough examination of conflict in relation to political identities and cultural diversity.

An additional component of the Peace-building and Environmental Leadership Seminar is a number of visits incorporated into the field trips mentioned above or as a separate PELS trip. During these trips, coexistence and conflict resolution organizations and activities throughout Israel are visited and experts in these fields heard as part of the PELS. These visits emphasize the complexities associated with coexistence projects in the region and encourage the students to examine the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict on different areas of society.

The Arava Institute invests in the social capital of its students, faculty, and staff as well as in building the necessary personal and academic relationships for long-term cooperation in the field of environment. The Institute brings students together for a semester, while many are together for a year or two years. At the Institute, students spend so much time together, real long-term relationships and contact continue even after they finish the program. The Arava Institute aims high — the Institute’s dream is that the future Environmental Minister for Israel, the PA, and Jordan will all be graduates of the Arava Institute programs and will be able to work together because of their shared experiences. The personal and professional contacts they make as well as what they learn and experience help them turn ideals into tangible results and realities.

In conclusion, the Arava Institute gives its students both training and experience in environmental subjects and the chance to build and benefit from personal relationships and a network rich in human resources. This network of alumni, faculty, researchers, and friends enables the larger Arava Institute family to be part of positive change in the region. Gradually, the alumni are taking their places in their home communities in research and business and are able to utilize the network for the benefit of their new positions and hopefully for the benefit of the region. In addition, alumni and the Arava Institute staff have influenced other NGOs and organizations in the region to adopt the use of environmental cooperation as a tool for peace-building. The Institute is also seeking to expand in order to increase the number of students and researchers impacted each year. Alumni currently living in the Middle East, and the multiplying effect of more organizations adopting this model of cooperation, have a very real potential to be part of the creation of a sustainable Middle East.