On Tuesday evening in a crowded room in the Fine Arts Building, Israeli environmentalist Kama Lee-Tal addressed the first Peace Action meeting of the year, joined by her colleague Nasr Al-Qadi, an environmentalist from Palestine.
Alumni of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a university located in the Negev desert in southern Israel, the two environmentalists came to Binghamton University to discuss scarcity of resources in the region, shared land and cross-culture relations.
Before he became curious about social aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Al-Qadi, who grew up in Palestine, said he was taught to avoid interactions with Israelis at all costs. He said that social standards and media drilled into his head that Israelis were dangerous, causing him to feel unsafe throughout his childhood.
When Al-Qadi enrolled at the Arava Institute, however, he said he realized his notions of Israelis were founded on propagandist stories. He said he had given into stereotypes entirely, but attending the institute forced him to break out of the divisive paradigm.
“When I applied to the Arava Institute, it was the best time to be with Israelis and internationals,” Al-Qadi said. “It was a truly life-changing experience. I started learning the language of the enemy. I started to look more after others. I started building trust and love and passion.”
Lee-Tal, who grew up in Jerusalem and now attends the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, spoke about the specific resources, such as clean water, renewable energy and sustainable agriculture that she wants to see improved upon in the Middle East and how to combat certain scarcities. Lee-Tal said the Arava Institute taught her about the ecology that ignites her current efforts of sustainability.
“Why do people keep fighting over land instead of fighting to save all of our land?” Lee-Tal said. “We need to deal with the real problems at hand. We need to share resources.”
Al-Qadi said the Arava Institute fosters cross-cultural relationships in order to encourage its students to work together regardless of ethnicity or religion. Each class is small — about 50 or 60 students per year — so courses and dorm rooms host a mix of pupils; a third of the students are from Palestine, another third from Israel and the rest are international, either coming from the United States or Europe. He said the institution’s classes range from sociology to energy conservation to agriculture, all with the objective of creating a sustainable region.
Al-Qadi said that immersive learning with Israelis and international students in Arava Institute brought out the one common tie between them all: humanity. The commonality of wanting to stop violence and save the land, he said, was enough for all students to unite and work together.
Both environmentalists said they agreed that the focus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be put on the land as a physical, living entity, and not on the discrepancies between the people — religion, ethnicity and values — who want the power to take the land as their own.
“Communication will always be better than violence,” Al-Qadi said. “It helps change, and I believe that you can be the change you need. Peace can direct communication to turn into love and respect. It’s amazing.”
Ciara Hanlon, vice president of Peace Action and a junior double-majoring in psychology and human development, said she found the speakers’ perspectives more refreshing and interesting than the conflict’s human crises, an area that is already covered in most high school or college classes.
“You hear a lot about the divisiveness in the area and political tension but you don’t hear about how people are coming together,” Hanlon said. “Here they are fighting over all this land, but it’s land that might not be there if they don’t come together. They’re fighting over the land that they’re not saving.”