By Linda Gradstein
KIBBUTZ KETURA – When Shadi Shiha arrived at the Israeli-Jordanian border and saw the armed Israeli soldiers and the Israeli flag, he almost turned around and went home.
“I really panicked,” he told The Media Line with a laugh. “I had seen cops in Jordan but they don’t have rifles. I thought I was walking into a war zone with tanks and guns.”
It had already been tough to convince his family to let him come to school in Israel. They worried about his safety, and even before the latest tensions between Israel and Jordan, many Jordanians opposed contact with Israel. The Jordanian intelligence service called him in for a meeting and asked him why he was going to Israel.
That was almost a year ago. Shiha, who is also a serious break-dancer, spent two semesters at the Arava Institute at Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel and he says it changed his worldview.
“I didn’t know there was any place that Palestinians and Israelis actually live together and they are just friends,” he said. “I went to Haifa (a mixed Arab-Jewish city) and they live together like it’s nothing. I also went to Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and it was terrible how people lived.”
The Arava Institute, affiliated with Ben Gurion University, offers accredited programs for both undergraduate and graduate students. Some come for a semester; others for a full year. The idea is to study environmental issues from a cross-border and transboundary perspective.
The program is small, offering opportunities for one-on-one contact with professors and a chance to do environmental research.
“For 20 years the Institute has advanced cross border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict through our academic program that brings together Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and international students,” David Lehrer, the Executive Director of the program told The Media Line. “Through our research programs in water, energy, sustainable agriculture, conservation and international development, after 20 years we have over 1000 alumni all over world.”
Courses range from Water Management in the Middle East to Environmental Mediation and Conflict Resolution to The Bible as a Key to Environmental Thought. Students are usually one-third Israeli, one-third Arab, which includes Jordanians, Palestinians, and Arab citizens of Israel, and one-third internationals, mostly from the US.
Palestinian students have continued to attend despite growing “anti-normalization,” a movement that eschews any Israeli-Palestinian public cooperation until there is progress in peace negotiations. Lehrer says it has become harder to convince Jordanian students to attend, as the public mood in Jordan against Israel has intensified.
“I wanted to know more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Shiha said. “I heard everything from the media and the media makes it look really bad. I came here to meet some Israelis and some Jews because I never met them before. From the media, it looked like they were always killing and shooting Arabs.”
The Arava Institute is housed on Kibbutz Ketura, a pluralistic kibbutz originally founded in 1973 by Americans affiliated with the Young Judea youth movement, deep in the Arava desert. Today, there are more than 500 Israelis living there, with businesses ranging from growing dates to cultivating red algae for cosmetics to a special orchard for medicinal plants.
While the students live in dorms on the kibbutz, they eat their meals at the kibbutz dining hall and are invited to join kibbutz members for religious celebrations and kibbutz-wide events including weddings. There is also an Olympic-sized swimming pool which helps beat the desert heat.
Like many study abroad programs, this doesn’t come cheap. While Palestinians and Jordanians receive full scholarships, native Israelis pay about $2000, and US students pay $9000 a semester, including room and board. That is still far less than almost all American colleges.
Yonatan Abramsky, an Israeli student, recently finished his compulsory military service.
“I always liked environmental issues and sustainable living,” he told The Media Line. “I was into finding a community in the desert and I heard of this place and checked it out. It was amazing.”
Dallal, a Palestinian woman who asked not to give her last name, has already finished a BA degree from Birzeit University.
“I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I do,” she told The Media Line. “I can say whatever I want to say, and do whatever I want. I’m presenting just myself regardless of my background and family. I’m less stressed than I am in the West Bank.”
She said her mother didn’t want her to leave the West Bank, but for more traditional reasons not having to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It’s because I’m a girl and I have a certain role – I’m supposed to get married and have kids, not to travel,” she said.
The Institute has just celebrated its 20th year. As part of the celebrations, they launched the Arava Alumni Innovation Program, which gives seed money grants to teams of alumni to support initiatives for sustainability and peaceful relations across borders. The teams must involve at least two nationalities – Israeli/Palestinian or Israeli/Jordanian or Palestinian/Jordanian.
Jordanian Shadi Shiha has returned to Amman and has opened a business with two friends, a car wash and wax that does not use water. In the fall, he’ll be touring US college campuses as part of a recruiting trip for the Arava Institute.
This article originally appeared on The Media Line; reprinted with permission.