By Saleem H. Ali
Statement at the Peace-building and Environmental Stewardship award ceremony for the Friends of Arava Institute, Congregation Mishkan Tefila, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, September 26, 2010.

Dear friends,

I am deeply honored by this award and would like to thank the nominators and the organizers of this event, particularly Rabbi Michael Cohen, David Weisberg and Mohamad Chakaki for their encouragement of my work. As with most matters pertaining to the Middle East, I accept this award with utmost humility, especially given the state of affairs in the region today. Despite the noblest efforts of organizations such as the Arava Institute, the level of suspicion, cynicism and contempt on all sides remains intense. There is still deep-rooted suspicion of even those of us who aspire for peace. Often we get labeled as “sell-outs” or “conspirators” or for those who like to offer a patronizing pat on the back, simply dismissed as “well-intentioned idealists.”

In my recent visit to Israel on an invitation from Tel Aviv University and the U.S. embassy, I was alarmed to find how much the narrative of peace-building has eroded – to use an environmental metaphor. There is an uneasy calm, and a surprisingly sanguine sense of security, which many Israelis voiced to me across the political spectrum. When I visited the Golan Heights during this trip, exploring ways by which there could be an ecological solution to the conflict, I was dismissed by one professor at the university who remarked that “the Golan was already a peace park.” I did raise my eyebrows a bit considering that this de-facto peace park has the most concentrated assemblage of land mine fields to be found anywhere in the world. Despondent from this initial dismissal, I was, however, also heartened to find other brave Israelis, such as Yigal Kipnis, a resident of the Golan who was enthusiastic about an ecological peace-building strategy in the region. This spectrum of views is also mirrored on the “other side.” Whether it be Syrian businessmen like Ibrahim Soliman or the Palestinians and Jordanians students who are willing to endure the scorn of many of their friends for studying at the Arava Institute – the yearning for peace among Arabs is also very high and regrettably gets eclipsed by the cacophony of radicals.

Let us also remember that those of us living in the diaspora can also be victim to the same prejudices that exist on the ground in the region. During my visit to the Arava Institute in January, 2010 I met a young Jewish-American student who told me how his brother had chided him for being a bleeding heart for wanting to study with Palestinians. I share this somber example with you on this occasion because any celebration of peace-building and environmental stewardship must remain grounded in “reality checks.” The work of the Arava Institute needs the support from us in the diaspora because the hindrances to peace-building, environmental or otherwise are diffuse. Environmental factors will ultimately define the quality of life in the regions for all ethnicities and political persuasion. That is why the Arava Institute needs to also reach out to not only those who are more willing to accept their message but also to those who may find their goals unpalatable, such as the Israeli West Bank Settler communities or the Palestinians in Gaza. An emerging program to promote renewable energy in Gaza as a peace-building gesture holds promise but can only be effective if political will is mobilized at the highest level in Israel. This would require resources as well as moral support from religious and community leaders and a willingness to show leadership with tough policy decisions. The willingness of the Institute to challenge Israeli law concerning the lack of access of Palestinians to educational institutions in Israel is an important example of their bold willingness to engage on these matters. Arava also has tremendous potential for further partnership with other organizations such as Friends of the Earth – Middle East or the University of the Middle East project, or The Israeli-Palestinian Confederation which would also require further resources.

Peace-building is a generational struggle and a responsibility that incrementally falls on us all As we are assembled in this sacred space, let us pledge to seek planetary bonds among us that can perhaps trump incipient prejudice that lurks within our baser humanity.