Israeli, Palestinian visit MSU to discuss conflict, encourage cooperation
What comes after the words “Israel” and "Palestine?”
If your first thought was “conflict,” you’re not alone. After all, the primary narrative surrounding Israel and Palestine is indeed one of mutual strife. But the reality is a much more nuanced and complex situation, and there are people currently working to change the way we talk about Israel and Palestine.
On Monday, an Israeli and a Palestinian came to MSU to challenge the narrative of conflict and share their own stories.
Eve Tendler and Shadi Shiha, both 25, are both recent alumni of the Arava Institute, an environmental think tank based in southern Israel. The pair are currently traveling around the U.S. to various college campuses as part of the Arava Institute’s Dialogue Project, a speaking tour devoted to the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ― and other conflicts like it ― can be bridged through dialogue and interpersonal communication.
Tendler, herself Israeli, comes from a traditionally Zionist family.
“My mom’s family came to then-Palestine in the early 1930s from Germany, a family of engineers,” Tendler said. "My father’s family are Holocaust survivors, they came from Hungary in the late 1970s. So growing up in a Jewish family, for me Israel was my religion.”
She grew up in Tel Aviv, celebrating Israel’s independence day each May and being taught that she had to protect the Jewish state. From 2001 to 2005 she experienced the Second Intifada, meaning “uprising” in Arabic, a period of intensified violence between Israel and Palestine.
“I am about six or seven, so I don’t know who they are, where they came from, why they want to kill me,” Tendler said. “Quite a scary environment to grow up in.”
Shiha, a Palestinian born and raised in Amman, Jordan, grew up in a different environment.
His father had moved to Kuwait after being forced out of Be’er Sheva in Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, and his mother left Jerusalem after the West Bank was captured by Israeli forces in the 1967 Six-Day War.
His parents were forced to leave yet again in 1991 when the Gulf War began, and they relocated to Amman, Jordan where, a year later, Shiha was born. He grew up in a refugee camp in Amman, learning at U.N. schools for refugees.
For Shiha, the day in May that Tendler celebrated means something very different. It is called “Al Nakba.”
“Nakba means ‘disaster,’” Shiha said. “So this is the most sad day for the Palestinians and the happiest day for the Israelis. It’s Independence Day for them and Nakba for us. ... Most of the Palestinian families turned into refugees that day. They were displaced to Arab neighbor countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Kuwait.”
Tendler began to question her upbringing during the 2008 Gaza War, in which over 1,000 Palestinians were killed in Israeli airstrikes.
“I’m sitting in my grandmother’s house and I'm watching the television, I’m about 14, and I see the IDF planes dropping bombs on the city of Gaza,” Tendler said. “At that point things don’t really make a lot of sense anymore. I feel like I’m just getting one side of the story, so I ask questions in school, and for the first time I hear the word ‘nakba,’ or the word ‘Palestine.’ I learned the word ‘occupation’ for the first time, what it means.”
Unfortunately, Tendler’s family and friends were not receptive to her questioning of the narrative.
“There are two options,” she said. “It’s either ‘Oh, you’re so adorable, get over it, start doing something real with your life.’ And maybe a worse reaction was people calling me a traitor. And I decide to stop talking about it.”
“People just don’t talk about peace anymore,” Tendler said.
Coming to the Institute
After spending time in middle and high school on environmental projects such as building green roofs or farming in the desert, Shiha heard about the Arava Institute from a friend and decided he wanted to continue his studies there. But there was a problem.
“I can’t tell my mom that it’s in Israel,” Shiha said. “Just mentioning the word ‘Israel,’ it’s problematic in Jordan. Because people call you ‘traitor’ or ‘normalizer.’ That means that you are acknowledging the existence of Israel and denying the existence of Palestine.”
While Jordan’s political leadership is relatively friendly to Israel, the taboo on talking about or recognizing Israel is cultural. According to Shiha, 85 percent of the Jordanian population is comprised of Palestinian refugees.
“You grow up, your grandma tells you that ‘Ah, this is our house, this is our key, these are the papers and they kicked us out,’” Shiha said, describing his family’s stories of being removed from their land when Israel declared its independence. “So you grow up with this anger, you know?”
After four months, Shiha convinced his family to let him study in Israel, and he was finally able to obtain a visa to enter the country.
“I took the bus down from Amman to cross the border, and it was the first time I saw the Israeli flag in front of me, and a big soldier standing with a rifle,” Shiha said. At that point, he wanted to go back to Amman.
But once he arrived at the Arava Institute, located only a kilometer from the Jordanian border in southern Israel, he began to make friends. His first day on the campus, an Israeli student fresh out of his mandatory military service invited him to have a beer. They talked, and Shiha mentioned that he wanted to travel to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem ― an extremely holy site in Islam ― and pray.
A few days later, the Israeli rented a car and drove Shiha and another Jordanian to al-Aqsa so that they could pray.
“After that I asked him, ‘You are supposed to be my enemy, you are Israeli?’” Shiha said. “He told me that, ‘If I have the right to pray here, you have the right to pray here. Because this is our land — not your land, not my land.’ That was a really life-changing experience for me."
Tendler came to the institute after traveling to Nepal to aid in the country’s recovery after a devastating earthquake in 2015 that killed 9,000 people.
“I really see for the first time environmental injustice in terms of the water infrastructure, no roads to bring the water infrastructure back,” Tendler said. “I remember I had heard about the Arava Institute, and I think to myself ‘maybe this is a different way to approach the conflict that I’d never thought about before.' So I go there, I met Shadi, I remember the night. We studied together, we studied water resource management, we studied political ecology and environmental education, many other courses.”
Work at the Institute
The Arava Institute aims to emphasize the fact that environmental issues in the Middle East transcend borders.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, if you’re from South Africa or the United States, environmental issues are shared issues that we have to move past the politics in order to work on together,” Ari Massefski says. Massefski is manager of university relations for the Arava Institute’s Boston-based non-profit wing, Friends of the Arava Institute.
“As long as there is environmental injustice, the conflict is going to get more flammable,” Tendler said. “And as long as the conflict is getting more flammable, there will be more environmental injustice and people will be more mad.”
Shiha learned about the region’s environmental issues last year at the institute and became determined to do something.
“Jordan has a serious water problem,” Shiha said. “The fact is that Jordan will run out of water in the next 30 years. It’s gonna be dry, so my kids will have no pools to swim in. .. So after I knew this kind of stuff, it created a sense of responsibility for me towards my country.”
With friends at Jordan University, Shiha has developed a wax-foam mixture that can wash cars without water, and he estimates that it will save the city of Amman 1.7 million cubic meters of water per year.
The institute’s other focus is on bridging the gap between Israelis and Palestinians through dialogue.
“They started something called Peace Leadership Seminar,” Tendler said. “All the students have to sit in one room and talk about all the things they don’t want to talk about. It gets really intense, because you have Israelis who just finished their IDF service ... and in front of them sits a Palestinian who just had to go through three different checkpoints to get to the Arava Institute.”
“The goal is really to have these two narratives in the same room,” Tendler said. “These stories — they are there, and they won’t disappear. We have to meet each other and hear these stories.”