My Hartman Institute Field Trip - July 12, 2010

Every year as part of the Shalom Hartman Institute program we - the students - can choose from different field trips. Each one is supposed to help us understand a different aspect of Israel and Israeli society. This year we had a choice of an archaeological tour, a meeting with ultra Orthodox Jews, a visit to an Israeli army base, or an introduction to a unique cooperative environmental initiative.

Israel unfortunately isn't known for its environmental advocacy. It is making strides, but it has a long way to go. A major concern in Israel, and its immediate neighborhood in the middle east, is access to a steady and sufficient supply of fresh water. In other regions of the world this concern may be slightly alleviated by friendly neighbors working cooperatively to solve the crisis. Since Israel only recently (15 years ago) signed a treaty with Jordan, and is still technically at war with Syria, and is working hard to make peace with the Palestinians, solving the water crisis in Israel is much more challenging and complex.

An organization known as Friends of the Earth Middle East (whose web site - is under construction) is working one community at a time to try to work on this issue. FOEME is an NGO and therefore is not affiliated with other Israeli governmental or even traditional Jewish environmental organizations such as the Jewish National Fund. To my chagrin, as I wanted to hear an optimistic and positive report about how two towns - one Israeli and one Palestinian - are beginning to work with and trust each other, politics unfortunately and I guess inevitably entered the discussion.

Three Palestinians - two residents of Wadi Fakin and one employee of FOEME - and two Israelis - one resident of Tzur Hadassah and one employee of FOEME - gave a brief overview of the cooperative history. The Palestinians felt compelled to blame their water and overall economic hardships on Israel. 1948 was a dark day for them they said and since then they have been fighting to get their land back and regain access to water. The Israelis ignored the history and tried instead to talk about what they are doing now to make up for past mistakes and to ensure neighborly environmental cooperation. We walked on a path that overlooked those two towns and also the Jewish West Bank town of Betar Illit (Upper Betar) and we saw how the construction that is ongoing in Betar Illit is continually affecting the farms of Wadi Fakin. Betar Illit is above the Arab town and much of the solid waste - both trash and construction residue - rolls and flows into the village. They told us the ongoing story of the sewage runoff into the town and the long process that FOEME and Wadi Fakin had to go through to get Betar Illit to change its waste water management. The Israeli government, Palestinian Authority, and Israeli West Bank civil administration all have different procedures and all work to varying of degrees of success on matters such as these.

It was painful to have participated in this field trip. I naively wanted to hear a positive report. I wanted to hear about Palestinians and Israelis working together for the common good. Instead I heard how another practical, real issue is complicated by politics, history, distrust, and pain. True peace in the middle east is a very long away, but at least in Tzur Hadassah and Wadi Fakin, they have the tools and resources to help make peace sooner. Click here to see a brief video (which is also this week's video devar Torah) of the encounter. May it only serve as a model for the bigger discussion.