Exploring What’s OURS Because Nature Knows No Borders

April 11, 2011

This letter is a response to a piece by Dina Omar, which appeared in the Columbia Spectator by Adi Segal, a senior in the Joint Program with Columbia and JTS
Dear Dina,
I find it ironic that you were able to write your piece on October 12, after we had spent at least ten minutes at the Israel Study Abroad Fair at Barnard discussing my time at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, where coexistence and peace-building is actively happening as we speak. You said that you were “getting information for a friend” but did not have the guts to bring up your issues with Masa in person. Since, I didn’t have the chance to respond to you then, let me take this opportunity to do so.
Let me review what we discussed about my Masa-supported program at the Study Abroad Fair on October 5th:
The Arava Institute offers environmental teaching and research programs in the Middle East. Its purpose is to prepare future Arab and Jewish leaders to cooperatively solve the region’s environmental challenges. The student body is one-third Israeli Jewish, one-third Arab (including Israeli Arab, Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, and Tunisian), and one-third from other countries (the majority from the United States).  Students of all backgrounds room together and thus have plenty of time to socialize, study, and discuss their obvious differences.
In addition to the academic courses, all students are required to take the peace-building and environmental leadership seminar to teach the concept of the “dual narrative” developed by Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University and Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University. Students are encouraged to consider both the Palestinian and Israeli narratives to gain a broader perspective on the conflict, to see it from both sides. Such perspective is critical, because it shapes in very deep ways how individuals on both sides of the divide understand the other, as well as themselves. One of the greatest challenges to peace between Israelis and Palestinians is being able to stand in the shoes of the other.
The Arava Institute is located in the Middle East, not in Europe or the United States, literally on the border of Israel and Jordan, a few miles from the Egyptian border. This makes the experience much more real and tangible. On weekends students visit each other in their homes in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan. For students from New York and the rest of the United States, such an experience is invaluable.
In terms of funding, American students pay $8,000, Israelis pay 8,000 Shekels, and Arabs attend for FREE. Thus, at this MASA supported institution, Arabs are actually more highly subsidized. Just as Masa  is doing its part to support Jewish students, this is a program that could be assisted by Palestinian organizations and donors in America in order to work towards peace.
In the ebb and flow of diplomacy and the ups and downs of the peace process, the Arava Institute and scores of other organizations are working across the divides in the Middle East to keep the soil fertile for the peace we all desire and desperately need there.
Dina, what I did not mention when we spoke was that I also spent a semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There, there were visibly more religious Muslim women than Jewish religious women. But, everyone gets equal treatment. That’s more than you can say about most other universities in the region outside of Israel. I lived with religious Jews as well as devout Christians and we constantly had our Palestinian friends over for dinner and games.
Lastly, I’d like to share a short anecdote. One evening I went to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem with my Arab, Argentinean, and Israeli peers to visit pediatric patients. Aside from the smiles we brought to all the recovering children, with a quick glance it was clear that there were numerous Arab patients. Nevertheless, they were all being equally cared for by Jewish and Arab doctors working together. By exploring Israel with the assistance of Masa, I was able to find that coexistence is really happening with the ever-growing hope for much more. That’s the unadulterated reality.
If anything, Masa helped me see the current situation for what it truly is. In addition to exploring the great wonders of the country with my Arab and Israeli friends, I was also able to see the future state of Palestine. Studying in Israel through Masa allowed me to make new friends and visit their homes in Bethlehem, Hebron, and Ramallah. I was able to meet amazing people and experience the successful work of Palestinians.
Dina, if you are not interested in discussing coexistence and peace-building just say so. BUT, do not hide behind the Masa slogan and assume that just because Jews deservedly want a homeland, we are not interested either. In fact, it is very much the contrary. Jews would love to live in peace with all of Israel’s neighbors. You should know that Jews were the first and possibly the last to offer a two state solution, even before the creation of Israel by a majority vote in the U.N. While I am a major advocate of fair and just peace for all parties, hearing uninformed arguments and finger-pointing like yours makes me less hopeful that peace is on the horizon.
I look forward to the day when my fellow Diaspora Palestinians can receive funding, similar to MASA, and easily study at Al-Quds University. In order to make this a reality, we need not bash and delegitimize the State of Israel and the programs that are already working towards this effort. I urge you to lead the Students for Justice in Palestine and other organizations of your choosing to speedily create a sovereign and democratic Palestinian State alongside a democratic Jewish State. The more we can work together, the faster everyone’s objectives will be met.
You closed your piece by asking, “If this imagined reality is something study abroad programs are helping to accomplish and manufacture, is this Masa partnership something Columbia University and students should support?” As described above, we are not fabricating any truths. We are openly working to create a future where two sovereign nations work side-by-side to solve the larger problems in the world that transcend borders. Simply put, the answer to your question is YES, Columbia should support peace building and academic programs all working to create a brighter realty for both Israelis and Palestinians. And, I encourage you to join in this effort.
Adi Segal is a senior in the Joint Program with Columbia and JTS. He is majoring in Urban Studies with concentration in Environmental Studies and Bible. He spent last year abroad in Israel at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Hebrew University. He can be reached at ays2107@columbia.edu. The views expressed in this piece are solely of the author and do not represent the Arava Institute or Masa.