About seventeen years ago, I arrived at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies which is located in Kibbutz Ketura. The institute was founded by a dear man, one of the environmental movement heads in Israel – Professor Alon Tal.
According to his vision, the environment does not recognize nor consider boundaries. Sewage that runs from Tul Karem in the West Bank reaches Bat Hefer in Israel. Smog in East Jerusalem finds its way to the western part of the city. The Dead Sea is a shared basin, not separate.
From this basic premise, that nature knows no borders, the institute has promoted to date dozens of cross boundary projects that see the environmental problem as a connecting asset; a platform for bringing hearts together; an opportunity for bringing Israelis and Palestinians closer and connecting between them: Between Israelis and Jordanians; between Arabs and Jews; a professional-business-academic-political-human connection.
During the years I worked and researched at the institute I learned the advantage of this refreshing point of view. An invitation to execute a twist in the plot for almost every “problem:” To transform a burden into an asset. It would take me years to understand that at the foundation of this approach are found the active elements for creative problem solving.
The following is a story about the power of authenticity that crosses boundaries and unique imagination – the elements that move investors to put their hands in their pockets.
“What would you like me to speak about this evening?” I asked him just after finishing dinner and as the hall began filling up. “Simply tell your story. That is what the audience loves most.”
That was in the summer of 2009. I already had several inspirational speeches in my bag as the “poster boy” of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. David Lehrer called me and asked me to fly to the United States for a fund raising tour. Exactly five years after I had spoken successfully before senior senators on Capitol Hill on the water crisis in the Middle East.
I was 33 years old but a real “kid”. A kid because I didn’t see my own capabilities. It would take a while to understand that authenticity works that way. Free of polluters in the form of prior planning or over-consciousness. But David, the mythological director of the institute, is a business man; and a good business man identifies a need and fills it with his sharp senses. He saw my ability to stand before an audience and ask for their help.
“I want to take a journey between selected stations throughout the United States”, he began to elaborate. “David (the second one) my counterpart in the U.S., will host you and accompany you and Anton”. Who is Anton?” I asked. “A Christian Palestinian guy from Bethlehem; he is also a graduate of the Institute. Each one of you is a story larger than life. It will speak to the American audience. Come, it will be awesome, dude. Throughout the journey”, he kept on oiling the hinges of my rusty imagination, “you’ll stay in the homes of different hosts and will travel many miles”. His lubrication began to work. I started to imagine never ending corn fields, endless skyscrapers, thick forests.
Michigan. One of many roads we traveled
“Let’s go and have fun”, the adventurous geographer in me replied. I live for adventure. Without it my life would be too bland.
A few weeks later I was to meet Anton for the first time. We have similar character traits but are also very different. We have the same skin color but speak different languages. He wears a cross and I am still arguing with myself about my Jewishness. He has a respectable paunch, and I have a receding hairline.
But finding differences isn’t hard. It is the connections that are challenging. So what is it that joins us? The language that connects us is the love and concern for nature and the environment. Each one in his own language. In his own way. Each one on his side of the border. But not really. Because the environment feels that there is concern for it when the boundary disappears from perception. Or it is then that it connects to its essence. It connects us.
I am one of those who believes that chemistry is more natural and less acquired because it derives from the heart that dictates perception to the brain. When it’s there, it is felt immediately. And the chemistry between us was wonderful from the very first moment. There was mutual respect between us, mutual restraint, similar conscious priorities and a rich vocabulary of Arabic swear words. Swear words that relieved the tension between us in tense moments. And these were not a few.
Anton and me with David’s daughters
We spoke for long hours during our journey. We argued, became close, laughed, raised our voices at each other. We challenged each other with parallel perceptions and questions, but mainly we touched each other’s hearts.
After a few nights of recharging from jetlag at the second David’s house, we set out. How long the roads are in America! Endless. From one point to another my speaking skills improved miraculously. I became fit again. Yes, as it is with every skill, this one also requires practice. In any case, five years have gone by. What can a trainee ask for more than a comfortable climate to train in?
I feel good in front of an audience. Abroad, a different character emerges, one that I like. More relaxed, more tolerant, more polite. Something about the contrast with my Middle Eastern appearance and identity before the appearance and identity of the white audience connects well. The fluent English in my mouth, the “exotic” accent, and the skill of standing in front of a satiated audience that is thirsty for authentic stories from hungry worlds feels like the right recipe. This recipe of contrasts really works well in fund raising. That and the ability to understand what drives the other side. How it thinks. What the terminology that speaks to it is. What are its fears. What are its limits. What is it lacking, because that is where I come in as a speaker. With much sensitivity. And when emptiness is filled there is a sense of fullness. Even if it is only momentary. This sensation causes the other side to pull out its checkbook. Always. But what really motivated the donors to put their hands in their pockets, was not the momentary feeling of fullness. There was a real connection hidden from the eye that moved the donors to pull out their pens. We spoke to their hearts. We got them to put on our shoes. We got them off of the wide and comfortable freeways of America and brought them straight to the alleyways and dusty dirt roads of the Middle East.
A satiated audience listens to stories from hungry worlds
Absent from CNN reports and FOX NEWS. What was present in those encounters was authenticity.
Authenticity is impossible to imitate. Since it contains within it a passion expressed in the voice and body. Humanity cannot withstand the beacon of biological signals. They are stronger than any technological change. Authenticity also embodies original imagination and the language of association conveyed in words and unique descriptions. In short, originality was present there; and originality is what “sells” better than anything else. That is what investors are looking for.
Anton is a birdwatcher. From his earliest memories of himself, he loved birds. But a young Palestinian who goes around the bare hills of Bethlehem armed with lenses, doesn’t look good in the binoculars of an Israeli soldier. This is his story. The story that moved them to sign their checks. This is a story of a unique conflict between the professional identity that is clear to him, and the national identity as is perceived by his neighbors. The embodiment of tragedy. Show me the one who will dare to openly resist his miraculous dream: establishing the Palestinian Society for Natural Preservation in Judea and Samaria.
His English was a little more broken than mine. He had a tendency to perspire slightly during his lectures and his intonation didn’t always correspond with the text that was running through his mind. But that was exactly what the audience liked. As I did. His authenticity.
Then as with every good story, the dramatic climax arrived: The inevitable point of conflict with the officer at the checkpoint. He asked about the camera and Anton replied…authentically…that he is a bird photographer. A bird photographer, eh? The officer replied with cynicism seasoned with curiosity. “Give me your memory card and wait here”, said the temporary officer to the eternal birdwatcher. The card was full of goodies: eagles and hawks, falcons, and lappet-faced vultures.
A little over an hour later and half a pack of cigarettes, the officer returned the card to the birdwatcher. “Look, do me a favor and clear out from this area, okay? By the way, you’ve got great pictures, I’m also an amateur birdwatcher and I learned a lot from your photographs. All the best!”
Yes, this is the part where the crowd stands on its feet clapping. Standing ovation. As only Americans know how to do. Except that Anton really deserved it. Since actually between us, he was the hero. He was the underdog – a real one.
But Anton is a strong guy. Whoever openly expresses vulnerability authentically – believes in himself on the inside. The underlying message is I don’t have anything to lose or to hide. This is me! The whole package. He struggles with tremendous forces in the home arena and outside it, who don’t condone his activities. But as a wave hits a wall, its power only intensifies toward the fulfilment of its destiny. His experiences with the military only fueled his innate passion.
Creativity loves pairs. Because if they understand their essence they don’t fight with each other, rather complement each other. Duet.
And me? What is my personal story in this whole narrative? My story is about a young MA student who arrives in the faraway Arava in the Autumn of 2004. The Autumn in which I would get to know Palestinians for the first time in my life not through the sight of an M16 – suddenly I had to contend with a new picture of reality. One that no one told me existed. That not all Arabs “bite”. That not all of them see me as an enemy. That most of them are afraid of me and those like me. At least like I am afraid of them.
“Are you willing to sleep in the same room with a Palestinian?” The person interviewing me asked in the meeting from which I would leave with a study scholarship from the European Union. “What? What do you mean,” I asked innocently? “Are you willing to smell the socks of a Palestinian guy your age?” He hurled another piece of future virtual reality at me. “I guess I would”, I replied with hesitation unusual for me.
Perception is a fascinating thing. From my release from the army up to that moment, I had traveled in dozens of countries. After 21 years in which an opinionated person such as myself had been told what to do and how to think, the wild geographer within me was released. From one trip to the next I expanded my perceptions from Israeli-military to national-liberal. I experienced conversations into the night with an Iranian DJ in Goa. I was a guest of a Jordanian professor in his home who shared his intimate life story with me. I drank coffee and played backgammon with a real Iraqi (not like me) on the Iranian border and so forth. To the same extent that I had lived hidden in a kind of darkness, my curiosity was aroused, reaching out toward a new light. Little by little I realized that there are parallel perceptions of reality in the world. Those no one told me about. Inside, I started to wonder if there are parallel perceptions of reality in our area. So when I got to the interview, I already knew the answer to the socks question.
Six months after the socks interview I understood very well what the interviewer was talking about. It wasn’t easy. I went from the escapist campus of Tel Aviv University to a mixed and dusty Middle Eastern campus.
My identity started to be undermined. From week to week, like a snake, I shed layers of perceptions I didn’t identify with anymore. With a steady persistence I dried up the former layers of identity and began to water the emerging layers of identity. There I learned to listen to the other side. To see it. To understand that perhaps something beautiful is hiding behind the initial fear. Little by little real friendships were woven between me and some of the Palestinian and Arab students. We are in touch to this day. I call them real friendships because only with these can various fragments of truth be rejoined to an imperfect whole.
Little by little real friendships were woven
But once again in my life, the IDF saw a different reality for me. The hot air balloon in me had to come back to the ground. Just when I thought I had finished with the hellish chapter of my life in the form of Lebanon, my father was on the phone. You’ve been called up, his voice said quietly. He, who had had enough tension from his period in Lebanon and then afterwards in mine, felt something, and the intonation in his voice was precise again. For me, it was one call up to the reserves too many.
Deeply rooted habits laugh at changes from above. Like a good reservist I went on duty on the outside and was confused on the inside.
The front became heated. There was thick fog. Terrorists from Gaza took advantage of it to climb a ladder and cross the dividing wall. They hid under the concrete slabs of the sewer infrastructure that had just been built in the Erez Joint Industrial Area. Someone from my team who was guarding just then took eight bullets and dropped to the ground. Less than twenty minutes later I was supposed to replace him at this position. The next day, at the end of 36 hours without sleep and endless searches for the sons of bitches I asked my commander to go and ventilate with my friends in Tel Aviv. Extreme experiences shape reality. Change it. Suddenly I didn’t feel at home there. I didn’t feel protected. So I went down to what had become my home. To the place where my heart resided. To Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava.
I went into the campus area with the confidence outwardly demonstrated by someone from Beer Sheva. For years this outward demonstration had hidden well the lack of confidence within me. One of the Jordanian students wrapped in a hijab peered at me from her window and quickly closed the curtain in panic. My mind threw me back to a young guy from Gaza who had just spit at me and cursed me two days before. We had stopped dozens of suspects and had gathered them at one point. My heart was not quiet. What in hell am I doing here? I asked myself. Because inside I thought to myself naively that I had gone through this chapter in my life. Slowly they closed in on us shouting: Water! Water! Until someone next to me fired shots into the air and then silence returned to the place.
From the curtain quickly closed and the memory popping up like a slippery otter I filled up with rage inside. Moussa, an Israeli Arab that I had connected well with came up to me and with a half broken tone reminded me that I was wearing a green costume. A costume that frightens not a few of the students on the campus- they had their own movies running in their heads. “Go to your room”, he said with an assertiveness that displayed the depth of trust that had been built between us on this magical campus. “Go change your clothes and hide well that thing you’re carrying “– pointing to the gun.
There are events in life that add up to a few minutes or seconds but comprise a perceptual turning point. Such was this moment. It embodied within it so many details that got mixed up, as in a noisy blender, to create something new. Something in the pyramid of values within me sought to change into a new reality.
The Golden Gate Bridge. Fog can be so beautiful.
I went home and said good bye to my friends. Two days later I submitted a petition to the army to exempt me from combat reserve duty due to intensifying migraine headaches. My body was signaling to me – enough. My mind said: You ate enough shit in Lebanon (see the story on Southern Lebanon). You’ve done your part.
As I see it, the Gaza incident was like an innocent skier who awoke a dormant snow avalanche with his skis that was just waiting to finish with it already. The inner voice that emerged from me said to me Roee, look ahead. Create a new future. There is always an alternative. The crowd stood on its feet. Anton and I held hands and bowed with the appropriate modesty. The second David wiped away another tear. The three of us got in the car. “You guys were incredible”. We looked at each other without speaking. As if to say, now, what now?
In the last few years Anton and I meet each other once a year at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava for an active reunion of the Friends of the Arava Institute. Dozens of former students mingle with current ones at the site of the heart of change. Christian and Palestinian Muslims, Israeli Jews and Arabs, Jordanians, citizens of Gaza, Jews and non-Jews from the United States. Blend together from different paths of reality as if they were veins in the body that meet in the vena cava on their way back from being charged in the heart on the way to another active reunion. Anton comes over to me and hands me a cold beer smiling his funny smile. He says “le haim”. I reply “saha”. In the background my children and his children ride on a little toddler’s bicycle. His little one falls down. My older one picks him up and hugs him.
Heroes – Far from the spotlight they change the face of things with the inspiration they give to the coming generations
In this yearly gathering I learn one year after another, what happens when one dares to go against the collective mainstream of thought and go with the unique current of the heart.
And what about Anton’s dream? You are probably wondering. Today Anton directs the Palestinian Society for Natural Preservation in Judea and Samaria. I write these words and tear up. For him. For us. Thanks to him. With him. For this is the way heroes feel. Far from the spotlight they change the face of things with the inspiration they give to the coming generations….
Join me in my creative journey