Arava Institute Alumni Discuss Israel-Palestine Conflict

On Friday, a Palestinian and Israeli alumnus of the Arava Institute explained that one sided narratives taught to children in the Israel and Palestine about the countries’ conflict prohibit children from realizing how many people are actually affected by the conflict on both sides.

Eve Tendler and Shadi Shiha grew up on opposing sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict, however, both attended the Arava Institute in Israel, an academic studies and research program focusing on environmental science, where they  created lifelong friendships. The two also credit the institute with educating them about the broader implications of the conflict.

Before attending the Arava Institute, Tendler and Shiha did not often broach the Israel-Palestine conflict, but through Peace-Building Leadership Seminars, also known as PLS Sessions, students are required to discuss, or argue, about current political issues. “We sit three hours a week in one room and talk about all the things we don’t want to talk about. The concept is that we have Israelis who just finished their combat service in the IDF and they come two months later and they sit in a room with a Palestinian after they just served in the West Bank,” said Tendler. “It can get quite intense, quite complicated, you have Palestinians who had their family and relatives hurt…so it’s very alive in people’s bloods and people fight, people shout, some people don’t say anything; but what’s cool is that after the [PLS Session] you go to eat in the same dining room and you go to the same pub.”

Tendler grew up in a Zionist household in Tel Aviv, Israel where she was taught to appreciate Israel as a Jewish state. “I definitely didn’t know anything about [Palestinians], didn’t hear the word Palestine, not in school, not [at] home, definitely not in the news or in the media…I didn’t know they used to live here, so I was very confused,” Tendler said. This one-sided narrative Tendler faced throughout her childhood eventually began to break apart as she grew older and became more curious about the conflict in the Middle East.

“Simple associations for me growing up [such as] ‘Allahu Akbar,’ which means ‘God is great’ in Arabic means there is about to be a terror attack,” she stated. “So, you know, it’s kind of an instinct you grow up with; but I think as a result of not having anyone explain it to me and at some point, I started asking questions.”

Shiha, on the other hand, grew up as a refugee in a proud Palestinian family, advocating for their right to their land. Shiha’s parents were both displaced from their homes and ended up in Kuwait, where they met, before fleeing to Jordan during the Gulf War. “For me, growing up in a Palestinian family, everyone is telling me that we got kicked off of our land and we need to take it back,” said Shiha. “We have the birthright to go back to Palestine and most of my family have papers that prove that they still have houses and lands in Palestine and on the media, all we see is warzones, so we see Palestinian people fighting the Israeli army.”

Despite occasional tensions and many difficult conversations, both Tendler and Shiha have graduated from the institute with a new, more holistic outlook on the Middle East and the world as a whole. “It made me realize that it’s not only my story or narrative, it’s other narratives,” Shahi said. “I think it’s created a sense of understanding, and that is the first step of trying to solve this conflict, to understand that there is another story.”

The pair now travels the country together speaking to students about their experiences as Arava Institute students. On Friday, Oct. 20 Tendler and Shiha shared their stories at the Asbell Center.

The Arava Institute is home to a multi-cultural group of students and interns that bring different perspectives to its campus. “Every semester we have about 50 students and interns on campus and about a third of them come from Jewish-Israeli backgrounds—so typically post military service—, a third of our students come from Arab backgrounds and regions, and a third of our students come from outside of the region,” said Ari Massefki, an employee of the Friends of the Arava Institute. “We’ve had students from 45 different countries over the course of 21 years.”

“The…connections that we create at the institute just because we are living together made me take very seriously my activism and a hope for a better future for my brothers and for my friends and the children of my friends,” said Tendler. “It’s a really life-changing experience I think for Israelis, Palestinians, and also for international students who come from different…conflicts.”