A small sign hangs outside the entrance to the stone edifice of the Town Association for Environmental Quality in Sachnin with a simple message "A Bridge to Peace". At first glance, a naïve slogan harping back to earlier, less cynical times.
March 23rd was the last in a series of 14 day-long sessions billed as "stage one" of the year long Galilee Climate Fellows Program envisioned and implemented by the Town Association (TAEQ) and HBS partner The Heschel Center for Sustainability; in and of itself, a Jewish-Arab cooperation. Launched just a few short months ago, when nobody yet knew what fruits this enigmatic name of a program would bring.
Each of the Fellows presented a personal summary of this period, unfolding initial ideas of what they see ahead for themselves. Safaa- an urban planner wants to bring green and smart cities to the Arab Sector. She has engaged the Umm El Fahm Mayor and Municipality who are showing a keen interest in the idea. Tzila, author cum gardener spoke of her passion for plants, She has nurtured a guerilla garden to become recognized by the Kfar Vradim Local Council as a "Food Orchard" public space. She is also keen on teaching others to grow food. Samir, the Manager of the Jatt Sanitation Department reveals his dream to create a 5 km community-driven pathway that will crisscross through 3 other municipalities all the way to the Sea.
Other Fellows were less concrete about their plans ahead. Maayan wants to get a real Climate Movement off the ground in Israel but is still uncertain about what her role should be. Or more philosophical like Eden who spoke of the web of life and interdependence. No one can do it alone, Edem reiterated, and local projects help to overcome hyper- individualized culture to work both on the social and physical climate.
But as each presentation went on, despite the wide range of interests and the diversity of participants- one thing stood out: how significant the group experience together had been for them. Najaat, a social worker put it this way -"I didn’t come to be in an Arab- Jewish dialogue group. I have been in those and they didn’t get anywhere. Here I feel that I have come home to something deep inside me that I had not found expression, My roots in the land, love of animals and my caring for people". Najaat plans to turn her family farm into a nature therapy center.
Can we conclude along with Najaat that a sort of "post co-existence" paradigm is emerging? Had the group transversed beyond the stereotyped polarization of being "Jews and Arabs" to seeing each other as "just people" of all sorts and colors- men and women; country and city people; young and elders. It’s perhaps a bit premature to theoretize, but safe to surmise for now that the human interactions and relationships formed in the program engendered a mutual caring. Links where once none existed- Fellows offered help and expressed interest in taking part in each other's projects. This, I thought to myself, is what the practice of building a common agenda looks like. Weaving it together around the lived experience of what people cherish most- their passions and dreams for a healthier and safer world.
Still early days, as the ideas and projects will evolve, and inevitably be shaped and re-formed as Fellows move on into the "stage 2", the project incubator phase of the program.
One thing's for sure- the sign of "bridge for peace" hanging at the front entrance is no mere slogan or illusion. The Climate Fellows have made their first steps on that bridge, and they were finding solid common ground.
Dr. David Dunitz, Head of Education, The Heschel Center for Sustainability