Environmental Songfest: Arava Institute claims to promote peace while silent on justice

The Arava Institute’s online event “With Earth and Each Other,” held Sunday, November 14, exemplified why the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions is vital. The event was billed as a celebration of Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians working together for the environment. But it failed to educate viewers about the most basic facts of Israeli policies, and thus simply reinforced the status quo. The event, billed as not “political,” suggested that the Middle East conflict can be resolved if people of different religions and ethnicities are nicer to each other. It presented no information on the fundamental and systematic inequalities that are at the root of the conflict.

Adalah-NY and numerous other groups had urged participants, including religious and environmental organizations and performing artists like Pete Seeger, Dan Bern, and Mandy Patinkin, to respect the Palestinian boycott call and bow out. Arava Institute was targeted for boycott due to its failure to condemn Israel’s on-going ethnic cleansing of Bedouin residents of the Negev desert, where Arava is based, and Arava’s very close partnerships with the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Israeli government. The Israeli government and the JNF have been instrumental in cleansing the land of the indigenous Palestinian residents and planting over their villages with trees. While Arava extolls international cooperation in service of the environment, they remain silent about Israeli and JNF policies, including, as one recent example, the Israeli government’s destruction (five times in succession) of Al Araqib, a Bedouin village in the Negev, to make way for a JNF forest.

“With Earth and Each Other” was completely silent about Israeli colonialism, settlements, house demolitions, appropriation of water, and uprooting of olive trees. The tone of obfuscation was set in the first minutes when one of Arava’s Israeli Jewish students, Gavriel Vinevgard, introduced himself by saying, “My parents live in the Golan Heights here in Israel.” However, Israel has militarily occupied and illegally colonized the Golan Heights, part of Syria, since 1967. No country recognizes the Golan Heights as part of Israel.

At another point, the narrator gestured to a huge concrete wall Israel built and explained, “Behind me is the wall that separates Israel from Palestine. The water that we share doesn’t recognize the barriers that we build.” But Israel built 80% of that wall inside the occupied West Bank, separating Palestinians from Palestinians, rather than separating Palestinians from Israelis. And Israeli settlers live on both sides of the wall, siphoning off the West Bank’s most plentiful water resources while spewing polluted water into Palestinian communities.

Omitting basic facts that would challenge the regime of domination, the program focused on platitudes that promoted an undefined peace, excluding any mention of justice. Typical comments from participants included: “I must see the conflict from our joint shared side.” “Our past must not determine our future.” “We should join together to make this future closer to the present.” “I want us to really live like neighbors.”

Viewers and participants were told that water, air, and land must be shared by all peoples in the region, across borders. But they were not told that Israel monopolizes these resources for its Jewish residents and controls the borders in order to do so. Israelis use around three and a half times as much water as West Bank Palestinians. Israel is building settlements over two of the West Bank’s three main water aquifers in an effort to keep control of those resources. And in the Negev desert, where Arava is located, Israel denies entire Bedouin villages’ access to running water.

Land distribution is similarly skewed. In the West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians live, Israel’s military controls and administers approximately 60% of the land (known as Area C), with 500,000 Jewish settlers directly controlling 42% of the West Bank. Within Israel, Arava’s partner, the JNF, directly controls 13% of the land, and effectively controls 93% of Israel’s land through its role in the Israel Land Administration, renting and leasing only to Jewish citizens. This violates the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who comprise 20% of Israel’s population.

Pete Seeger opened the hour-long program with a song about Martin Luther King Jr. and the importance of joining together to struggle nonviolently for change. Seeger may not know that most of the Palestinians and Israelis who are nonviolently protesting Israeli rights abuses together in the West Bank also support the economic, academic and cultural boycott of Israel, another proven nonviolent tactic. Seeger had promised to make a strong statement about Palestinian dispossession during the program, but the closest he came was a tangential reference to the Montgomery bus boycott.

The event leaves the impression of a project to corral idealistic youth into activities of friendly inter-communal cooperation that enforce a strict silence on issues of dispossession. Palestinians have called for a boycott of these types of activities, similar to the international boycott imposed on apartheid South Africa, because experience shows that they serve as a cover for the entrenching of discriminatory policies. Staged by an Israeli academic institution that calls itself “non-political,” “With Earth and Each Other” was a “feel good” event. The event implied that peace can be achieved without justice, and so unintentionally confirmed the importance of the Palestinian call for a boycott of these sorts of activities.

For more background on the event: