The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies celebrates its 20th anniversary with a gala ceremony in Tel Aviv.

MC Keren Mor, Achinoam Nini, David Lehrer and Ambassador Daniel Shek. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MC Keren Mor, Achinoam Nini, David Lehrer and Ambassador Daniel Shek.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“IN THIS little speck of the Arava you can always find Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Americans who live and study together, and manage their differences in a civilized and peaceful manner,” says Daniel Shek, who heads the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies’ Public Council and is a former Israeli ambassador to France.
The Institute, established 20 years ago on Kibbutz Ketura by Alon Tal and Miriam Sharton, is a top teaching and research program, preparing future Arab and Jewish leaders to face the Middle East’s environmental challenges. “Located in the heart of Israel’s Arava desert, the Arava Institute is a unique oasis of environmental education, research and international cooperation,” its website says.
“We do not pretend that we can bring peace to the Middle East and we don’t pretend that we can solve humanity’s water problems,” Shek tells The Jerusalem Report. “We work on a very small scale but we have successes and we can show them.
We are living proof in a laboratory environment that regional cooperation and coexistence can work. It’s been working for 20 years during some of the most difficult periods that this region has known.”
To mark the Institute’s 20th anniversary, a special ceremony was held at Tel Aviv’s Tzavta Theater on June 14. During the evening “full of love and appreciation,” awards were given to Institute cofounder Miriam Sharton, Monther Hind of the Palestinian Wastewater Engineering Group and a key partner of the Center for Transboundary Water Management, Dr. Uri Shanas, ecological researcher and one of the first faculty members of the Institute, and singer Achinoam Nini, Arava Institute Public Council member and “outspoken proponent of dialogue, cooperation and peace.”
“We wanted on the one hand to show our appreciation for a number of personalities who have contributed something outstanding to the Institute itself and even more so to the values that the Institute stands for, and we wanted to do it in a more public manner than we usually do, because we work often under the radar,” says Shek. “But we believe people, and especially Israelis, should know about this place.”
A minor controversy was sparked by Arnon Gilad, a Tel Aviv city council member representing the Likud, who sought to have the event at Tzavta cancelled because it was honoring Nini, whom he accused of “slandering the name of Israel around the world.”
Nini countered that it was Gilad who had slandered her, but in the process had at least drawn attention to the good work of the Arava Institute.
The Institute is “a symbol of freedom of expression and the hope of peace,” she said.
Among those in the packed auditorium for the evening, hosted by actress Keren Mor, were Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Knesset Members Tzipi Livni, Zehava Galon and Dov Khenin, as well as former Palestinian ministers Tahani Abu Daqqa and Ashraf Al-Ajrami.
“I think it was a beautiful evening that painted the right picture of the Arava Institute and what it stands for. There was some controversy about the choice of Achinoam Nini as one of the recipients of our prizes,” says Shek. “But we are very proud of her support. She has been a vocal and staunch advocate for the Arava Institute. You can agree or disagree with her political positions.
I make no judgement about it. I think she is in her own way a hero and a model of somebody who believes in certain values and does not fear the public’s response in voicing them.”
Arava Institute Director David Lehrer says that over the past two decades, the Institute has hosted more than 1,000 students on Kibbutz Ketura. In cooperation with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, it offers an environmental study program dealing with “some of the most critical issues of our time.”
“Our researchers and partners have built waste water treatment units and solar powered pumping stations for under serviced communities in the West Bank and the central Negev, helped launch a renewable energy revolution in the southern Arava and brought back to life a 2,000-year-old date seed,” Lehrer says. “The Institute has hosted hundreds of professionals from the developing world, providing training in water management, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy and nature conservation.”
More recently, it launched the Track II Environmental Forum to bring together decision- makers from the region to advance cross-border environmental agreements between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.
“For 20 years, the Arava Institute has nurtured the scarcest resources in the Middle East, hope and trust,” Lehrer tells the Tel Aviv audience. “Today, we have the opportunity to honor and thank some of the people who contributed to the establishment of the Institute and to maintaining it as an oasis of hope, trust and peace in the Middle East.”
MIRIAM SHARTON made aliya from Chicago and moved in 1984 to Kibbutz Ketura, which in September 1995 accepted environmentalist Alon Tal’s proposal to open the Arava Institute program for Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and students from around the world.
“I was offered the position of Director of Student Life,” she says. “It sounded like an amazing project and I was thrilled to take the job.”
Sharton tells the story of the Institute’s early days. “We worked for a year setting up the program until it opened its doors in September 1996, with 26 students – Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Americans, Canadians and Australians. Students shared uninhabited kibbutz apartments, our offices were in caravans, the computer room and the library were in bomb shelters, and we moved into every empty and available space we could find on the kibbutz until the dorms and proper offices were built several years later.”
She notes that the Institute was founded three years after the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords and two years after the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.
“It was a period of hope in the region.
Since the kibbutz is situated on the border of Jordan and half an hour from the border with Egypt, the vision of the Institute was to train future environmental leaders who could work together to solve cross-border environmental problems.”
In the first year, she recalls, it was really a work in progress and every day was a challenge. “We dealt with issues like, how do some of the students celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut while others are mourning the nakba? When choosing what music to play at a party turns into a very intense and difficult political argument? Then you see the relationships that are built over time through listening, dialogue, and most importantly trust. And students who looked at the other as the enemy become lifelong friends. It’s truly wonderful.”
Asked if one story sticks out, she says, “I have a million stories, but one story that meant a lot to me was in the first semester, the first anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
Our three Jordanian students asked to organize a memorial ceremony in memory of Rabin. It was their initiative. I was so moved by that, I have never forgotten it.”
Sharton later became director of the academic program and then served for eight years as the associate director. Her award notes that she “filled leadership positions at the Institute from the year before the opening until 2012, altogether 16 years, and continues to contribute as a member of the Public Council.”
In response to receiving it, she says, “I was very honored. I got an award for doing something that I loved so much for so many years. Working with and meeting so many amazing and brave students was very rewarding. Actually, when I received the award and saw so many alumni at the ceremony, many of whom are today’s environmental leaders, I felt very proud to be part of something so important, so life-changing, and so crucial for the future of our region.”