Learning about a conflict state and living in one is completely different. As an international security major at Mount Holyoke College, I thought I knew an adequate amount about the Arab-Israeli conflict and even had my own recommendations for a solution between Israel and Palestine. But I was wrong. I knew nothing. It wasn't until I moved to Israel, to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, that I realized how oversimplified my western perspective had been.
I am the third alum from BBA to study at the Arava Institute these past three years. And so, I began my journey to understand the issues, the government, and the people as well. What I learned in textbooks, seminars and papers could not have prepared me for my experience in the Middle East.
Arava is a unique institute, in that it brings together Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, Europeans and Americans. We have Muslims, Jews, Christians and Atheists. The institute's motto is nature knows no borders, which inspires its members and students to become living examples: we should know no borders as well. We live together, work together, study together, and fight together. It is part of a process to increase communication between groups that otherwise might not have an outlet to discuss what is going on. It hasn't been easy, especially with the sudden increase in violence. Some believe the Third Intifada is coming; others have become numb to the news. But the communication that happens during our Peace and Leadership sessions is vital to conflict resolution.
As a third party, especially as an American and a Pole, I've learned so much more about the Arab-Israeli conflict. But I've felt frustrated—how can I possibly understand how my Palestinian friend felt growing up in Hebron? How could I understand the pain of the former IDF soldiers who've lost friends and family in Gaza last year? How could I possibly relate to how my Arab friends feel passing through the checkpoints as suspected terrorists? Or the fear of my Jewish friends walking as potential targets through East
Jerusalem? The answer is that I can't. I never will. Neither will the American government, nor her citizenry.
I've learned that the solution to the conflict isn't one to be facilitated solely by an outside party, such as the U.S. The issue at hand may be religious to some, and territorial to others, but it all comes down to communication. Many of my friends here almost didn't come, because their family feared for them and what would happen with the 'other.' This fear of the 'other' is what prevents any sort of communication. The conflict isn't going to be solved quickly, this I know. But there is hope. As long as there are individuals willing to discuss, to challenge and to debate, peacefully, there is hope for a future. The future does not lie in the hands of Abbas or Netanyahu, but in the people. However, I hope I make myself clear when I say that we will never understand the conflict, if we stay isolated from the region. We mustn't remove ourselves from the equation if we are to ever be part of the solution. This calls for a careful balance of assistance and understanding. In order to understand, we must first listen. Not to one side or the other, but to the dual narrative. We must listen critically, to political leaders and the average Israeli and Palestinian. Each has their own voice, and to be able to assist in Israel and Palestine, we must listen to both. This is what the Arava Institute pursues every single day. While this conflict can seem so hopeless while sitting in Vermont we must never lose hope. One way that hope stays alive is through the support, which the Arava Institute has received by many of you in the Manchester area. I also cannot emphasize how important it is for students from the United States to come and study in the Middle East to get a better understanding of this corner of the world that affects us in so many ways.
We have a daunting task in front of us, as the generation tasked with the burden of resolving the conflict. And while the motto of the Arava Institute seems very simple, it is our best opportunity to unite opposing sides. By focusing on small-scale issues, we have discovered that we are more similar than we are different. And that is the first step towards peace.
Karolinka Sowulewska graduated from BBA in 2012.