Using the Environment to Bridge Divides in the Middle East

Israeli and Jordanian Researchers Present their Story at Clark

Photo taken by Anna Spack
Photo taken by Anna Spack

A small audience at Clark witnessed something rare and implausible: Hope. It came, on Oct. 7, in the form of  Fadi Baqain and Liel Maghen, guest speakers from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel, an academic and research organization that offers semester- and year-long courses in water management, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and other environmental issues. The institute connects students from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and all around the world.

Baqain and Maghen are environmentalists, scholars, conservationists, and researchers. Baqain is from Jordan (where 2-3 million Palestinian citizens reside) and Maghen is from Israel: two populations divided by geographical turmoil, political unrest, and a decades-old conflict that has become the poster child for the narrative on national and cultural identity.

Maghen has dedicated his career and life to “participatory tools of development, community engagement in decision-making, and in the power of direct democracy in shaping governments and solving political conflicts.” He has been with the Arava Institute for six years and holds a M.A. in International Development and a B.A. in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Baqain is a Master’s Degree candidate with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mutah.

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Photo taken by Anna Spack

Maghen and Baqain are traveling in the United States spreading their message: “Instead of talking about the conflict, let’s talk about the environment.”

The event was organized by David Coyne, director of ClarkU Hillel. Earlier in the day, Coyne, Maghen, and Baqain met with President Angel, who was very interested in their message from a geographer’s perspective. Coyne said they all had a lot in common.

Maghen and Baqain met at the Arava Institute. Maghen said, “It changed my life.”

At the institute, people enter into a university-level program to engage in dialogue and share ideas about the preservation of the environment, like the desiccating Dead Sea and the Jordan River. Studies are global as well as local in the concepts of “community service, sustainability, recycling, composting, biograss, and solar energy,” Maghen said. According to the brochure, students use the Arava Valley in southern Israel as their classroom to study agriculture, ecosystems, and the harnessing of renewable energy where the “solar radiation levels are the highest in the world.” Maghen said students have also been to the West Bank to study “sources of pollution.”

Maghen grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and became involved in the Arava Institute in 2009. His love of nature and the environment has shaped his career and life. He hikes in the morning and enjoys views of the Jordanian mountains and valley.

The Jordan River is a subject close to his heart. The part of the river on the West Bank suffers a variety of problems. The issues are complex and connected, ranging from unequal access to clean, treated water, to inadequate aquifer coverage for the new housing currently under construction, to excessive dam installations. Maghen sees the solution as “more integration of the Jewish and Arab community.”

The students at the institute are models of such integration. Baqain talked about how throughout his childhood in Jordan, he thought, “The [Jews] were my enemy and we have sympathy for the Palestinians.” Initially, he was “scared” to associate with the “enemy.”

He said it was the “human to human” contact at the institute that broke down the walls. Getting together to discuss the conflict is a core part of the program. “We listened to each other and share everything. We have become a family.”

Baqain admits it did not go over well with his own family, especially his father. They would argue every day while his father continued to defend his side, saying, “That’s who I am.” Over time, however, his father saw the good in Baqain’s endeavors. “Maybe you will solve this,” he said.