Israel produces ‘ambassadors’ of the environment

Jordanian student Said Saleh Abu Ghosh in the lab at Ben Gurion University’s Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies.When Jordanian student Said Saleh Abu Ghosh chose to pursue a Master’s degree in desert studies he knew he’d have to …

Jordanian student Said Saleh Abu Ghosh in the lab at Ben Gurion University’s Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies.When Jordanian student Said Saleh Abu Ghosh chose to pursue a Master’s degree in desert studies he knew he’d have to also earn a PhD. Partially for the education and career benefits that go along with an advanced degree but also because he knew he would have to cover up his graduate study work. A native of Amman, Jordan, Abu Ghosh is currently researching the medicinal properties of algae at Ben Gurion University’s Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies – in Israel.

“We Jordanians don’t write on our CV that we studied in Israel. I did it once applying for a good job and they didn’t take me. When I deleted ‘Israel’ and applied to another job they accepted me. A PhD will cover up my Israeli Master’s. I have to be realistic,” Abu Ghosh admits.

A razor-stubbled, good natured mid-20-something, who is often decked out in lab whites and safety goggles, Abu Ghosh is one of a growing number of Jordanians who make their way to Israel each year to participate in desertification and land degradation studies despite pressure back home.

“I came here because in Jordan we’re two-thirds desert with limited resources. This school has professors who are international experts in the field of desertification and algae research,” Abu Ghosh relays. “Also, I needed to improve my English and I wanted to study with people from different backgrounds.”

Although Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994, relations between the two countries remain largely icy, largely due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordan, according to US Census Bureau figures, is at least 50 percent Palestinian.

Regardless, Jordanians and a wide range of other nationalities opt for environmental studies at the Albert Katz Institute because the school’s team of professors and researchers is renowned globally for breakthrough desertification technologies including drip irrigation, solar energy harnessing, algae cultivation and brackish water salmon farming.

“The students who come here know that when they return to their countries they can call us if they run into trouble,” director of Israel’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research, Professor Avigad Vonshak, PhD told ISRAEL21c. “For example, a Mongolian student who had spent two years studying remote sensing technology ran into technical problems back home. He called and we helped him evaluate his data and resolve the issue. At any given time we are actively collaborating and consulting with 15-20 ex-students in Peru, Ghana, Mongolia… you name it, on soil erosion, degradation, sensing.”

With global desertification on the rise, students of the environment are increasingly opting for Israel as a study venue in an effort to tackle issues of land degradation affecting a third of the world’s population. This year, 2006, is the UN International Year of Deserts and Desertification and conferences addressing land degradation are being held worldwide, including in Israel.

“As global warming continues and desertification intensifies, we’ll rely more and more on the science brought to bear on the other side of the world,” leading US conservationist and former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach explains. “A problem solved in Israel can affect San Franciscans by having wide-ranging positive outcomes in issues from global climate change to the spread of infectious disease.”

Semi-isolated in Israel’s Negev Desert some 70 miles south of Tel Aviv, The Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies under the umbrella of The Blaustein Desert Research Institute hosts 200 Master’s, PhD and Post Doctorate students from 22 different countries. The closest urban center is Beersheva, 20 miles north of campus, known biblically as the 4000 BCE city where Abraham dug a well (“Beer” in Hebrew) then struck a pact with the local king over shared water resources.

Long dry stretches of canyon dotted with scrub, sparse electric wiring and brightly colored tent camps and roaming sheep belonging to Bedouin nomads mark the route from Beersheva to the Institutes. On campus, wild Ibex graze freely and occasional sonic booms break the silent tranquility as jets soar overhead.

Things are so tranquil in the desert setting that a common complaint among students is “there’s nothing to do but study.” Most put in 80-hour study weeks and all students, without exception, are expected to publish within the first year.

The hard work ultimately pays off, however, when graduates go out into the world as “global ambassadors” of natural resource cultivation and preservation. Working in areas of solar energy development, de-salination, desert architecture and dryland biotechnology, students maintain close ties with professors and often consult and collaborate with them long distance on projects.

Dana Rassas of Amman is already on the fast track to ambassadorship. She earned her undergrad in Utah and is currently completing her Master’s in Environmental Studies in Israel. She’ll go to the US for a PhD in law or environmental policy and will eventually return to the Middle East to work as a government lobbyist.

Regarding her Israel studies Rassas, a Palestinian with relatives in Jerusalem, adheres to caution. “I’m selective about who to tell in Jordan. I told my best friends I’m here and that’s it. Others I didn’t tell,” she admits. Rassas concurs with Abu Ghosh, saying her motives for earning a PhD include covering up the Israel leg of her education.

For Rassas, living alongside Israelis has been a learning experience that has included altering pre-existing notions. “I asked a fellow student something about God and when she said she doesn’t believe in God I was shocked. ‘You’re Jewish and you don’t believe in God?’ And she was a rabbi’s daughter! I had to differentiate between being Jewish culturally and ideologically,” she explains.

Maya Negev, an Israeli Albert Katz Master’s student, grew up in a liberal Jerusalem household. Currently mapping the country’s sixth to twelfth-graders to gauge their environmental literacy levels, she ultimately hopes to serve in an influential role fostering co-existence and environment. In working towards that goal, she volunteers at a Beersheva Arab-Israeli youth club and helps Hebron’s Palestinian farmers harvest olives.

Negev, Said, and Rassas all first met as students at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies located on Kibbutz Ketura. They represent the fulfillment of the goal of the institute, to prepare future Arab and Jewish leaders to continue to work together after they leave the institute by cooperatively solving the region’s environmental challenges.

Negev is neither surprised nor alarmed by the code of silence taken up by Jordanian colleagues regarding their studies. “With two-thirds of Jordan being Palestinian refugee, it’s hard for them to acknowledge a country where the Zionist is the enemy. But our studies together are surely influencing,” she reports.

“We have so much more in common than different. Even if I knew it before, it was emphasized when I slept and talked and ate with these people. We all have the same hopes so we’re all interested in the same things from the same angles. And the bottom line? The environment knows no borders.”