Across the Great Divide Jordanians Study the Environment—in Israel

When Said Saleh Abu Ghosh chose to pursue a master’s degree in desert studies, he knew there would be a price to pay. Not the price of hard work or intense competition, but as a native of Amman, Jordan, Abu Ghosh was facing backlash by way of venue: He is currently researching algae’s medicinal properties at the Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies—in Israel.

Israel’s harsh Negev Desert is home to a pioneering school of desert ecology that also fosters international cooperation. © Israel Ministry of Tourism

“We [Jordanian] students don’t write on our resumes that we studied in Israel,” Abu Ghosh admits. “I did it once applying for a job and they didn’t take me. I”ll go on to get a Ph.D. to cover up the Israel portion of my studies so I can get a job. I have to be realistic.”

A razor-stubbled, good-natured mid-twenty-something oft 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 study desertification and land degradation despite pressures back home.

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

Despite a U.S.-fostered Non-Belligerence Treaty signed in 1994, relations between Israel and Jordan are strained, largely due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordan’s population, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, is more than 50 percent Palestinian.

Jordanian students opt for environmental studies at the Albert Katz Institute because the school’s team of professors and researchers is renowned globally for breakthrough desertification research, including drip irrigation, solar energy harnessing, algae cultivation and brackish water salmon farming. They also come to experience a different culture and “see these people we’ve fought with and heard about all our lives with our own eyes,” one student confides.

What they find is sometimes surprising and at other times bothersome. “At home we’re not used to speaking freely about sexuality or relationships,” says Abu Ghosh. “Here it’s all out in the open.” Politics, however, have been less breezy. “At army checkpoints in Jerusalem, when they find out I’m from Jordan they search me piece by piece. So I’ve learned to take very little with me. I always have to carry my passport everywhere. That is annoying.”

Leading Israeli environmentalist and recent recipient of the prestigious Bronfman Award for Environmental Achievement, Professor Alon Tal says he has “enormous respect for the people who come here from Jordan. There isn’t a Palestinian student studying in Israel who, down the road, will not feel the ramifications of the choice,” he concedes.

A fast-talking Harvard graduate hailing from North Carolina, Tal has been highly instrumental in nurturing peace-building programs among students. Routine discussion sessions are factored into curricula, and debates center around the impacts of erosion, water scarcity, Middle East relations and conflicts.

Semi-isolated in Israel’s Negev Desert some 70 miles south of Tel Aviv, the Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies and affiliate Blaustein Desert Research Institute (both part of Ben Gurion University of the Negev) host 200 master”s, doctoral and post-doctoral students from 22 countries. The closest urban center is Beer Sheba, 20 miles north of campus, known biblically as the 4000 B.C. city where Abraham dug a well, then struck a pact with the local king over shared water resources.

Long dry stretches of khaki canyon dotted with scrub, sparse electric wiring and brightly colored tent camps and roaming sheep belonging to Bedouin nomads mark the route from Beer Sheba to the Institutes. On campus, ibex (wild goats) graze freely and occasional sonic booms break the desert’s tranquility as training fighter jets soar overhead.

Most students put in 80-hour weeks and 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 solar energy development, desalination, desert architecture and dryland biotechnology fields, students tend to maintain close ties with professors.

Dana Rassas of Amman, Jordan earned her undergraduate degree in Utah and is currently completing her master’s in environmental studies in Israel. She”ll go to the U.S. for a Ph.D. in law or environmental policy and hopes to 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,” she says. “I told my best friends I’m here and that’s it. Others I didn’t tell.”

For Rassas, living alongside Israelis has been a learning experience that altered pre-existing notions. “I asked a fellow student something about God, and when she said she doesn’t believe in God I was shocked. 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 studying environmental literacy among the country’s sixth to twelfth-graders, she ultimately hopes to help foster co-existence and environmental protection. In working towards that goal, she volunteers at a Beer Sheba Arab-Israeli youth club and helps Hebron’s Palestinian farmers harvest olives, despite Jewish settler intimidation.

Negev is neither surprised nor alarmed by the code of silence taken up by Jordanian colleagues regarding their studies. “With such a large percentage of the Jordanian population being Palestinian refugees, it’s hard to acknowledge a country where the Zionist is the enemy,” she says. “But our studies together are surely changing attitudes.

“We have so much more in common than differences,” Negev continues. “Even if I knew this before, it was emphasized when I lived and talked 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.”