A Community of Hope
- Lilla Ashuach
- Lilla Ashuach
- Lilla Ashuach
Supported by College Trustee Ralph Snyderman ’61, environmental science major Carson Thomas ’19 studied abroad in Israel, at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.
Carson Thomas ’19 grew up in a Protestant household in Seattle. She had never traveled outside of the U.S. until she visited Belize and Guatemala as part of Washington College’s Chesapeake Semester. But when she learned about the College’s new affiliation with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES) in Israel, Thomas knew she wanted to experience a place where people of different backgrounds come together to build a community based on hope and trust. Leslie Sherman, then Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Studies, visited the kibbutz where students would stay and helped develop the partnership with AIES.
“I had never thought about going to Israel before,” confesses Thomas, the inaugural Snyderman International Fellow whose experience abroad was supported by College Trustee Ralph Snyderman ’61. “I have no personal connections to the Jewish faith. It was because of this institute that I decided to go. It’s the only school in the Middle East where Israeli and Arab students live and study together. And that experience changed me.”
In the sparsely populated desert valley that forms the border between Israel and Jordan, the Arava Institute brings together students from around the world to consider the relationship between land and people—a topic of particular significance in the Middle East where territorial conflicts are often fraught with religiously- and ethnically-fueled hostilities. Here, Thomas was embraced by a circle of friends—both Israeli and Palestinian—who offered her a new way to look at the world. Together, they considered what it would take to create a culture of mutual respect, where modern enterprises might co-exist with the traditional land practices of the Bedouin.
“When the State of Israel was formed, a lot of people were forced to leave the Negev; displacing these people has an environmental effect,” notes Thomas. Bedouin villages are considered an obstacle to Jewish settlement as well as military development and mining projects.
Thomas lived with friends from the Institute on a kibbutz where they came up with creative solutions to environmental problems in their day-to-day living. One classmate rigged up a bicycle to power the washing machine, for instance. But, she notes, “there are a lot of barriers to living sustainably in the desert. You have to rely on irrigation to grow the crops you produce—that’s inherently unsustainable.”
That dichotomy fueled much of their discussions about preserving shared space, community ethics they tried to practice, and the larger work of peace-building in the region. Thomas enjoyed studying both Arabic and Hebrew languages and doing community work in areas most Israelis avoided.
“I was particularly drawn by the sense of community and the complexity of both the people I met and the challenges they face. There is a straightforwardness and honesty about them,” Thomas says. “If you asked someone you just met a question, they would answer you pretty thoroughly. My classmates and I organized ourselves and were motivated to do things for which there’s no formal structure. I found that so liberating — I don’t want to let go of that.”
Thomas intends to return to Israel and that community of young people who are hopeful about the future, despite the odds.
“The situation isn’t very hopeful on the macro level, especially when there are striking inequalities in the levels of security among different people in Israel. But I feel like I am the most inspired I’ve ever been. I feel like my heart has doubled in size.”