(ANTIMEDIA) As the United States and the world draw lines in the sand over Trump’s new immigration policies, Muslims, Jews, and people from all walks of life are banding together for peace — both for themselves and the planet.
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The EcoMe Center, currently located at the junction of Jericho and Almog, was founded in December of 2010 by a group of Israeli friends who attended the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a program that includes Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and other international students.
Though the founders are Israeli, they wanted to establish an “ecovillage” run by both Israelis and Palestinians. The ongoing divide between Palestinians and Israelis is one of the longest-running conflicts in the world and continues to inspire vitriol and protest from both sides, with many around the world criticizing Israel for illegally confiscating and occupying the land of Palestinians. Indeed, the relationship is lopsided, with Israeli Defense Forces controlling Palestinians and often committing staggering human rights violations.
Amid this seemingly insurmountable conflict, the group of friends established EcoMe in the hopes of healing these historical and current divisions. According to Arnon Shomer, a spokesman for EcoMe:
“Some of these people never met a person from ‘the other side’ not through military engagement (Israelis as soldiers and Palestinians meet them as soldiers).This creates a very deep impact on everyone who comes to these workshops. For me, the first people that I could call Palestinian friends, I met through the center, and this is one of the only places where we can meet each other on the human level, and not as political entities.”
Seeking to alter this paradigm while also helping the earth, the founders began by “contacting local people and leaders and creating events of music [and] gathering.” They “started to build permaculture structures in the place from local materials.”
EcoMe has successfully created an environmentally-conscious, sustainable community. Shomer says EcoMe has compost toilets and a water reuse system (there is no sewage system at the facility). They construct buildings from “local materials, such as palms and garbage – tires, plastics of greenhouses and anything we can find.”
The center practices recycling and has a seasonal garden where attendees grow vegetables, which are used in EcoMe’s vegetarian communal kitchen. They also have a free range chicken house, projects to help sustain beehives, and permaculture workshops that teach “biodynamic beekeeping, recycled art, and permaculture gardening.”
These efforts are all maintained by visitors to the center, who are primarily Israeli and Palestinian but come from around the world. Though most international visitors come from Europe and North America, Shomer says they have had guests from countries like Japan, Brazil, Iran, Jordan, Kenya, and Colombia. As he explains, “the ones holding the space for the workshops are living in it as a community and do a lot of community work and sharing.”
And that’s what makes EcoMe especially unique. In addition to working with the land and environment, the center places a strong emphasis on healing relations between Palestinians and Israelis who visit the center.
Rather than accepting those tensions, EcoMe seeks to help them interact with each other in a peaceful way to foster friendship, understanding, and tolerance. One of the key methods they employ in this effort is the practice of nonviolent communication (NVC). NVC was developed by Marshall Rosenberg, an American psychologist, and is rooted in finding common ground and empathy.
According to NVC’s website:
“Through the practice of NVC, we can learn to clarify what we are observing, what emotions we are feeling, what values we want to live by, and what we want to ask of ourselves and others. We will no longer need to use the language of blame, judgment or domination. We can experience the deep pleasure of contributing to each others’ well-being.”
The communication method is rooted in listening and compassion, allowing those with grievances to express their frustrations without overtly blaming or lashing out at the other person but still requesting acknowledgment and action to resolve the conflict at hand. NVC has been used for everything from marriage counseling to resolving political conflicts. In fact, in his book on the method, Rosenberg recalled his experience mediating between an Israeli and Palestinian, who were eventually able to find common ground despite their seemingly diametrically opposed views. Rosenberg also worked with individuals who are now members of EcoMe.
As one Palestinian woman, Amal Hedwah, has said of Rosenberg and her experience with him:
“It was an asset for me. He made a shock in my mind and in my soul and in my body – and now I am a new person.”
EcoMe holds an annual NVC workshop that lasts between ten and twelve days and invites Palestinians, Israelis, and other international visitors a chance to communicate with each other. “This creates a wide community of people who are now friends, and sometime partners, and committed to continue [working] for peace,” Shomer says.
According to one attendee at the center:
“I know many of us are working on the peace process as a political process, but for me, it’s looking beyond the political process. How can we engage in peace work as people who live in this land, coming from different identities, different cultures, different religions, but understanding that within all of these identities there are people who want peace, and within these ideas there are people who don’t want peace…for me, it is about the right people…being here who want to work for peace – and how we can work together.”
One of the best examples of this was the group’s recent efforts to help Palestinians clean up the remains of a tent they were living in that had been ravaged by the Israeli military for the third time in a year.
EcoMe does not seek to avoid or gloss over the historical division between Israelis and Palestinians — or Israel’s own role in it. Shomer describes the “normalization” of occupation:
“It is a ‘negative’ aspect of our work since, for Palestinians, meeting Israelis without dealing in ending the occupation is normalizing the situation of privileged citizens and underprivileged occupied people who have no rights.’
Noting the challenges of running a center that brings Israelis and Palestinians together, he continued:
“To acknowledge this is a very basic need for the Palestinian people, and many Israelis do not see it this way, and so, when meeting with each other on the human level, but neglecting the political issue, [it] creates normalization of the situation.”
The center is currently located on a Jewish settler’s land, a region EcoMe chose because, as Shomer explains, “it is the occupied territories, and we are here because we want to be accessible for Palestinians who can not come to Israel because of the separation.” Nevertheless, he says their location has drawn concerns that the center itself engages in normalization.
“This is why we decided to have a meeting about this issue with our Palestinian friends, and the main conclusion was that we need to find another place for the center that is not on settlement land,” he said, adding they are currently searching for a new location to resolve the issue.
As they work to solve this fundamental problem, however, they offer a variety of classes and methods to help those who attend find peace. In addition to NVC, EcoMe offers art workshops and yoga and meditation classes. Both practices are increasingly shown to promote well-being and reduce stress.
The center also offers language classes, “teaching Arabic, Hebrew, and English, as language is one of the barriers for understanding each other.”
Though the world currently appears to be in upheaval and citizens of the world seem increasingly polarized, EcoMe is effectively working to alter this trend one person at a time — driven and sustained by individuals who are truly becoming the change they wish to see in the world.
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