Shalom, Salaam and eco-Peace from the Middle East

It's a bit sad that environmental awareness in the middle east is years behind that of Europe and the US. But then again, have you ever tried hugging an olive tree or cactus? Although it may be an adventure, being ecologically aware in Israel is not always so simple. National security and defense most often takes precedence over cleaning up a river; a good chunk of the society is focusing on survival (not yoga classes and organic farming!); and the social barriers between Israeli Arabs and Jews make it hard for communities to band together and demand certain basic rights from industry and the government. Environmentalism in Israel is lagging about 15 years behind that of Europe and North America, many say, but things are changing. Thanks to an influx of eco-ambassadors, like environmental planner Stephanie Firestone from the United States, Israelis are learning how to clean up their act. One such success story is LINK to the Environment, an NGO, based in the Galilee which is grappling the task of teaching both Israeli Arabs and Jews why an individual should be responsible for what happens to the environment. Each group has their own specific problems. In Arab towns, there is one issue of illegal slaughterhouses and how to dispose of animal remains- dogs can be found parading down the street with rotting animal carcasses dug up from local olive groves, says Rachel, one LINK staffmember. Both Arabs and Jews are dumping toxic chemicals from their garages into backyards- the oils and other nasties are literally running into shared streams. LINK's staff has created a small network of volunteers that speak the local's language, in Arabic and Hebrew, to show people why they should be mindful of their immediate environment. The Galilee is a mixed community in Israel's North. It is lush, green and precious and used by many different people for farming- even organic farming. LINK is showing communities, one person at a time why sometimes individuals need to make sacrifices for the greater good. Raef Shmali from an Arabic village, Arabeh, said that he invested hundreds of dollars in an oil separator to clean used oil from his garage. Before LINK's Arabic-speaking volunteer approached him, he hadn't thought much about the environment as environmental awareness is low in the Arab sector, he said. Now he has converted and is spreading the word to his neighbors! If you are planning a trip to Israel and looking to volunteer, contact LINK. If you speak Arabic or Hebrew all the better. They could use the help cleaning up a river or two.