J-Term Course: The Right to Land in Israel and the Occupied Territories

Editor’s Note: For most of January, HDS students do not have regular classes and instead have the opportunity to take an intensive “J-Term” course. These courses typically run for 1-2 weeks, meeting for many hours each day. Like in the regular term, HDS students have the opportunity to take classes at other Harvard schools, and some courses involve international travel. In this blog post, HDS student Kaitlin Wheeler talks about her experience in a J-Term course in Israel/Palestine. We also want to note that this article represents the views and experience of one student at HDS—our campus houses students with a variety of perspectives on this complicated issue. 

Post by: Kaitlin Wheeler, MTS ‘21 

The taxi rumbled along the highway through the dark land, as the dimly lit lights shined onto the highway sign pointing to Jerusalem. I looked out of the window of the taxi and saw the desert palms and scraggly bushes. The landscape quickly changed as we drove through sweeping hills and valleys, tall mountainous walls on either side of road. This was my first glimpse into the landscape of Israel on a 1.5-hour taxi ride at 2:00 a.m. 

As a Harvard Divinity School (HDS) student, I enrolled in the J-Term course Learning in Context: Narratives of Displacement in Israel and the West Bank,co-hosted by HDS and the Harvard Kennedy School. I was required to take the Fall semester class, “Religion, Conflict, and Peace in the Middle East” with Professor Moore. From here, I went through an application process for the J-Term course and was interviewed by Professor Moore and leaders of the Religion, Conflict, and Peace initiative, along with a fellow from the program. Before leaving, we had pre-trip meetings and a workshop with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Marshall Ganz on Public Narrative. The accepted group of 15 students were from all different schools, some of which included the Harvard Business, Kennedy, and Divinity schools.  

I came to the region with the intention of witnessing and observing the relationship between environmental degradation and settler colonialism. I am a prospective climate journalist, hoping to report on issues related to climate migrants and how they use spirituality/religion in their resilience processes. So, Israel and the Occupied Territories was an important case study.  

Throughout the fourteen-day experience, the group and I traveled with four leaders from HDS’ Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative under the Religious Literacy Project: Hilary Rantisi, Reem Atassi, Atalia Omer, and Diane Moore. We traveled throughout the region, meeting with a wide range of people who shared their own stories on their relationship to the current situation. We met with an environmental organization in the Occupied Territories, a Mizrahi Jewish feminist activist in South Tel Aviv, a left-wing member from the Israeli legislature, a representative from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and the Bedouin people in Area C of the West Bank. 

Bedouin Communities in the Disputed Territory of Area C 

To begin with some background, the West Bank is split up into Areas A, B, and C. Area C is considered land that is used for Israeli military purposes and “environmental needs.” This means that large amounts of land are marked as off-limits to the Palestinians, containing parts of the Judea and Samaria, along with natural resources. According to the United Nations, 60% of the West Bank is contained in Area C and those who build homes here without construction permits will quickly receive demolition orders. The indigenous Bedouins living in the South Hebron hills are considered to be living illegally in Area C of the Occupied Territories. To continue living in this region, Bedouins have used their community support and resiliency tactics to conserve their access to land. 

Photo courtesy of KAITLIN WHEELER
Photo courtesy of KAITLIN WHEELER

Unrecognized Bedouin Village in South Hebron Hills

One of the villages we visited had created a little store carved into the side of the hill, acting as a subterranean cave. This was a resilience tool in response to prior destruction to their homes from Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invasions. After their homes had been destroyed seven times, they knew that their life in this environmental dispute over land was one that gave them one option: adapt and stay resilient or leave.  

Photo courtesy of KAITLIN WHEELER
Photo courtesy of KAITLIN WHEELER

Goat-Fur Tent and Sheep’s Wool Hanging in the Negev 

We met with Bedouins in the Negev, the Southern part of Israel. In 1948, when Israel was declared a state, their use of land became very restricted and many moved to towns created by the state. Those who stayed on the land they had always been on became unrecognized. Since Bedouins are known as being nomadic, the changing, unpredictable seasons due to climate change, along with land disputes, have a set an expectation for these communities to settle permanently. 

We were invited to sit in one of the Bedouins’ enormous goat-fur tents with beautiful black and white weavings, handmade by the local women. They showed us their process in making tapestries and the durability of goat-fur for keeping warmth in and rain out.  

Battir: Land of Olives and Vines – UNESCO World Heritage Site 

Some Palestinians have taken an alternative route in preserving land by applying for UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition. We witnessed this in the Palestinian town of Battir that cares after their farming terraces, sprinkled with diverse indigenous vegetables, trees, and bushes. An afforestation project happened to be on the other side of this valley, showcasing a monoculture of thousands of European coniferous green trees invading the land. From these efforts, 500 Palestinian villages have been uprooted. Even so, Palestinians continue to find ways to intertwine their narrative with the land is intertwined through protective and sustainable practices. 

Photo courtesy of KAITLIN WHEELER
Photo courtesy of KAITLIN WHEELER

A New Look on the Climate Crisis Once Returning to the United States 

Since returning to the United States, I am now taking the class “Controversies in the Climate, Energy, and Media,” where we discuss how to properly report on environmental issues. The first slide of today’s class presentation showed a Pew Research Study that found Israel to be the top country for citizen denial of climate change as a major threat. The United States is close behind. 

My teacher asked if anyone knew why. I summed it up into three points in my head: 

  • The effects of climate change are more apparent in long-term data, so  short-term Israeli waste/chemical management factories that will potentially pollute the West Bank environment are not seen as major threats yet. 
  • Most natural resources are diverted to the main cities in Israel, leaving little for Palestinians in the West Bank, so it seems as if there is an endless abundance of water and other basic needs in Israel. 
  • Unrecognized Palestinians are receiving the hardest blows of environmental degradation and climate change, through the destruction of their crops due to unpredictable weather events and IDF invasions, along with unexpected flooding caused by the uprooting of olive trees that used to absorb this excess water. Furthermore, unrecognizable means no access to central water, electricity, and sewage systems. Without Bedouin representation in the media, the world continues in dissolution.  

Through the thick of this all, I came back from this J-Term course with a fiery drive to start working towards a career in climate reporting. I realized how powerful experiential learning was, along with the process of hearing the various nuanced narratives in the region. With my journalism career track, I too need to remember that every story has a source for a strategically violent system that is sometimes swept under the rug. At HDS, I continue to practice investigating climate change issues here in the United States and understand the amount of actors  and needs are at play. At the end of the day, disputes start with power and power comes from the land, the resources that we have. We cannot continue to suck resources from the environment that houses us. The Bedouins are an example of a group of people who hold deep indigenous knowledge of the region and encounter the effects of land acquisition and poor resource management. The land is intertwined in all we do, the life source that allows for the regrowth and revitalization of the natural resources that continue to be harmed by our extractive actions.  

Editor’s Note:To learn more about this J-Term opportunity, check out this video from last year’s course. 

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