Palestine, Israel and Birds

In June of 2013, Audubon magazine published an article on a cooperative bird conservation project between Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian schoolchildren. An Israeli zoologist partnered with organizations and schools to bring children together to enjoy nature and local birds and learn about conservation. This is a sociological issue, but let’s take a step back for a moment and talk about birds.

Birds are a truly amazing group of wildlife. As you know, the vast majority of them can fly, practically monopolizing the skies as habitats. They are as diverse as they can get, ranging from minuscule hummingbirds to massive, land-bound ostriches. Moreover, many of them travel long distances every year to breed, hitting corners of the world never spoken about in the arena of international politics. The area between the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Jordan River is one of the world’s major migratory hotspots, with birds from Africa, Europe and Asia all converging over a small strip of land. Those migratory routes have been the same for thousands, if not millions, of years. The array of the continents creates the perfect land bridge that birds have found useful to use as a stop along the way. Much like our winged friends, human civilizations have often found themselves crossing over the land now in Israel and Palestine, and in many cases, deciding to claim it as their own. The same birds flew their route each spring and fall, however, no matter if the Romans or the Phoenicians or the Ottomans had their soldiers in Jerusalem.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians today is plagued by contrasting interests, long-held beliefs, lack of dialogue, lack of want of dialogue, fears, hatred, divisions, weapons, outside players, politicians and policy. It is a political conflict; much of the discussion around it is political, the proposed solutions are political and politics will likely determine whatever happens next in the region. The program in the Audubon article is derived from a political reality. Avian conservation science in these migratory routes is political because politics has the power and authority to protect and conserve key habitats and resources. Many political discussions — and discussions within the framework of a political reality — are had in formal and informal contexts on our campus.

Birds, however, are not political. Birds are just birds. The calm demeanor of a heron as it stalks fish in a shallow pond by the remnants of the Jordan river is the same as it was 1,000 years ago. Hoopoe don’t care if they find food on the east side of the Green Line or the west. These are things that the shifting nature of our politics has yet to change, and this is true not only in the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. We have increased the atmospheric temperature of our planet, we have eradicated many species entirely and we have done all of this across most of the globe. Glaciers are disappearing, and hyacinth macaws are in danger of becoming extinct, all because of our actions. Why is it, though, that we even care? We care because these things exist and because these things are beautiful. A glacier is a gorgeous composition of ice, water and rock, shaping the landscape, advancing and receding with the seasons. A hyacinth macaw is an amazing, massive, navy blue bird, with a shock of yellow around the eyes and below the bill. Every species, landscape and process on this planet has beauty and importance simply by virtue of its existence. We need to see and respect this beauty if we are to ever fully grasp the need for the politics we use to deal with our relationship to nature.

In much the same way, the campus conversation on Israel and Palestine needs to take a moment to appreciate why it is that many of us care so much about this issue. The notion of self-determination is central to democracy. The respective and shared cultures of Israelis and Palestinians, of Jews and Muslims and Christians, of the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, are rich with thousands of years of history. Perhaps most importantly, human rights and dignities and feeling free and safe in our homes are central concepts for enriching our lives. This must extend to all people; simply by our existence we are worthy of this.

Respecting the core of why we care about this issue can reframe the context and tone of our conversations. The political stage on which we talk about the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories needs to change. The political reality is inexcusable and morally unacceptable. We must recognize that there are two peoples living in the area, and each has spent a long time working for a homeland. The Palestinian people have been subject to the racist violence of a faction of Israeli extremists and discriminatory policy from the share of Israelis who would like to see the military occupation continue. Israelis have lived in fear during the Second Intifada. Palestinians continue to live in fear. We need to talk about history, about what has been just and what has not. We cannot, however, use history as an excuse not to move forward. We cannot, and must not, define for anyone their identity as a people. A solution involving two independent states of Israel and Palestine next to each other isn’t perfect and doesn’t right the wrongs of the past or solve every problem. A two-state solution works, however, because peace doesn’t have to be living under the same government, and peace doesn’t have to be a perfect solution. Peace needs to be about the best we can do with our moment in time, whether that be in slowly resolving a decades-old conflict or in slowly finding our way to co-exist with other species. When a political agreement is reached between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, it has the potential to be a defining moment. Eventually, though, peace can be about more than a political agreement. Peace is having a piece of fruit with your neighbor. Peace is going out with your neighbor to see the birds that have had the luxury of flying over borders and fences.

I encourage you to learn more about this issue through the various outlets we have on campus. Important political conversations are happening, and we need to break out of our bubble of self-protection to see what other groups of people have to say instead of relying on what we think we know. Sometimes we need to talk about things that transcend politics, however. Sometimes it’s better to talk about birds.