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Alumnus Brings Arabs and Israelis Together
to Save the Dead Sea

Bethlehem is short on water. The Jordan River smells of sewage. The Dead Sea is dropping by a meter each year.

Gidon Bromberg, WCL ’94, is working to save them by overcoming one of the world’s biggest hurdles: Arab and Israeli mistrust for each other.

Bromberg has been a driving force for ecological sustainability in the Middle East since he earned his LLM at WCL, headed back to Israel, and founded a group that evolved into Friends of the Earth Middle East.

Nature knows no political or cultural boundaries, so communities that depend on the Middle East’s water resources must put aside their hostilities and cooperate, Bromberg said at the Washington College of Law (WCL).

His group encourages cooperation among Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians to address the imminent destruction of the ecosystems around them.

  • The Dead Sea is shrinking as the Jordan River, which feeds it, slows to a polluted trickle.
  • The vanishing sea is leaving behind a shoreline riddled with dangerous sinkholes.
  • Water in the Gaza Strip is so polluted Bromberg calls it “unfit for human consumption.”
  • Water is scarce all around the Jordan Valley, even in such storied places as Bethlehem, which often has little water in the summer.
  • Lack of water not only leaves people and fields thirsty, but has social impacts, as in towns where parents refuse to send girls to school because the lack of toilets means they’d need to go to the bathroom in the open.

What can be done? The key to effective environmental work in the Middle East, Bromberg told the law students, is to work within communities, so that Jordanians advocate within Jordan, Palestinians within Palestinian communities, and so forth. People who have lived in communities all their lives are the most effective advocates, he said.

“It’s a very unique way of working and very effective. It’s the same vision, but always espoused in the right cultural context. That way people are more likely to listen,” he said.

At the same time, cross-community cooperation is key, both for ecological impact and as a model of peace building. In one case, such cooperation stopped the wall in the West Bank from being built in one community. Townspeople signed petitions to protest the wall, with each side insisting they didn’t want their relationship with their neighbors halted by the wall. They were saying, Bromberg said, that “we’re all neighbors in the Jordan Valley.”

But for every successful cooperation, there are huge risks. “The biggest risk is spoilers within our own societies,” he said. Palestinian staff, for instance, have been interrogated by militant groups within their own society because they work with “the other side,” he said.
“Shooting ourselves in the foot is something we’re great at in the Middle East. We do it every single day,” he said.

Bromberg encouraged the law students to have faith in their ability to make a difference. His organization, which now reaches thousands, started with a few friends and has grown to a staff of nearly 50.

“It’s important for young people to believe you can make a difference by going that extra mile,” he said, “by not being discouraged by having that door shut, but writing that extra letter.”

Bromberg’s talk, “Water and Peace in the Israeli Arab Conflict: Challenges and Opportunities,” was sponsored by the International Legal Studies Program and the Center for Israel Studies.