My Journey

In September, 2009, this Canadian boy started a masters program the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, learning about ecology and health, middle-eastern politics and the environment, and how a dire problem may facilitate a region's coming together for the better. This Blog is a record of my head-first dive into this immense world.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I write this from Egypt, two days after the goodbyes. I’m not far from Israel, just 30 minutes down the Sinai coast, at a little beach called Paradise Sweir (or Paradise Swire, depending on which sign you’re looking at – we still aren’t sure what it means). We meant to get farther down the coast, but the taxi driver insisted that we first check this place out, surely out of the goodness of his own heart and not because he has a deal worked out with the owner. Turns out it’s really nice: the tiny shacks have an outlet, lighting, and a wicked view of the Gulf of Aqaba and Saudi Arabia 20 kilometres across the water, and to top it off lodging is 5 Egyptian pounds a night (5 pounds to one US Dollar). They make their money off of the food, but even this is perfectly reasonable – last night for instance we all sat down banquet style to a giant platter of makluba (rice stewed with vegetables, beans, and meat) for 35 pounds each. No one walked away from that meal hungry. I’m here with 8 people from the institute and my good friend Noah, who’s in the region for 3 months. Noah remarked this morning, after waking up with the sun, having a big breakfast of falafel, foul, salad, and pita, and chatting by the sea for a few hours, that this is the kind of place you could lose yourself at for months if you weren’t careful – good food, cheap everything, people filtering through from all over the world, beautiful scenery. But Monday morning he’ll head for the epitome of bustle that is Cairo, and I will head back to Israel for one last night before catching a plane back to Toronto at noon on Tuesday. This few days is a welcome period of unwinding after the end of the semester.

The Arava Institute portion of this masters degree is over – no more kibbutz, no more PELS, no more interdisciplinary environmental classes, no more intentional peace-building community. Granted, the tiny desert studies academic institution I’ll find myself at next year is still a couple steps removed from the world of work and commerce (what some people call the “real world”), but I may never again find myself involved so intensely in such a tight-knit community hell bent on group discovery, discussion, and social change. This past year has been almost like a year-long summer camp for adults, only with classes, exams, and papers. Everyone should be so lucky to have this kind of experience at least once in their life – I can see why so many people have a hard time leaving, and keep coming back in whatever capacity they can. I feel like this is the kind of blog post that calls for a summing up, a deep analysis of the experience to digest the entirety of a year at the Machon into a readymade manifesto, story, metaphor, poem, song…to make a map of the experience at the proper scale and hold it in my hands so that I can return to it and find my way around again. I’ll do what I can.

Taking the Machon’s surroundings as an arbitrary starting point, it is notable that this program finds itself in the middle of the Arava Valley, one of the driest places on earth, on a desert kibbutz. The placement of the kibbutz has many explanations, depending on your perspective. On the one hand it is a triumph of ruach (spirit) that a group of bright-eyed nineteen-year-old kids decided they were going to plant themselves into the hot desert sands and build a new garden of eden – it is indicative of the particular Zionist spirit that they saw only a bright world ahead, that they could use their own hands, their own sprit, their own resources and creativity to coerce the desert into a state of blooming paradise. What a feat of imagination! And if you look at the product of it today, this particular kibbutz remains socialized, is one of the most diverse and thriving (though this is a relative term) kibbutzim in the area. Concessions have been made, growing melons and onions was abandoned, Thai workers have been hired, but new directions have also been struck with the algae factory and the new Arava Power Company. And if you look at Ketura from above, you see a carpet of green in the midst of a blanket of sand.

On another hand, this wasn’t just a few kids striking out on their own into the desert on their own initiative– for generations planning policy in Israel has been strategic first and environmental, social, and economic second. The Zionist spirit thus has another blade, and that is an expansionist one, neurotically ethnocentric and protective of the Jewish nature of the state, militant and based on a self-conscious effort to revolutionize the nature of the Jew from bookish and weak to a very socialist version of the peasant prodigy – strong, self-sufficient, ideologically driven by allegiance to the Jewish collective. Nowadays we think of Israel as almost an extension of American Foreign policy –Americans looking back might be shocked and uncomfortable with how much it looked like socialism in theory and practice in the early days. The pain of discrimination and violent anti-Semitism left its mark on this new mentality – no one could convince one of these early settlers that they would be safe again unless they were self-governing, ethnically pure, and outwardly strong, and you’d have even less chance of it with the Jews who fled during and after World War II. The rallying cry of “a land without a people for a people without a land” echoed throughout the Jewish world, and the mentality of those “New Jews” was reflective of this – the vast Arab population majority and the 500 Arab villages then in Turkish then British Palestine proper were a temporary impediment to the reclamation of the land as a Jewish State, at best potential brothers and partners in the future Jewish State, at worst animals to be cleared out of the way in its establishment by a variety of means. The “clear, open desert” that those 19 year old kids found themselves in had been formerly the home of semi-nomadic Bedouin who happened to be in the way of this Zionist dream, and who now find themselves in a position of “sign all your historic land claims away for an foreign sedentary lifestyle or live in a pocket of third world in the midst of a newly OECD country”. Still wrapped around Ketura are the remnants of the old quadruple layer barbed-wire fence, a reminder that these settlements filled the Zionist dream in two ways – they made the desert bloom and they held the enemy at bay, forming the skin of the new flourishing ethnocracy.

Looking at the desert on another plane of thought, another dialectic of no less importance emerges, that between the urge toward conquest and the urge toward awe. In the first semester, for the environmental anthropology class, our assignment was to generate an ethnography of kibbutz members about their relationship to the environment, and I personally was struck by how much living in the desert structures the thought of those who live here, even when they’ve been removed from the search for basic needs like the constant search for fresh water and the need to beat the heat during the hottest months (thanks to AC). One woman said that she feels the presence of the desert surrounding her all the time, and finds the openness soul-freeing. Others find it too open, the barrenness oppressive. For some people, the desert is a challenge to which we must rise, to others it is a force before which we must humble ourselves. Both of these stances have their time and place, but often one wonders why settle the desert at all? For all of our conquering, the kibbutzim here are stuck in a ridiculous situation – their economies are based around dairy and dates. The dates can live in salty water, which is great because that is what comes out of the fossil aquifer (meaning it doesn’t recharge. When it’s gone, it’s gone), but they need 1000 litres of it per tree per day! If the dates seem unsustainable, the cows just seem like lunacy – they need water all day, especially in the summer, to cool down, and they’re certainly not grazing on any lush pastures within 500 kilometres of Ketura. Though I said the kibbutzim are successful, they’re still financially on a shoestring, and need to keep mining water to survive. No one really knows how much is left in the aquifer – the battle against the limitations of the desert is sure to end in failure if carried out in the same way as it is today. But a change in tactics is taking place, one that seems to respect the desert for what it is rather than trying to make it what it is not – the Arava Power Company is set to open up heaps of photovoltaic operations beginning in the next couple years, and the vision for the region is to shift to this sort of economy.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that the most important lesson I’ve taken away from the Machon is that we always live at the intersection of so many dialectics, dynamic contradictions and paradoxes that structure the limitations of our thoughts and actions. Noah is fond these days of quoting Saul Bellow, “where there is no paradox there is no life.” Left wing versus right wing, security versus freedom, intuition versus rationality, social versus natural, local versus global, thought versus action – find yourself clinging entirely to one of these poles and you’ll find that you are entirely stuck, with no chance of progressing. The world is always changing, faster every day, and thus being stuck puts you in quite an unfavourable position. The theme of this year’s Children’s Peace Theatre show in Toronto, which I will be helping to organize, is “the spaces in between”. Caught in the sticky web threaded through these dialectics is our situation in this world, and there’s no escaping it. We are brothers and sisters in our feeling of thrownness – we wake up into the world as if from a dream of a perfect garden and enter a stranger one where there’s no certainty and no hard and fast rules or answers.

At the Machon we wake up from the strange dream of our lives and enter into an even stranger one still, where enemies become friends and whatever you thought you knew turns out to be, not wrong per se, but only a few threads in a tapestry so large that trying to step back from it becomes dizzying. All of this sounds very abstract, and when it hits you, as it does at least once daily, the amazing nature of set-up we’ve got at the Machon, it can seem all too easy – the cultural exchange is smooth, the laughter and affection are abundant, the community seems strong. But behind each person is a tangle of personal history, cultural history, family ties and loyalties to good friends, a formal education, an informal education, a hundred mentors and pieces of advice and wisdom clung to, a thousand formative experiences, joys, and sorrows. Still we must all sink our roots somewhere, and form some identity out of this tangle. When we get to the Arava desert for the AIES program the sands prove too shifting for our formerly comfortable roots and we confusion sets in. It is a telling sign of the shock of this upheaval that one of the most common suggestions in the end of semester student program evaluation was a staff psychologist.

The final days were rushed – final papers kept people occupied, or at least on edge, while cleaning, packing, and the impending goodbye made writing those papers feel even worse - with so much still do say and do, so much still to learn from one another, too many stories still untold, who cares about a grade? But no matter how free we all were, a three day intensive listening circle would only have proved the endless nature of the journey we all have started here. I may find myself in fertile soil again, but my roots will always be restless and searching, never again complacent. Already the calls of longing across the internet have begun, and we have instituted a monthly picnic somewhere accessible to everyone. And though we may lose touch with many of the people over the years, we know that somewhere out there are 45 people who have shared this experience, and who were at one time as close as family.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Up and Down, Side to Side (Act II)

                 This past weekend [note, this is now 3 weekends ago, exams and papers really get in the way!] was a bit of a whirlwind, and a testament to just how small this region really is.  At 1:00 pm on Friday I hopped on the Egged bus for the always beautiful 3.5 hour trip up to Jerusalem, through cracked and desolate desert speckled with improbable patches of green wrenched from the scorched earth by sucking water from aquifers or pumping it hundreds of kilometres.  Much of the trip is spent with the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan to the right, and then the turn at Jericho brings you to the Judean hills, spotted with the shanty-dwellings and goat-herds of unrecognized Bedouin, and, not unrelated, little vegetation.  First stop after the central bus station was an hour saunter through the decelerating activity of west Jerusalem, with shops closing or closed for the coming Shabbat.  The destination was Nava Tehila, a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service consisting of an inner circle of acoustic instruments, and concentric circles of singing and dancing – not your grandfather’s service!  As an existentialist by philosophical leaning, I go to this service for the immense energy and power that the people there draw out of themselves – the room is buzzing and electrified, something I generally find lacking from the solemn, quiet (read: boring) nature of most services I’ve attended.  If I’m going to spend an hour exalting a deity I don’t believe in, it had better come with some good music to allow me to transcend the absurdity of this act!
                After an hour at Nava Tehila, the next stop was a cab to east Jerusalem, just on the other side of the Old City, where the Arab buses leave to go all over the West Bank.  I hopped on the Ramallah bus with my friend Aya from the Machon, and, practicing my fledgling Arabic, ordered two tickets (“Shu adeish?  Ithnayn,” say I.  “thirteen,” says the driver in return).  The Ramallah bus heads through east Jerusalem to the north and east, and at a certain point traces the separation wall to the nearest checkpoint.  You can see as you drive along this barrier how neighborhoods, families, villages, economies have simply been wrenched apart by the wall.  "See that desolate junction?"  Aya says, "That used to be one of the busiest markets around.  Now there's a slight...barrier to trade."  Some people have been cut off from their families, and where they used to be able to walk down the street to say hi, now need a permit to get through the wall.  To put this into perspective for thos of you who know Toronto, my parents live on Wembley road just east of the Allen expressway and just north of Eglinton, and my Sister has been living just half a block west of the Allen, and half a block south of Eglinton.  Now, imagine a political wall has been erected along the route of the Allen, all the way down to the water and all the way up to Barrie, with the nearest checkpoint through it up at Sheppard.  Now a five minute walk is at least a half hour drive, potentially hours depending on the wait at the checkpoint, and it could be never, depending on your ability to get a permit to travel through the checkpoint in the first place.  Imagine the feeling of knowing that your grandchild is what used to be a five minute walk away, and now is a once-a-year visit, perhaps never.  These are my thoughts as we drive towards Ramallah, the wall rising up 10 meters on our right.
          Getting into the West Bank isn’t really a problem, no one checks you; it’s getting out that’s the trickier part, but that’s for later.  Once into Ramallah, we tore off the bus and just managed to flag down a cab as it was accelerating into a green light, then off to a concert at the Ramallah Cultural Palace.  The Cultural Palace is a gorgeous venue, fairly new, with a high ceiling and decent acoustics, and the concert itself was one-of-a-kind: the front man was a jovial oud player and singer, to his right was a q’noun, and to his left two percussionists – a fairly typical Arabic set-up.  To the q’noun player’s right though, things started to get interesting: first a double bass and a cello, then…a saxophone.  Followed by an accordion and a piano.  Needless to say, the music was really unique, and quite good!
                After saying hi to some people after the show (The Rammallah arts and culture scene is reminiscent of most smaller cities – everyone knows everyone and attends each other’s shows), we headed off to the house of a friend of Aya’s named MisbaH.  Walking through the door, we were greeted by a table full of the best vegetarian food I’ve had since I got to this region.  Cooking, however, is not MisbaH’s only talent, and in the past decade or so he has become a central player in the Ramallah underground art scene, promoting the use of art as a means of resistance.  He looks every bit the underground artist with a mane of shaggy dark hair, a slight and agile build, a quiet, kind demeanor and dark, curious eyes.  He’s so good at what he does, in fact, that his talent recently threw him into the biggest decision-making crisis of his life.  You see, MisbaH has been living in Ramallah for the past decade (literally, in Ramallah.  He has not left this city in ten years due to not being able to get a permit to do so), but he is originally from Gaza, and it says so on his ID.  Recently, he got accepted by on long shot to a major art conference in Berlin, and also to a master’s program in Sweden (he has a BA in mathematics).  Israel has been slowly tightening restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially between Gaza and the West Bank, since 1991, but in the past few months this process took a qualitative jump with the introduction of the “infiltration law,” essentially allowing the Israeli authorities to remove anyone, no questions asked, to the place of residence on their ID, and then prevent them from leaving indefinitely.  You can see what this means for MisbaH.  He has spent the last decade building his life in Ramallah, but has been offered the opportunity of his life – to travel the world and develop his skills so that he can come back and use them in the community he loves and which he helped create.  But upon return, the likely situation is that the Israeli officials will look at his ID, see Gaza residency, and take him there immediately.  He left a week ago and is currently in Berlin – we’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out, but for now he’s a free man for the first time in his life.
                After dinner at MisbaH’s we went to one of the many and growing number of pubs in Ramallah servicing the international community, the new rich, and the returning Palestinian community.  Full of a mix of Palestinian artists, international aid workers and foreign students, the atmosphere is reminiscent of what I would imagine southern Italy or Spain to be – open stone patio with refreshingly cool breeze, lively conversation, warm-weather trees like pomegranate, lime, pepper, and fig bearing young fruits hanging around.  We were all drinking Taybeh, the delicious Palestinian beer that was recently highlighted by the New York Times.  The brewery was started by members of that returning Palestinian community, a family who had lived in Massachusetts for decades before returning to the West Bank to help develop the economy.  Looking at the bottle, one is struck by a very strange feature – there’s not so much as a single Arabic letter on the bottle, not even so much as the word Taybeh spelled out in the language of its country of origin.  This sort of thing throws the enigma that is Ramallah into relief – a growing rift between the rich and the poor, an uneasiness with the pace of economic growth and development for a people whose identity is so largely wrapped up in the struggle against the occupation and the resistance, wrapped up in being the victims of unjust Israeli aggression and occupation. 
                After a great night, the next morning I hopped back on the il-quds (Jerusalem) bus and headed back through the checkpoint at Kalandia.  I, of course, am armed with my Canadian passport, and so the wave of annoyance and aggression from the female soldier behind the glass in the bleak room of the checkpoint broke on my privileged status.  “ID, passport, SOMETHING, ANYTHING!?” she yelled as I walked by.  Placing my passport up against the glass, I was let right through without further questions, but a couple of younger men behind me got the full brunt of her anger, perhaps frustrated that I snubbed her attempt to assert her power.  After the checkpoint, it was smooth sailing back to the Damascus Gate of the Old City, and then a leisurely walk through the Arab Quarter, Christian Quarter, and Armenian Quarter, out the Zion Gate, and into West Jerusalem again, where it is too easy to imagine that all of the past 12 hours, visiting that part of Israel which complexifies the myth, doesn’t exist at all.  Having picked up a couple of Taybeh’s in East Jerusalem, I brought them to the Shabbat lunch of my good friend Adi from the Machon last semester.  The crowd was the Ramah camp crowd, the American Jewish Jerusalem bubble.  We opened the Taybeh, which was quickly dubbed the “peace beer”, and made a little toast “l’Shalom” (to peace), while a couple of the guys, one of whom had made aliyah and was in army service, muttered audibly “I don’t believe in peace”.  After we had finished the Taybeh, Adi, who’s never one to let political correctness stand in the way of a good joke (one of the things I love about him), went to the fridge, pulled out an Israeli beer (Goldstar), and announced “alright, now who wants some Apartheid beer?”  We spent the afternoon playing wiffle baseball in a little empty lot in West Jerusalem, and they reminisced about camp.  We joked around and had a great time. 
After this year, I don’t think I’ll be able to fully be in Israel without also being in Palestine.  In the old city one of the oddest phenomena around is the rows of hanging t-shirts for sale, and in two rows side by side you have a IDF shirts and creepy shirts that say Uzi does it, and Free Palestine and Yassir Arafat for President.  Lastly, you have I love Israel and I love Palestine side by side.  But here's the thing, you can’t be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli without losing sight of the fact that  the two narratives, the two peoples, the two cultures, form two sides to the same coin - you simply can't understand Israel without understanding Palestine, and vice versa.  You have to be pro-justice and pro-humanity, and see where that leads you.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"In its hour of need, Israel was let down by Diaspora"

Here is an important article from the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, calling on diaspora Jews to practice some tough love on Israel:

Criticizing the IDF is too easy. The real blame lies with successive Israeli governments and the broad public that are not brave enough to end the 42-year-old occupation and prefer instead to throw the army at the problem. As good as our army is, the result will only be more and more bloodshed. So how do we deal with it? By convincing ourselves that we are the moral ones and everyone else just wants to kill us.
If only we had some real friends, friends we could trust implicitly, who could point out the error of our ways. This could be the shining moment of the Jewish Diaspora. They love us, but they also see things from another perspective. We need a strong, unified voice from the Jewish leadership in the United States and Europe telling Israelis enough is enough, you are hurtling down the slippery slope of pariahdom and causing untold damage to yourselves and us. Lift your heads above the ramparts and see that the world has moved on.
Instead, we find the establishment of the Jewish world crouching with us in the bunker.
I'm going to repeat my call again to Jews around the world, if you love Israel, to join in the growing chorus of those who find Israel's policies and actions further and further from their own world view.  Standing with Israel may mean denouncing it publicly and with a loud voice, and pulling it back from precipice it is slowly approaching, rather than cheering it on.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Community of Peace in a Moment of Crisis

There’s nothing like a crisis in your region to increase your readership, and the bar on my Google Analytics monitoring spiked yesterday.  I realized, though, that what I wrote yesterday was knee-jerk, following the media feed, and that I’m not really in the position to evaluate what’s going on.  Even the update I provided, based on speaking to more people and reading a wider variety of sources after a day of statements, press releases, and media frenzy, all I did was really parrot what was going on online, and add to it some real thoughts, feelings and frustrations that were searching for an outlet.  They found that outlet through the crack that formed in all of our sanity yesterday.  Therefore, I would like you all to read the previous post as an exercise in the hazards of new media citizen journalism and jumping to conclusions, but please take the latter half of the second paragraph seriously, about the future of Israel.  I’m not going to change anything about what I wrote yesterday, to preserve it as a real moment in time.
                But I also realized that I didn’t talk at all about what I’m actually qualified to talk about, and what I’m sure is much more interesting for someone reading this blog – and that’s what happened here at the Machon.  Leading up to the event, a flurry of e-mails went around about the Free Gaza flotilla, with some barbs and quips as people voiced their political views, but nothing that our community doesn’t daily absorb in stride.  Then, early in the morning as news started filtering in, the magnitude of the events began to manifest itself.  Immediately people were shaken up, furious, confused, and scared.  People lost their minds a little bit, cried, yelled, and waited impatiently for the next update.  Angry political e-mails were balanced by exhortations to come together and support each other through this, and there were even a few frantic half-baked plans to get up to Ashdod for demonstrations.  Then there were the official statements from the Machon administration (who we all know very well, small as this place is) telling us to remain calm, hang together as a group, not jump to conclusions, and especially not to jump into demonstrations and political acts without full knowledge of what will be going on, the nature of the demonstrations, who is organizing, et cetera. 
                You also have to realize that we’re not just a peace group; we’re a school/community.  Classes went forward, and people agonized over having to split their time between researching, writing, and preparing for our flurry of final projects and being with each other and processing this news as a group.  Seriously, who cares about the minutiae of the differences between market-based and command-and-control environmental policy at a time like this?   I have to say that it was probably not the most productive academic day in the Machon’s history.  At the day’s end though, two major things spontaneously emerged from our group – a screaming session in the desert out back of the kibbutz to vent and relieve our frustrations (thank you BKR), and a listening circle on campus to check in and gauge where we all are, share our feelings and views, and most of all to reaffirm our friendship, community, and devotion to dialogue and peace through the worst of the conflict.  I can only imagine what things looked like here last January, during the Gaza war.
                Life goes on here, and we all stumble forward through the feelings in our stomachs and the slight trauma to our psyches.  But much more importantly than anything I wrote yesterday, which you can read about a million places on the web, I wanted to broadcast to the world the reality of what goes on at this amazing place in the middle of the desert – in the midst of this crisis that is polarizing the world, Jews from North America and Israel, Palestinians, and Jordanians came together to vent, yell, hug, cry, share, support, and build.  At a time when people from every side were using the senseless violence out at sea to polarize and divide, we used it to come together and build our community even stronger. 
Let’s be clear.  This isn’t easy.  Some people, especially the Arab students but far from exclusively, will be getting excessive heat from their families and home communities for being stupid, young, idealistic and naive enough to be collaborating with an enemy at a time like this.  And at times like these it is easiest to give up and yourself question what the hell you’re doing here, especially if you’ve made personal sacrifices and are watching relations in the region deteriorate despite all that we’ve gained in this little island in the desert.  I’m different.  I’m from Canada, with a Canadian passport, with an out if things get tough.  I grew up in secure, wealthy countries where things like this just didn’t happen and I feel disoriented and over my head.  I am endlessly inspired by the people around me, whose courage surpasses by orders of magnitude anything from fools who hide behind weapons and violence.  The truly radical person believes that utopia is possible, despite the odds.  Albert Camus wrote in the Rebel: The rebel “attacks a shattered world in order to demand unity from it. He opposes the principle of justice which he finds in himself to the principle of injustice which he sees being applied in the world...all he wants, originally, is to resolve this contradiction and establish the reign of justice.”    I am convinced more and more every day that non-violence, peace-building, reaching out, and fighting injustice by living a just life full of good and hard work, with respect for each other and our environment, is the only way to the salvation of our fully global community.

Hard work and hope
Trump hard luck and trouble
This world is it; I will make it my home
This world is it; I will make it my own
-Old Man Luedecke, from Just Like a River

Monday, May 31, 2010

Outrage: At least 10 Dead and dozens injured as the IDF attacks Gaza Aid Fleet

 [update 10:00 pm Israel time - The more the story comes out, the more I'm ashamed of both sides, especially the so-called humanitarian activists [updated update - it appears that the violence came only from one ship, populated by radicals, while the others were dealt with peacefully].  The activists, it seems, deceived the IDF with white flags and promises of non-violence, only to pull out metal pipes, knives, and bats and immediately begin to beat soldiers, who at first only used riot dispersal methods like paintball guns and tear gas, and finally the activists stole pistols and opened fire.  It seems that this act was what started the gunfire, though we can't be sure until the full story comes out.  Even so, the actions of the Israeli navy seem disproportionate, and the loss of life severe.  I don't know what fraction of the flotilla was aware of this plan, as it happened only on one boat, and only about 30 people were initially involved, but clearly this is not the way a peaceful, humanitarian mission behaves.  Shame on those who use violence.  I'm not going to change what I wrote before about standing up to the Occupation and taking back Israel, which I truly believe, but I have to admit I jumped to conclusions about the flotilla event]

         Some of you might have been aware in the last week or so of an international aid flotilla of nine ships that set sail for Gaza in order to "break the siege" that has been going on for nearly 4 years, since Hamas took power in the strip.  You can read about the Flotilla on their own site here.  The boats are loaded with thousands of tons of aid in the form of medicine, food, medical supplies, and importantly, no firearms of any kind, even in the possession of the people on board.  In the past few days the PR machines of both sides revved into high gear as the moment of confrontation approached, and the whole world watched to see what would happen.  IDF ships left Sunday evening in the hopes of having the confrontation at night where cameras would be useless, but the flotilla changed course to force the situation into the daylight.  According to news sources and accounts from people on board, the IDF intercepted the ships off the coast, many said in international waters.  Events following are somewhat unclear, but what is clear is that the IDF used tear gas and live ammunition on unarmed international civilians, potentially in international waters, wounding dozens and killing at least 10.  You can find the stories in the NYTimes, Guardian UK, and I'm sure any reputable news source around.
     I, for one, am outraged, and can't find the words to describe the confusion.  Yes, Gaza is a closed military zone, and I would have been quite disappointed (but not surprised) if the IDF stopped the ships, commandeered the cargo, and deported the people.  This would be the procedure of most countries given the situation.  But what happened is inexcusable and absurd.  In their defense, army radio reported that activists tried to grab guns from the soldiers' hands.  Are you kidding me?  Maybe I'm naive and stupid, but why do you even need to bring guns aboard these ships, full of unarmed civilians?  Speaking to my parents last night I heard about an Israel rally in Toronto, where Netanyahu spoke.  Those of you who've known me since high school know that I've always been ambivalent about these rallies and have not gone, and went through that high school leftist phase (or perhaps transition?  I feel like I'm still in it), but in light of this last event, I feel like urging everyone I know to stay home, or, better yet, go with with signs:  "This is not MY Israel", "Not in my name", "End the Occupation", and so on.  I urge you not to fall into the trap of "with us or against us", or the inane and polarizing idea that unflinching support of Israel is the only thing that will not "give hope to Israel's enemies" or ridiculous ideas like that.  North American Jews like to take solace in the idea that these sorts of incidents are "isolated."  The cases of outrageous racism and murder by IDF soldiers during the Gaza war, the incidents of humiliation and violence by soldiers at check points and in the West Bank, the settler violence, the cases of racism and prejudice in planning and decision making...all of these things are becoming more and more systemic, not isolated.  If you haven't had a chance to look through the accounts of soldiers at Breaking the Silence, I urge you to  You have to understand that if you don't take back Israel now from the direction it is heading (read the article from the NYReview of books from my last post), you will wake up one morning to find you are blindly supporting an Apartheid regime, violent and self-destructive, and you will have to answer to that.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A smattering of goings on

[note: my interview with the french CBC will air at 7:20 am Toronto time on 860 AM or 90.3 FM]

Sorry it has been so long, and I haven't completed the water trip story yet, we've been busy here preparing for finals and going on surprise desert outings. I will try and give a fuller update soon. Here are just a few things going on:

A peaceful protest I attended about a month ago turned violent last week when soldiers started making arrests and firing tear gas. The protest is a non-violent protest against the wanton appropriation of Palestinian land to build the separation wall:

A really interesting article in the New York Review of books reviews the growing rift between what American Jews imagine Israel to be (a light upon the nations, a peaceful, just, democratic state) and what it is actually becoming on the ground ( a state in which about 50 percent of the population would take rights away from Israeli Arabs and expel Palestinians from the West Bank, and in which governmental structures are beginning to follow suit):

About a week ago we got a visit from the deputy prime minister of Israel, "Bogey" Ya'alon, who gave us a talk on his experiences and his views on the conflict and a potential peace.  We both seemed to believe that projects like ours, where real interaction and peace-building happen between peoples, is a good place to start, but in terms of macropolicy we were definitely at odds.  This, after all, was a man quoted as saying: "The virus 'Peace Now,' and if you will, the elites - damage they can cause is very great.  As far as I'm concerned, Jews can, and should live in all of the Land of Israel forever."  I'm happy to say that the session was conducted very civilly, though it did leave a number of people quite frustrated.

I have recently heard a good many people talking about a new Israeli political movement called the National Left, which is an attempt to take back Zionism from the settler movement, which has called any leftist anti-Zionist and ant-Israel.  Their manifesto is free online, and was banned from book stores in Israel after pressure from settler groups.  You can find it here:

In other news, Ontario premier Dalton Mcguinty will be visiting the Arava Institute tomorrow, May 26th! He's on an Israel trip to promote ties between Ontario and Israel in science and technology, especially renewable energy, and will get to hear from a panel of students. I was also interviewed about this visit on the French CBC, and the interview will hopefully air tomorrow. I will let you know when I know exactly what time it will be.

And finally, I will be presenting a paper at the Israeli Society for the History and Philosophy of Science annual meeting this Sunday! The paper is about Julien Offray de la Mettrie, the 18th century French philosopher and physician who published a book called "The Man Machine" in which he maintained that Descartes was right about living bodies being machines, but wrong about there being a separate substance of the soul. Mettrie decided that all living phenomena could arise from organized matter alone, laying the groundwork for metaphysical naturalism in physiology, and getting him promptly booted out of France.
More news as it comes.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Today was officially Nakba day, and there was a low key event on campus consisting of a little exhibition of photographs and narratives from pre-Nakba Arab Palestine - names of villages that are forever gone, stories of the people who were forced off of their land, never to return - the flip side of the triumphant Zionist narrative that so many of us grow up with.  I don't think I will ever entirely discount the side of the narrative that led to the successful creation of the State of Israel, an accomplishment that will always blow my mind and send shivers down my spine problematic as the narrative may be, but to fully understand the implications of the creation of Israel, you also need to understand the Nakba.  And tonight, after experiencing the representations that the Palestinian students put together, complete especially with a poem about a village, an identity, and a way of life lost, I returned to my caravan somber.  I will always be who I am, and proud of Israel and all it had accomplished, the fact that it was nothing but a dream but a century ago and today it has just joined the OECD.  But being proud of Israel needs to also reside in the mind with knowing the full implications of Israel's existence as a Jewish State.  A little while ago I got a mass e-mail from someone close to me, mostly dealing with Israel's wonderful accomplishments, but ending with these lines:

In contrast to the efforts of tiny Israel to make contributions to the world so as to better mankind, one has to ask what have those who have strived to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth done other than to create hate and bloodshed???  

 So I decided to add my little piece of mind to the discourse, and hopefully all of you out there can help me.  If you ever get an e-mail with a piece of rhetoric like this, please respond with this little message, modified in whatever way makes it appropriate:

This is my response to those e-mails that attempt to fan the flames of animosity, prejudice, and hatred of Jews towards Arabs and Palestinians in particular.  They float around the internet in many Jewish circuits, and I've gotten many before.  I know that this kind of message is coming from a place of anxiety, pain, and fear, and thus needs a dose of understanding, not argument.

  It indeed makes me very proud that Israel has been, and continues to be a pioneer in so many different areas, has weathered the current economic situation with such relative ease, and in many ways continues to be a "light unto the nations".  Not included in this list, but almost equally as important, is Israel's many humanitarian accomplishments.  Two days ago I was running programs with Sudanese refugees in Eilat, and in February I was a full-time volunteer with Save a Child's Heart in Tel Aviv, which has performed heart surgery for thousands of children in need from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Iraq, and (about half the children come from) the Palestinian Territories.  And we can only point to the mission in Haiti (which my masters supervisor was involved with) to see what Israel is capable of.

But proud as I was of most of the e-mail, I was somewhat shocked with the last paragraph, which was not worthy of a group that is "a light unto the nations".  I have had the privilege through my 7 months thus far at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies ( to live, study, work, travel, eat, and argue with a student body that is 1/3 International, 1/3 Israeli Jewish, and 1/3 Arab (Israeli Arab, West Bank Palestinian, and Jordanian).  Words like those attached to the end of that e-mail are dehumanizing and hurtful, and are easy enough to say from the safety of an e-mail distributed only to Jews of a certain frame of mind.  But I feel that as part of a generation of youth attempting to challenge the status quo of fear, anger, and prejudice in all of our communities and cultures, I have to object.  I have stayed at my friends' family homes in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Irbid, and have met wonderful people who have taken me in and treated me like family.  I have met young people striving to make a change in their communities and their world, who will be engineers, physicians, poets, teachers, and future leaders, who have loved and lost and have big dreams.  I guess what I'm saying is that when we dehumanize the other, we dehumanize ourselves, and peace and justice fly from our grasp.  So, the next time something like this comes across your computer screen, by all means pass on the pride and joy of Jewish accomplishment, but please leave the rest.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Water Trip Part 1

It's been a little while since I posted anything, and I had to skip this week's Late Night Thoughts, but all for very good reason - this past week we took our semester trip to talk about the other elephant in the room when it comes to this part of the world: water. Here's  political map of the area so you can follow the route and a water map so you can more easily see what I'm talking about:

As you know, Ketura is just along the Jordan border about 50 km from Eilat, which along with the Jordanian city of Aqaba resides on the northernmost tip of the Gulf of Aqaba.  I would like to say that it was as simple as everyone piling into the bus and crossing into Jordan at the Eilat-Aqaba border crossing, but you should be aware by now if you've been reading the blog thus far that nothing is as simple as that with a group like ours.  The Palestinian students are not allowed by their permits to enter the municipality of Eilat for whatever ridiculous reason (why Eilat of all places?  They can go anywhere else!), and therefore can't cross over from Eilat to Aqaba.  So they had to leave a couple days early and cross over at a different border crossing (The Allenby Bridge - King Hussein crossing) nearer to Jerusalem and Amman.  The question came up in a meeting why we couldn't all cross with the Palestinians as a show of solidarity.  Well, it turns out that the crossing the Palestinians were using is actually just for Palestinians, being as it is in Area A (Israelis can't go there), and Israeli and Jordanian authorities don't grant Visas to international passport holders visas for this crossing.  It can take all day for the Palestinians to cross the border, seeing as they have to pass through not two, but three authorities - Palestinian, Israeli, and then Jordanian.  So it had to happen that the Palestinians left two days early, went to Amman first and then met us in Wadi Mujib on the first day, after we had crossed into Jordan at Eilat-Aqaba.

      Just to give a brief synopsis of the purpose of the trip, it essentially hinges on the political ecology of water in the Jordan River Basin.  There are four major riparians (bodies - usually states but with an exception in this case - that have claim to a right of water use in a basin) in the Jordan River Basin: Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine.  Lebanon and Egypt have marginal claim, but they're not very important in the political scheme of things, each having their own much more important water supply.  Excepting groundwater, there is one major water source supplying water to Israel, Jordan, and Palestine - the Jordan River Basin, which arises out of a few tributaries in the north of Israel, flows through the Hula Valley and into the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kineret in Hebrew, the little blue patch on the line demarcating the Golan Heights in the map).  From there it "flows" south into the Dead Sea, which is as good a place as any to start.

    The first stop in Jordan, Wadi Mujib, was all about the Dead Sea.  The water level in the sea has been dropping at a rate of approximately 1 meter a year for about 30 years, and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.  At current rates, the sea will salinate to the point where no more evaporation will take place - about 200 meters shallower than currently, with only 1/3 the surface area.  Why is this happening?  The reason can be summed up pretty well in the words of one of the Jordanian water authorities we met along the way: in the current water management mentality, any water that is not "used" in some way is a waste.  After all, currently Jordan is the most water stressed country in the Middle East with a water deficit of hundreds of millions of cubic meters (i.e. the amount that demand outstrips supply) and Israel is also water stressed especially in the summer months.  Therefore, every little bit of water worth using is used, and Wadi Mujib is a good example.  Rain falls far more abundantly in the mountains that run parallel to the Israeli border than in the dry Arava Valley in which runs the border south of the Dead Sea.   Therefore, there are many rivers flowing out of these mountains and through wadis to the sea.  Almost every single one, however, is dammed and diverted to supply domestic, industrial, and agricultural uses in the area - Wadi Mujib now barely makes it to the Dead Sea.  The only reason it still does, if ever so slightly, is that a little water is let through the dam to provide tourists like us a little hike up a shallow river to a waterfall - but except for this tiny piece, the natural ecosystem that used to flourish along the river is entirely gone.  The same is true for every little stream that used to flow into the Dead Sea - of the original 1.3 billion cubic meters that used to flow into it from the Jordan River, only 300 million still does, and this 300 million is made up entirely of a mix of fish farm waste, agricultural run-off, and untreated sewage water.  The Dead Sea is essentially now a waste dump, and a shrinking one at that.
      Why is this a problem?  After all, it's a "dead" sea right?  It's not like we'll lose abundant treasures of biodiversity if the thing dries up.  Nothing save a couple of halophilic (salt-loving) microbes even lives there.  But let's think "upstream," so to speak, before returning downstream. Remember that bird migration map I showed in an earlier post that showed that most of Europe and Africa's migrating birds go through this part of the world on their journey?  Well, diverting all of the natural water sources to provide for agriculture, industry, and domestic uses deprives those birds of their natural fueling spots, leaving them with the natural choice of turning to the farms and fields that the water irrigates.  This creates huge problems with farmers, but more about this when I talk about Hula.  Returning to the Dead Sea, the shrinking water level means that fresh water moves in to take its place, dissolving a large salt layer in the ground surrounding the sea and causing thousands of sinkholes tens of meters across, making it dangerous to hike, and making farming in the area a very uncertain affair - you might come out one morning to find that half your farm has collapsed, literally.  Finally, there is a large amount of industry associated with the Dead Sea, largely consisting of tourism and mineral extraction from the water.  If you look up at the water map, you'll see that there are really two Dead Seas, the lower one being nothing but shallow (~5 m) evaporation pools where nearly 40 percent of the world's potash, along with dozens of other minerals, is extracted.  These evaporation pools also contribute significantly to the lower levels of the actual Dead Sea, although the Jordan River problem is almost an order of magnitude more significant.  But as the Sea subsides, it is more and more costly to pump this water into the ponds, and the tourism will suffer as well.

(up next post - The Red-Dead Conduit, Amman, Irbid, and the Hula)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A rant prompted by the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

We're still acting as if the economy is the thing that's real, the thing with physical weight and force. We're acting as if the natural world is the abstraction, the intellectual concept that we can adjust to better suit our needs. That confusion will be the root of more disasters.

Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.
-Cree proverb (or ostensibly so)

Cause I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love
-Paul McCartney

     I graduated from University of King's College in May of 2009, right about the heart of the financial crisis.  During the convocation ceremony, president Bill Barker, in his speech to the graduating class, mused about the usual assumption that what happens in university liberal arts programs has nothing to do with the "real world."  He called on us to question just how real the "real world" is, given that it seemed to be driven by quantities of wealth and value that vanished almost overnight.  Where did they go?  How did hundreds of thousands of houses get half-built on the momentum of financing that dried up like so many of the world's current rivers?  The dreams of the homeowners were real, but their resources dried up.  And yet we don't seem to learn.
       If you want to know about the real world, you have to talk to an ecosystem ecologist, who meticulously studies the Earth's biota as systems, drawing originally from the engineering methods of systems thinking.  Ecosystem ecologists note every input, transformation, and output from ecosystems, measuring the essential nutrient cycles and energy flows - they are the accountants of the biological world.  They, more than any other branch of study, are aware of one of the most important contributions that ecology has made to human thought:  "'Life'" is an ecological property; it is only an individual property for a brief flash of time." (Clair Folsome, 1979)  Life, in effect, is just a very, very complex way of doing a simple thing: turning the sun’s energy into heat.  Until roughly 500,000 years ago, when hominids began to deliberately use fire, the only way for an organism to procure energy for its own use was to either get it directly from the sun (autotrophy) or indirectly through eating autotrophs (heterotrophy).  This system forms a tight nutrient and energy cycle in which every living thing is dependent on every other.  It has to be remembered that, aside from the energy stored in the atom (nuclear energy), the ONLY way for energy to enter the earth's system is from the sun.  All that fossil fuel being burned right now is old sunlight, captured and stored for over 300 million years by the Earth's former living systems.
        One time I was riding with my mom in her car, talking about these things, and she mused "We're so damn smart, it's amazing to me why we haven't solved the energy issue yet."  And so I used an economic metaphor.  For the past 300 million years or so, the Earth's ecosystems have been putting a little bit of the energy allowance they received into their savings (fossil fuel deposits).  They haven't ever gotten a raise in the allowance, but even still, every day, month, year, century, they have put a little bit away for the future.  Every generation of plant, animal, microbe, and fungus has faithfully passed on this savings to the next generation, adding a tiny bit themselves.  This goes on for 300 million years.  Then comes Homo sapiens.  We still haven't gotten a raise in our original allowance, but we've discovered the password to that savings account!  We haven't changed our INCOME, but we've found a lot of SAVINGS.  The economics systems we invented, however, don't make any distinction between that energy input that comes from our savings and that which comes from our income - it treats it all like income!  We're spending our capital as if it is cash-flow!  It doesn't matter how "smart" we are if the basic fact of our energy allowance has not changed, and we seem to be blind to that.  The only "smart" thing to do would be to start recognizing this, tightening our energy belts, focusing on how to get the most out of our meagre income, and maybe investing those last savings into improving our ability to do so rather than destroying the last of that ability.
      Clean rivers can be exploited to run industry, generate power, and thus make money.  Forests can be cut down and their lumber sold as wood or pulp in exchange for money.  Soils can be exploited to the point of desertification to produce cash crops to sell for money.  But, as the law of entropy will tell you (used loosely), these processes are much easier to perform one way than the other.  In the same way that you can't turn an omelet back into a whole egg, you can't turn numbers in a bank account back into healthy rivers, healthy soils, and bio-diverse forests.  When a species is gone, it's GONE.  When groundwater is polluted, it takes immense resources to remediate it.  When the climate is forced to new energy levels by greenhouse gasses, the energy momentum of the system is a real bitch to bring under control.  And the real tragedy is that once we really figure out how much energy and resources we'll need to correct our problems, we'll have spent most of our savings, and wished we'd actually spent it on something worthwhile.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

An Earth Day full of Paradox

So, my commitment to sticking to nothing but personal awe in my contribution to the Earth Day discourse got diverted slightly through reading a couple of articles that were sent my way, the first by my daily NYTimes feed and the second posted on Facebook by the lovely Lauren Rauch, a program assistant at the Machon.

The Times piece is titled "At 40, Earth Day Is Now Big Business" and chronicles the uneasy bed-fellowship of the environmental movement and big businesses.  My favorite feature of the article, exemplifying what many would see as the blatant co-option of the environmental message just to push more useless crap, is the Peat the Penguin toy:

According to the article:
F. A. O. Schwarz is taking advantage of Earth Day to showcase Peat the Penguin, an emerald-tinted plush toy that, as part of the Greenzys line, is made of soy fibers and teaches green lessons to children. The penguin, Greenzys promotional material notes, “is an ardent supporter of recycling, reusing and reducing waste.”
Now, the fact that its made from soy fibres might at first glance seem like a win, but likely those soy fibres are coming from former rain-forest in Brazil, not a family farm down the road.  That aside though, I suppose that if it came down to the question of which toy to buy your child, starting with the assumption that they need a brand new toy every so often, a little bird that spews a conservation ethic is definitely preferable to many other toys.  As a bit more of a radical though, I would say that by wedding the superficial conservation ethic to a tangible act of simple consumerism, the act is self-defeating or even counter-productive.  The blatant greenwashing involved leads to the good feeling of having "done the right thing," without having to actually change your way of life one bit.  This is the ultimate goal of green capitalism: simply replacing the paralyzing array of consumer choices with "sustainable" choices which don't deplete resources.  That way we can have modernization, economic growth, and sustainability without having to do anything differently!  Now, this is theoretically possible, but it's just so much easier to put the money into advertising green than to actually making green products, and with current technologies (and projecting them into the near to mid term), it just seems out of the realm of credibility to assume we can really have it all without facing the hard reality and doing the real work of changing our legislation and lifestyles. 

   The article closes with a quote from Robert Stone, a film maker who documents the American Environmental movement:
“Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.”  
 Well put.

The second article is from Mondoweiss, described on its website as : "a news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective."  This article, titled "Earth Day in Israel: Apartheid Showing Through the Greenwash" and written by Stephanie Westbrook, also covers Earth Day from the perspective of scratching the surface to see just what's under the greenwashing.  Those put off by the term "apartheid" in the title can be justifiably perturbed, and I certainly wouldn't advocate the term, but the article does point out some incredibly troubling stark contrasts in the realm of environmental justice.  While across Israel people participated in the voluntary blackout to raise awareness of energy consumption and in Tel Aviv a concert was powered largely by generator running on vegetable oil and volunteers on power-generating bicycles
The irony was not lost on the 1.5 million residents of Gaza who have been living with daily power outages lasting hours on end for nearly three years due to the Israeli siege on the coastal territory. The Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) reports that over 100 million liters of fuel were allowed into Gaza in 2009, however as Gisha points out, that amounts to only 57% of the need. As summer approaches bringing peak demands, spare parts and tools for turbine repair are in dire need. There are currently over 50 truckloads of electrical equipment awaiting approval by the Israeli authorities for entry to Gaza.
 While Israelis go starry-eyed over planting trees and preserving green space
Palestinian farmers from the West Bank village of Qaryut near Nablus had their own tree planting ceremony in honor of Earth Day, only to find the 250 olive tree saplings uprooted by Israeli settlers from Givat Hayovel. Another 300 were uprooted during the night of April 13 outside the Palestinian village of Mihmas by settlers from the nearby Migron outpost. The Palestinian Land Research Center estimates that over 12000 olive trees were uprooted throughout the West Bank in 2009, with Israeli authorities responsible for about 60%, clearing the land for settlements and construction of the wall, and Israeli settlers the rest.
Finally, the starkest contrast comes in the realm of water.  The Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection had a contest and gave out awards for IDF groups that did well in a water conservation contest while
For Palestinians living in the West Bank, this "protection of water sources" was documented in Amnesty International's October 2009 report Troubled Water: "The Israeli army’s destruction of Palestinian water facilities – rainwater harvesting and storage cisterns, agricultural pools and spring canals – on the grounds that they were constructed without permits from the army is often accompanied by other measures that aim to restrict or eliminate the presence of Palestinians from specific areas of the West Bank."
The Amnesty International report also notes that for decades, Israeli settlers have instead "been given virtually unlimited access to water supplies to develop and irrigate the large farms which help to support unlawful Israeli settlements." And nowhere is this more evident than the Jordan Valley where 95% of the area is occupied by Israeli settlements, plantations and military bases and where "Israeli water extraction inside the West Bank is highest."
 Now, if this isn't tantamount to Apartheid, I'd at least go so far as to say it is racist.  Many people would argue that I'm picking on Israel, using a double standard, etc.  But the fact remains: Israel has the power.  If your goal was to breed extremism, I'd probably suggest a similar use of power as the one that Israel uses constantly in the uprooting of trees and livelihoods and the wanton and pointless destruction of property that clearly poses no security threat (e.g. rainwater harvesting and cisterns!).  My thought is that there is no peace and sustainability without justice, and right now we are a very long way away from justice.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

First Post at Late Night Thoughts!

On Cultural Evolution in birds, myths surrounding Charles Darwin's trip to the Galapagos, and the Beatles!

You can find it HERE

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day!

Happy 40th birthday Earth Day!

After 40 years, the environment is, I think on the agenda for good, and thus that particular function of Earth Day is worn a little thin - raise your hands if you want another admonishment about how we're treating the planet?  How about another 500 top ten lists about how to green everything from your wardrobe to your sex life?  No longer do we need to use the day as a platform from which to cry out all of the problems going on in the bio-social matrix of the planet - if you're not aware of the precariousness of the situation, you probably aren't reading this.  In fact, you probably aren't reading anything.  As an example of how windows of interest function for policy-makers, our environmental policy prof showed us a sequence of magazine covers with specials on climate change: first Times, then Newsweek, then Business Week, then...Sports Illustrated?........then.........Vanity Fair!  Earth Day as an annual town crier's bell is a little outmoded by this point.

So on this Earth Day, I thought that I would contribute to the whole discourse by simply shouting out to the primordial  feeling of Awe that I often get just conceiving of the immensity and beauty of the World and all that it holds.  The following is just a brief foray into it.  Let's go back to the image that set the whole Earth Day thing in motion - the very first pictures of Earth from space, taken in 1968:

I grew up reading science writers who evoked wonder at every turn, whose goal was to turn the everyday observation into a meditation on the beauty all around us, who effected me so much that I have never stopped staring into the night sky with utter delight, never stopped chattering to whoever will listen about how wonderful insects and microbes are, and have never failed to, at least once a day, be humbled by the immensity of all I don't know.  Carl Sagan's reflection on the photo of earth from space comes from his famous Pale Blue Dot:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
I don't know whether, on first hearing about the theory of Evolution, it struck me as odd - it certainly should have!.  I'd like to think that I got as excited about it then as I do now, but I have no way of knowing. I do know that Evolution is what tipped the scales towards the study of Biology when I was going into the third year of my undergraduate degree.  I was trying to decide between Biology and Physics - I loved them both - but in the end I just needed to study Life!  Joseph Wood-Krutch articulates why better than I ever could:

If I wanted to comtemplate what to me is the deepest of all mysteries, I should choose as my object lesson a snowflake under a lens and an amoeba under a microscope. To the detached observer - if one can possibly imagine any observer who could be detached when faced with such an ultimate choice - the snowflake would certainly seem the "higher" of the two. Against its intricate glistening perfection one would have to place a shapeless, slightly turbid glob, perpetually oozing out in this direction or that but not suggesting so strongly as the snowflake does, intelligence and plan. Crystal and collid, the chemist would call them, but what an inconceivable contrast those neutral terms imply! Like the star, the snowflake seems to declare the glory of God, while the promise of the amoeba, given only perhaps to itself, seems only contemptible. But its jelly holds, nevertheless, not only its promise but ours also, while the snowflake represents some achievement which we cannot possibly share. After the passage of billions of years, one can see and be aware of the other, but the relationship can never be reciprocal. Even after these billions of years no aggregate of colloids can be as beautiful as the crystal always was, but it can know, as the crystal cannot, what beauty is.

And finally, to second that feeling, the immortal closing lines to the Origin of Species (which I know by heart :-)

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

We have been given a wonderful, incomparable gift in our existence, in our planet, in our mysterious and often hilarious minds.  Today, I just want to say thanks.  I motion that Earth Day, from now on, be less a clarion call and more of a Great, universal Thanksgiving - I think it would do a lot more good that way.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Yeled Tov Yerushalayim

Much to the relief of my grandfather, I have shaved my beard off and will be keeping it off for a while (no more one-month shaving cycle!).  I've also largely been wearing my glasses instead of my contacts.  The overall look is slightly different to the one at the top of the page.  And yes, thank you, I know that I look just like my father :-)

The look prompted my caravan-mate, Itai, to  remark that I'm turning into a "Yeled tov Yerushalayim", a hebrew euphemism that was new to me.  It translates pretty much as a "good boy from Jerusalem."  In other words, a bit of a goody-two-shoes know it all wimp with a nasally voice.  I'll let you decide.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Late Night Thoughts on the Wonders of Science and Nature

I'm starting a new blog!  Having altogether far too little on my plate, and getting far too much sleep for my own well being, I have decided to expand my online presence and colonize a new, empty spot in cyberspace titled Late Night Thoughts on the Wonders of Science and Nature :

A personal project of science writing and explanation, where I will peruse the weekly offerings of the world's two most famous science journals and pick my favorite article or two to offer up to the blogosphere.
Can't afford to stay behind the times in this business!  Research blogging is all the rage!

But don't worry, I will keep up Milk and Honey as if I Late Night Thoughts never popped into my mind.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Drops from the cup - the Machon approaches Israeli Independence Day

During the passover seder, Jews around the world do something very special, something that lays the foundation for a modern ethic of reconciliation and empathy: as we recount the visiting of the ten plagues upon Egypt, the acts of God that led to our being able to pass from Mitzrayim (Egypt, literally a narrow, confined place) to the promised land of Israel, we spill a little bit of wine from our cups on the pronunciation of each plague.  Wine symbolizes our rejoicing in freedom, but when we remember that our freedom came at the price of so much suffering for ordinary Egyptians we spill a little joy from our cups.  Now, the origins of this ritual probably have very little to do with our modern humanistic interpretation - since the plagues visited the Egyptians but not the Jews, we remove them from our cups - but the contemporary interpretation speaks volumes about the central values of modern Judaism as I know it.

This Tuesday Israel will celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, or Independence Day, commemorating the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 following the end of the British mandate of Palestine and the UN Partition plan of 1947.  It is a day of unabashed joy in Israel, full of barbecues and fireworks, strategically placed the day after Yom HaZikaron, Israeli remembrance day.  But while Israelis term the war of 1947-48 the war of independence, Palestinians have a different name for it: the Nakba, or "catastrophe".  Just as the mythical displays of divine power that led to Jewish liberty 3,000 years ago also created much suffering amongst the Egyptian people, so Israeli independence was also won at a price:

    "Jewish Villages were built on the remains of Arab villages.  You don't even know the names of these Arab villages and I don't blame you because the geography books no longer exist.  It is not only geography books that no longer exist, but also the Arab villages themselves disappeared.  For Nahalal was established on the site of Ma'loul, Kibbutz G'vat on the site of Jebbata, Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Khneifes, and Kfar Yehoshua on the site of Tel Shoman.  There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."

-Moshe Dayan, from a speech at the Technion, 1969

The old myth that it was the Arab leaders who commanded over 700,000 Palestinians to leave their homes during the war is long dead, and I won't beat it further into the ground.  While there was no official plan to displace the Arab population from Jewish areas (i.e. ethnic cleansing), the concept of minimizing the Arab population of a future Jewish state was explicitly discussed, and commanders in the field were given pretty free reign to do as they wished.  In the early months of the civil war, before the Arab armies entered, the massacre of Arabs at Deir Yassin sent a strong message, and the words Deir Yassin were used as a battle cry later in the war by Jewish forces.  The Palestinians left out of a mix of terror and force, the wealthy ones first - ensuring that leadership on the ground was scarce.

This is not meant to minimize the existential threat posed to the fledgling state of Israel by the situation, and the Arab leadership also openly discussed ethnic cleansing - the roiling conflict between Jewish and Arab national aspirations that was kept in check by British rule burst its seams in this conflict.  But saying things like "Well, Israel accepted the partition plan while the Arabs didn't - they just wanted to drive us into the sea" as a justification for Jewish acts and a demonstration of Jewish moral superiority is inappropriately reading back into the situation that while the Arabs were bloodthirsty ethnic cleansers, the Jews were simply happy to live in their little state with an almost equal Arab population - if Israel had felt it was the stronger force at that point, whether it would have attempted to claim as much land as possible and displace as many Arabs as possible is an open question.   If we approach the situation with such a sense of moral superiority, we have already dehumanized the other player, and when this happens the possibility of peace and justice flies from our grasp.

We now come to Independence Day.  It is all well and good to spill wine from our cups to remember the ancient Egyptians 3,000 years ago.  Can you ask Israeli society today, with all of its existential anxieties, security fears, and pain and suffering at the hands of Palestinian terrorism, to spill a little joy from Yom Ha'atzmaut to remember the human cost of its Independence?  Many peace groups think that not only is this a good idea, but it is vital for the future reconciliation of the two peoples and thus Israel's very existence.  Therefore, many groups have put on joint Yom Ha'atzmaut - Nakba day observances, and many have incorporated the Nakba narrative into the celebrations of Yom Ha'atzmaut.  An example is a group called Zochorot, who state:

    "Zochrot seeks to engage the Jewish public in Israel in remembering and talking about the Nakba, the Palestinian tragedy of 1948. The memory of the Nakba is a counter memory that challenges the Zionist version of events that most Jewish Israelis are taught from a young age and come to take for granted as “true.” The Nakba is in one sense the story of the Palestinian tragedy -- the destruction of the villages, the expulsions and the killing -- but it is also a fundamental part of the story of Jews who live here, of the victors of the 1948 war."

Here at the Machon we have made a decision: on Yom Ha'atzmaut, we will fly both the Israeli flag and the Palestinian flag, as a recognition that both peoples had and still have aspirations for independence, self-governance, and a life of dignity in this land, and until both peoples can acknowledge the right of the other to this dignity, the legacy of pain and suffering will be bequeathed to generations to come.  So, this Yom Ha'atzmaut, I encourage everyone to do something symbolic to take a drop out of their cup of joy - only a drop - to begin to build towards reconciliation.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Back in Israel

After 2 weeks back in Toronto for Pesach, I've touched down in Israel once again.  It was a whirlwind visit, filled with little trips, tons of catching up over drinks of many sorts, and a lot of good family time, though some of it under less than desired circumstances.  Thankfully, everything is back to some semblance of normality and my Zaide is on the road to full recovery.  I even landed a job for July the day after I arrived in Toronto.  I'll be working at a place called Children's Peace Theatre, out at Victoria Park, on their major annual project.  You can read about it here, and I'm sure I'll have a lot to say about it in July too. 

Just in the last few days, a new little piece of Israeli policy has put many people I know a bit on edge.  I don't know enough about it to really say, but here and here are a couple of representative articles, and here is a little story on Al-Jazeera featuring a Gazan artist living in the West Bank who I met in Feburary.  I'll keep updating as things develop.

But despite the turmoil, I'm very excited about being back in Israel, and going back to the Machon.  Ketura Bound!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thoughts from the Galilee

“I really want to be a sniper”
“Yo, I don’t think you can be a (word in Hebrew – name of an IDF position) and also be a sniper”
“Dude, you totally can.  There’s this guy on base, he’s totally badass, he’s like (Hebrew word) and a (another Hebrew word) and also a sniper.  The guy’s nuts.”
“How’s your shooting coming?”
“I don’t know, not that great, I really need to work on it.”
“Man, I really want to be a paratrooper [very well regarded position in the IDF].  Just so afterwards I can hit on Taglit (birthright) girls and be all like ‘Do you know what a paratrooper does?’”
As you can probably imagine, this conversation was not overheard at the Machon.  This weekend, before I go home to Toronto for Passover, I’m taking a couple days to visit my good friend Shoshi on the kibbutz where she and her garin stay.  For those who don’t remember, a garin (meaning “nucleus” in English) is a group of people who come together before the army to spend a year doing volunteer work around Israel.  In Shoshi’s case, however, the setup is a little different, since she made aliyah about the same time as I came to Israel and is known as a “lone soldier”.  This means she has no family to live with in Israel, and so she’s put up on a kibbutz for her ulpan with a number of other lone soldiers, who essentially become her family.  So here I am on Kibbutz Lavi (my heart) nestled on a hill overlooking the Galilee.  This place is hardly recognizable as the same continent as Ketura, never mind the same country – it’s overcast, moist and cool, the vegetation lush and almost tropical, reminding me more than anything else of the Lake District in England.  Having left the desert just six hours before, I’m reminded again just how diverse Israel is at pretty much every level.  Standing with Shoshi and looking over the green hills patched together with orchards, fields, and forest, I’m reminded of what Rabbi Michael told us about the desert and how the barrenness forces you to bare your own soul.  It’s hard to place the feeling up here, but beginning with the conversation I overheard upon arrival, I can say it felt as complicated as the landscape, clothing me in complexity, context, contingency, but not in a burdensome way. 
Coming from a place where the basic assumption is that IDF is an institution always on precarious moral footing, carrying out, as a branch of the state, the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, it was a slight mental shock to jump right into the conversations of these bright eyed Olim Chadashim (new immigrants) about the ins and outs of army life.  The practical jokes and the hierarchical structure of command, the long hikes with packs and the crappy food, whose job is viewed as prestigious and whose as bitchwork, discussions about learning to use different weapons and different military tactics, which guns are badass and how boring guard duty is.  These are great kids, full of life, energy, and humor – the kind of kids I went to summer camp with.  And their experience sounds a lot like summer camp, with the new dialect they bring back to describe the distinct IDF culture: everybody makes fun of everybody else’s jobs, they talk about which commanders are cool and which ones are harsh, and they come back to the kibbutz after a stint in service beat and tired, ready to sleep for a week.  I have to say that the prospect of the whole thing is pretty attractive.
Last week a group of representatives from Dalton Mcguinty’s Ontario government came through the Machon, scoping it out for a potential visit from the premier.  As a Torontonian, I was of course invited to be on the little panel of students they brought in to talk to the group, and the meeting was a lot of fun.  Hopefully Dalton will come through, and I’ll get to meet him!  I told this to Shoshi, and she got pretty excited, so I invited her down to the kibbutz should the occasion arise.  She mentioned she’d want to come in uniform, and meet him in her full IDF garb, and I didn’t know exactly how to tell her it wasn’t a great idea.  It’s of course no secret that almost all of the Israelis in the Machon served in the IDF, some even as officers.  In fact, last semester we had a special two PELS sessions focused on the IDF where students who had served wrote about their experiences and then a representative panel was chosen to answer any questions anybody had for a good four hours.  Then a similar exercise took place on the Palestinian side, where Palestinian students shared their experiences with the IDF.  So the issue’s not underground.  But as you may recall from my post about last term’s Negev trip, the IDF uniform does something to the Palestinians, and makes it very hard to separate their negative experiences with aggressive soldiers from the person wearing the uniform, even a very close friend. 
Last PELS session, I was talking to Yousre, a Palestinian student who not only loved the Machon enough to stay for two semesters when he’d only planned to come for one, but even stayed on as a program assistant after that.  Way back when, Yousre landed a job in Israel just one day before the second intifada, and on his first (and only) day, he had slipped and fallen coming up some stairs.  Immediately, two people in the office came over to see if he was ok and if he needed any help.  The way Yousre describe it, he was totally shocked.  Growing up, the only experience most Palestinians have with Israelis is with soldiers, and he hadn’t imagined that an Israeli would ever show such kindness towards him.  Though the intifada cut his position short, this one moment of kindness was crucial in his future pursuit of opportunities to meet more Israelis and explore peace-building.  It’s a lesson – you never know what effect one little moment of kindness might have somewhere down the road.
As the situation in the region crumbles a little bit, and the US and Britain both turn cold shoulders to Israel in response to careless slights on Israel’s part, I hear the laughter and humanity of the new soldiers, and I think back to Tuesday night, when the Machon got together for culture night. We all got together and everyone shared their culture (or adopted or chosen culture) in a fun way.  The night looked like this:
Leora and Me – two Canadian songs – Ahead by a Century by Tragically Hip and Crabbuckit by K-OS
Hila and Me – A demonstration of Capoeira, a Brazilian dance-fighting style
Assaf K and friends – Israeli pop songs
Assaf C and Amber – ice cream making
Lauren and Justin – a presentation about North Carolina featuring old-timey dancing
The Arab students – a Jordanian wedding and a lively dabka session
Itai and Hadas – a quick Japanese language and origami lesson
Julie and Timna – though in different countries, they’re both guides and found out that the “mama shark” song is transnational
An assortment of amazing dishes prepared by different people
We had a ton of fun, and the humanity in all of us came out really strongly.  It is a horrible shame that the political situation in the country causes the victimization of everyone involved – the soldiers who the day before were laughing and joking become hard and aggressive, largely out of fear, not hate, and the Palestinians who the night before were celebrating with their families and dancing dabka become stubborn and angry for the same reasons.  If only everyone could experience the kind of connection that something like our culture night generates, feel the kindness and humanity that exists under the uniform or the keffiyah, maybe we could begin to heal.
                As Passover approaches, a time of renewal, my wish is for those little moments of kindness to blossom and multiply exponentially, to light the way to a better future.
 I know, I know.  How Na├»ve.  But we could do worse than to try.