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.

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.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dual Narratives

What is a fact?  Many people would argue that a fact is a proposition about the world that is completely verifiable as true and is pretty much incontestable.  A fact, it seems, should be obviously true.  The idea of truth, however, and the kind of verification desired, changes depending on what sort of propositions you want to verify.  Is the theory of Gravity true?  What about the statements on the UN's declaration of human rights?  There seems to be two kinds of facts: "brute" facts, things like "the Dead Sea is disappearing at a rate of about 1 meter per year" and social facts, things like "the depletion of the Dead Sea is a bad thing."  One is objective, the other is about values.

When it comes to history things might at first seem easier.  You can verify that Napoleon was crowned emperor of France on X date, or that the first printing press came into being some 400 years earlier.  So when Israelis and Palestinians come up with such different histories about how the current situation came to be, you'd think it would be easy to just check the facts and tell the story like it "really" happened.  Last PELS, however, we got a taste of how difficult this is.  Two people from the Peace Research Institute of the Middle East came in and told us about their project, essentially a way to expose schoolchildren to the narrative of the other side:

This project of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) focuses on teachers and schools as the critical force over the long term for changing deeply entrenched and increasingly polarized attitudes on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The goal of the project is to "disarm" the teaching of Middle East history in Israeli and Palestinian classrooms.
Specifically, teams of Palestinian and Israeli teachers and historians will develop parallel historical narratives of the Israeli and Palestinian communities, translate them into Hebrew and Arabic, and test their use together in both Palestinian and Israeli classrooms. Unlike other projects that are limited to revising existing Israeli and Palestinian texts, the PRIME project aims at engaging teachers on both sides in an entirely new collaborative process for teaching the history of the region.
At this stage in their polarized history there is not enough common ground for Israelis and Palestinians to create a single historical narrative. Rather, the project is designed to expose students in each community to the other's narrative of the same set of events. For the first time, students in each school system (beginning with 15 and 16 year olds) will not only learn what shapes their own community's understanding of historical events, but be required to confront the historical perspectives and contexts that shape the other community's sense of reality.
The project may, at a later stage, develop multiple narratives of events within each community, reflecting the fact that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have a monolithic view regarding the history of the region. The goal, in other words, is not necessarily to create a single "bridging" historical narrative that is shared in common by both communities, but to break down stereotypes and build more nuanced understandings by the next generation of citizens of the two states in the region: Israel and the future Palestinian State.
 You can find the booklets in pdf form here:

During the session we got a good sense of how difficult it was to reach a consensus on such touchy issues.  To give just one example, when talking about the 1948 war, both sides described their own fighters as soldiers and the other side's fighters as "gangs" (i.e. the Arab gangs or the Zionist gangs).  The outcome of the project was years in the making, and I think it's pretty damn impressive.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Jerusalem Closures

On Tuesday, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior authorized 1600 more housing units for an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in East Jerusalem.  This caused a general uproar, and rightfully so considering that while there may be occasional overtures from the Israeli government about a two state solution with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, there is a lot going on on the ground that's starting to make that a vanishing proposition.  Arab East Jerusalemites generally get the short end of the stick in planning decisions, Jewish development being vastly favored.  You can read a whole lot more about this issue at the Ir Amim (City of Nations) website.  Due to the uproar and a generally tense baseline situation right now, the checkpoints from the West Bank into Israel have been closed.  Tensions are rising right now.

And now for me and all the others here at the institute, this is not just something happening far off to faceless people.  Three of our Palestinian colleagues and friends returned home for the weekend and are now stuck there, unable to return to school until the closure ends.  Sometimes it's incredibly frustrating to be swimming upstream in a river that seems so overpowering.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Nature's Gone Wild!

Ask most people when Spring arrives, and they'll answer March 21st.  This, after all, is the first official day of spring.  But most people know that these sorts of dates and demarcations are really artificial means of organizing the world around us into neat packages for easier digestion.  Today was a real reminder of that.  Just four or five days ago, the weather was still in some sort of strange argument with itself - dust blew this way and that, clouds would cover the sun and threaten rain only to be on their way five minutes later, and the temperature took a few running starts at heating up, only to balk at the last minute.  It reminded me a lot of the way that winter blew in here.  But over the past few days it's like someone flipped a switch! 

(for those not really into science, you can skip this paragraph :-)  People familiar with ecological science (or anything to do with systems thinking actually, be it body systems or ecosystems) know that in the last few decades, the concept of non-linear dynamics has gone from a fringe way of thinking to a basic structuring element of most systems theories.  It's pretty simple to understand, actually.  Linear dynamics is like a straight line on a graph - moving in one direction a specific amount (say, a raise in temperature five degrees), other factors vary proportionally (say, the metabolism of a certain animal increases X amount).  Non-linear dynamics introduces exponential and even unpredictable varying into the mix, often with thresholds beyond which the whole system changes.  Let's take the temperature change of five degrees.  This change might allow an animal to forage for food a little bit longer per day, and vary in a linear way for a while.  But increase the temperature one degree more, and you may hit a threshold beyond which, say, a certain hormone is produced at X amount, leading to a cascade of physiological events concluding with the idea in its little head "Hey, that female/male I didn't really think about yesterday is really cute today!"  Linear thinking would have assumed, given that temperature affects mating behavior, that a little increment in temperature means a little increment in behavior.  But we now know that these sorts of thresholds are everywhere, and that  many systems function pretty much the same within a certain set of parameters, but when they hit their thresholds, they can change exceptionally quickly!
    That example about the animal wasn't just out of thin air.  This is an incredibly hormonal time of year!  They don't call it the birds and the bees for nothing.  And this is an especially wonderful place to be if you love birds.  You can see why on this map:

    That's right.  For whatever evolutionary or historical reason, a HUGE proportion of bird migration routes in Africa, Asia, and Europe pass right through Eilat and right overhead!  So we're seeing some exotic dances from some exotic birds.

    Now, being large animals ourselves, we tend to have a normative idea of sexual behavior that we wouldn't really thinking of applying to any other area of life.  But with a little harmless anthropomorphizing, we could, without being too far off, say that the trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants are getting pretty frisky as well.  And they're pretty shameless about it too, hanging their reproductive organs out in open air for everyone to see, adorning them with all sorts of shapes and colors, perfuming themselves and sending the scent out onto the wind.  They're a little kinky too, needing a third party involved in most instances for a successful sexual act.

Anyway, it's still cool enough around here to be somewhat comfortable in the direct sunlight at midday, and for the animals to get out and be rowdy at the same time.  Like all things though, its time will come and go, giving way to the oppressive heat that drives everyone inside and underground between sunrise and sunset.  I'm enjoying it while it lasts.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Sabbath Queen Descending

It's a warm, dusty blustery Friday afternoon, and I've got a challah on the go in the kitchen.  We're into that lovely time of year where the days are getting longer, the trees are starting to blossom, and the little critters are starting to pop up all over.  Somebody has turned on the heating system, but it's just getting warmed up.  Nonetheless, you can feel the latent power of the Arava sun, and its inexorable progress towards adventure-movie desert heat.  But for now, we can comfortably sit out on the lawn in our shorts and tee-shirts under the noonday sun, chat and play music, and feel the cool grass under our feet.
Getting back into the swing of school wasn't so hard, and I'm really enjoying the new project.  From Monday to Thursday there was a conference put on by the students at Ben Gurion University Sde Boker campus, where I'll be next year, on mathematical modeling in the social sciences.  For those of you who read the word "mathematical" and felt a pang of anxiety, I'll give you the abstract of the keynote speaker, Peter Turchin, a fairly famous mathematical ecologist who has worked for many years on population dynamics in natural ecosystems:

Most historians and many philosophers believe that a science of history is impossible because history is too complex and historical processes are too different from physical or biological ones. Unlike molecules, for example, people have free wills. I will argue that, on the contrary, it is possible to employ regular scientific approaches in history. Certainly we can study large-scale dynamical processes in history, those that involve large collectives of people and unfold on the time scale of decades and centuries. We can build mathematical models for these processes and they yield novel insights. In some cases they show that ‘predictions’ obtained by informal methods using verbal reasoning can lead us astray.
Even more importantly, it is possible to test model predictions with historical data. With just a little creativity we can obtain quantitative time-series data on a wide variety of economic, social, and political aspects of historical systems. Furthermore, experience so far suggests that history is not simply a “mess,” “one damn thing after another.” There are strong patterns in time-series data. These recurring empirical regularities hint at the operation of some kind of laws of history.
Note the last phrase, the emphasis being mine.  Laws of History!  The words that Turchin actually used in his lectures were something like 'History is one of the last great frontiers to be conquered by mathematical approaches.  Historians are incredibly resistant to mathematical models and quantitative analysis, and I don't know why.  I ask them, do you want good models [based on differential equations] or bad models [based on qualitative verbal assumptions]?  Some of them want bad models, and some of them don't believe history should even include models, since it's just "one damn thing after another"'
  Now, other than being immediately reminded of science fiction author Isaac Asimov's book Foundation, in which "psychohistory" founder Hari Seldon actually completes the project that Turchin sets out to do, my first thought was, yeah, he's going to conquer history like Hitler conquered Russia.  It's not like this project hasn't ever been tried before.  But the pendulum swings back there occasionally, and each time they say: "this time it will be different".  There were some interesting ideas presented, such as a model for how religions spread through societies, using similar models to those of epidemiology (Richard Dawkins would just LOVE that the same mathematical tools that model deadly diseases can be used to model the spread of religions), and using some population dynamics models to try to settle differing accounts of population counts in historical records.  So there is something to quantitative tools.  But I don't see History becoming a "Science" any time soon - sit in class, learn the basic laws of the rise and fall of civilizations, work on famous case studies, and bring a calculator to the exam.  Maybe I'm wrong.
Anyways, I won't bore you with any more details from the conference.

The other great thing that's been going on for the last few days has been a regional cadurregel (football)  tournament held on Ketura, with teams coming in from all the Kibbutzim in the area.  Both Ketura and the Machon had teams, and it has been really fun to train every day and actually get to play some fairly intense games.  Not having played organized soccer since kindergarten (and being North American's generally not in my favor - baseball anyone?, I'm generally a bit lost on the field, but with the help of some decent players we put on a good show and had a ton of fun.
We haven't really gotten much into the PELS stuff yet, so nothing but nice people and good times to report on yet, but this coming week is a history seminar, focusing on 1948, so there should be some interesting discussions.  Also, later this year, around April 20th, there will be a combined Israeli independence day and Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe, what 1948 is known as in the Arab world) day.  So fasten your seat belts.