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.

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.