Barbara and I have been to India and had the chance to see with our own eyes the misery and squalor that this article from The New York Times describes, but even so, it is almost impossible to imagine how a young man, living near New Delhi, can suffer a death swallowed up by garbage. I often try to make a comparison between their country, with its enormous land mass and population (well over a billion people), and tiny Israel (the size of New Jersey or Greater London, smaller than the Kruger National Park in South Africa), with our eight million people. What do the two countries have in common? For one thing, both were freed from British occupation at about the same time, with a lot of bloodshed, each given the chance to go its own way. Would it be wrong of me to brag a little and suggest that we’ve made a little more of our opportunity than the behemoth northeast of us? Perhaps a polite way to delicately describe some of the differences would be write about a trip we were on recently, (May 7-10, 2018) to be precise.
The AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) has been running study tours for over thirty years, each one taking several days to tour places of interest all over the Land. We had somehow managed to miss the first 162, but there’s always a first time, no matter how late in the game. Therefore, we signed up for #163, the trip to the “Remarkable Rehovot Region.” For four days and three nights, a busload of assorted English-speaking retirees would stay at the cabins that comprise the ‘guest house’ at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim (breakfast and dinner included) and would ride the bus around the region during the day to see some carefully selected sites.
(If the name of this place rings a bell, then you get an ‘A’ in Israeli history. This was one of the kibbutzim in Gush Etzion that were over-run by the Jordanian army in 1948. The members decided that their best bet was to relocate to a less volatile area, where they have remained to the present day.)
Some of the places we visited Barbara and I had been to before, standard tourist places like the Ayalon Institute Museum (‘Above ground there was a fully functioning kibbutz, but, underground, was the first pre-state Israeli bullet production factory, built and clandestinely operated during the British Mandate.’)and the Weizmann House (‘Visit the private home, which also served as the official residence of Dr. Chaim Weizman, during his tenure as the First President of the State of Israel, and view the breathtaking gardens, the impressive structure, the elegant furnishings, and the unique art collection.If you want or need to get a sense of what life was like here pre- and post-Mandate, these are must-see places to visit.
A couple of stops on our itinerary were there simply to make us tingle with joy. For starters, how about the Israel Guide Dog Center? (‘Never forget why we exist. Our mission is to humanely breed, raise and train guide dogs of quality, to be partnered with blind Israelis, so that people with blindness can be independent and self-confident, enjoy safe mobility and take an active part in society’ – Noach Braun, CEO and Co-founder.)Just as there are some unfortunate folks who don’t like chocolate, there is always somebodywho doesn’t like dogs. But for the rest of us… Not only dogs, but puppies! Lots and lots of them! Mostly Golden Retrievers, with a few black Labs and some German Shepherds. And people who like dogs, and people who train and groom dogs, and people who partner with dogs, so these visually impaired folks can get around and function like the rest of us. So, if you are in need to work on yoursunny disposish, this is a place to be.
And if that doesn’t work, if you still need something to cheer you up, remember that ‘All you need is love.’I hadn’t expected much from the Beatles exhibit at the Children’s Museum in Holon when I first perused the flyer about the trip, perhaps a filler to complete the schedule, but what a joy it was to be there! The young Israeli women who served as our guides were thrilled and delighted to come across a group of alte kockers who had grown up with the Beatles music and know more about the Fab Four than they do. The guides didn’t have to explain how a turntable works and what you do with an LP, as they normally did with a gaggle of Israeli schoolkids. There was lots of Beatles music for us oldsters to sing along to, and we all got into it, especially when we got to put on some Beatle-style costumes and ‘play along’ with the music – although the fellow on the drums actually does play that instrument!
As long as we were in the area, why not stop in to the brand-new museum on Rishon LeZion, devoted exclusively to the art of Yaacov Agam, who may be the most important visual artist Israel has produced. Why not? And so we did, getting an opportunity to learn more about what Agam, still with us at ninety, has been trying to accomplish in his art and to spend some quality time looking at the many examples of his work on display. With Agam, you really need to stop and look, because what you’re seeing changes depending on where you’re standing.
And then there was the place we never got to. Our itinerary included a stop at Leket Israel (Rescuing healthy food for Israel’s needy) and to do some gleaning in one of their fields. However: 1) it was very hot that afternoon; 2) what was available for us to pick was radishes; 3) one look at this collection of not-so-young individuals (one guy in a wheelchair, several others with walkers, a few more with canes or walking sticks) would explain the general reluctance of the group to get involved. I ain’t pickin’ no stinkin’ radishes.Wiser heads prevailed, and we returned for a late afternoon tour of the kibbutz.
At this point, I can hear the skeptics and other forms of nay-sayers chiming in, “OK, so you’ve seen a couple of sites of historical interest. Very nice. And you’ve gone to a place where they train guide dogs; but most places in the civilized world have seeing-eye dogs. And you had a fun time with the Beatles; but you’re not claiming them as Israeli, are you? (No!)And you have a museum to showcase an artist of some importance, but that’s hardly unique. Most cities have art museums, so we’re not super-impressed.”
How about if we get to the heart of the matter, places that are IMPORTANT – even if they are not unique. Here’s one place that does matter, with a rather long name: The Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Even before there was a State of Israel, there was an agricultural school, and that might explain why one of the major area of advance in The Start-Up Nation has been in the technology of growing food. I think their vision statementsays it all. In order to ‘feed the world,’ which is their goal, what is required is ‘an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to scientific research.’ That involves research in ‘plant and animal sciences, food and nutrition sciences, ecology, entomology, microbiology and plant pathology, soil and water sciences and environmental economics.’ If that sounds like a lot to worry about, consider the following prediction: ‘Global food production will need to increase by 70% to meet the demand by the year 2050.’
Feeding the world. That’s not going to happen just by teaching Israeli students, no matter how smart and motivated they are. Therefore, thirty years ago, The International School of Agriculture, Food and Environment was established and some 3,000 students from countries all around the globe have passed through their portals, studying any and all manner of agricultural disciplines – many of which lead to a Master of Science Degree.
We all crammed into a small multipurpose room to hear a presentation by Mala Braslavsky, the program coordinator (I remember her name only because I took her card!) about what they are doing these days, and then two of their students spoke briefly about what they were studying and their plans to take what they are learning back to where they come from and apply it there. (It goes without saying that the common language in the International School is English.)
But you know what got me really excited? Starting next year, the International School will be offering a Master in Viticulture and Enology. That means wine making, folks! The program will encompass ‘fundamental sciences and comprehension of all the different processes related to grape production and winemaking,’ and those who complete the program will be able to intern at wineries in Israel or abroad. That means more good wine, some of it kosher, coming my way and your way. And that’s a good thing. At least, I think so.
What could be next on our agenda? If we’re already in Rehovot, then we’re not that far from the Weizmann Institute of Science and its Levinson Visitors Center. (Our visit to the center came right before our trip to Weizmann’s house – if you’re keeping track.) The center itself‘contains technologically advanced exhibits and a state-of-the-art multi-media presentation that take the visitor on a journey of knowledge and discovery, where one can learn about the fascinating world of scientists who uncover the secrets of nature and decipher the codes of the universe.’ We got to spend some time on the main floor working our way through a collection of touch screens, perfect for all the school kids, who are the target audience for these presentations, not so much the seniors in our group.
Then we went downstairs to another large room to hear a talk by a presenter about increasing the opportunities for women to do post-doctorate research. Understand that at our previous stop, the emphasis was on giving the students a Master’s Degree and sending them on their way. At Weizmann, even having a Ph.D means precious little. You’re nothing, you’re nobody, without a post-doc! But the irony was that, even with all the whiz bang technology all around us, the lady who was talking to us didn’t have a microphone! She stood at one end of the very large room and stated talking, greeted by a chorus of “We can’t hear you.” (Some of them wouldn’t have heard her no matter what…) Her solution to this problem was to walk all the way to the other end of the room and start all over again, meaning that the other half of our group wouldn’t be able to hear her.
I can hear just fine, it didn’t matter to me where the lady stood. But, what I didn’t hear is what I hoped somebody would be talking about. And that is, what’s going on at the Weizmann Institute these days? To get a bead on that, I picked up a copy of the Spring 2018 edition of ‘The Weizmann’ (International Magazine of Science & People) and thumbed through it at my leisure to see who is doing what. There’s alumna Dr. Dalit Vaizel-Ohayon, who is the Chief Bacteriologist at Mekorot (Israel’s water company), responsible for ensuring the safety of what comes out of our taps, because, unlike some other countries, we can drink the water here. There’s Prof. Ruth Arnon, whose universal flu vaccine is entering Phase III trials, which would mean that a flu shot would last for several years and protect you from against any kind of flu virus. What about Prof. Gad Asher, who demonstrated that oxygen levels play a key role in regulating the mini-clocks that reside in a person’s kidney, liver, and pancreas, part of a larger body of research into the impact of daylight and darkness on all life forms on Earth. There’s also an intriguing quote from Dr. Assaf Gal, ‘The minerals that simple unicellular organisms form out of seawater outperform any man-made synthetic material, and we want to know how they do it.’
And then there is my favorite article, ‘Sting operation: How malaria parasites trick the immune system,’ describing the research of Dr. Neta Regev-Rudski, in collaboration with other researchers elsewhere. ‘We discovered a subversive strategy used by the malaria parasite to thrive in human blood, as well as a way to block it.’ I am old enough to remember reading in school textbooks about the eradication of malaria as a global disease. And then, perhaps a decade later, Rachel Carson wrote a book detailing the negative effect of DDT on the avian population. In a classic example of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, all use of DDT was banned world-wide – with nothing to replace it. As a result, an estimated half a million people have died every year, mostly in the poorer nations. Let’s see: half a million people per year for, what, sixty or seventy years? Do the math. The article concludes cautiously, ‘Further studies related to this mechanism may point the way towards new clinical therapies for malaria….’ And let us say, ‘Amen.’ Anyway, that’s a sample of what some of the smartest people in Israel are up to these days.
Some of you may be wondering what any of the above has to do with the issue I began with – a few thousand words ago – about the environmental disasters overtaking another country. For those of you who have been patiently waiting, that’s what I’m getting to next (finally!). it turns out that here in the Land, we had a similar situation, but we resolved it, although it took us a while to get it done.
Once upon a time, there was a waste dump, started initially by the British, south of Tel Aviv and fairly close to the Ben-Gurion airport. And because lots and lots of Israelis live nearby and because the site was convenient, more and more garbage of all sorts got dumped there – on top of what was already there. So, the dump got bigger and bigger (half a mile long and almost a football field in height). That’s a lot of garbage! That’s a lot of stench, both from the organic material rotting and the methane gas being given off. And when it rained, that’s a lot of polluted water meandering down the mountain into the surrounding areas. Let’s not forget all the random birds that would find this a perfect spot for a picnic lunch.
Hooray for the birds! The semi-smart people who run our government were somehow able for the longest time to ignore some of the environmental issues this facility posed, but…… ‘Hello, Mr. Semi-smart, this is the CEO of British Airways/Air France/ KLM/ Delta Airlines (pick any of the above). It seems there’s a problem with your airfield. Our pilots are reporting that nearby flocks of birds are in the flight patterns of our aircraft attempting to land. Our pilots are concerned lest these birds cause an accident. We are strongly considering canceling service to your airport unless you can resolve this problem.’
Now Mr. Semi-smart knows that he and his colleagues can safely ignore the concerns of the residents; after all, the only person any of them have to please is the party head, but even Semi-smart is wise enough to realize the ramifications of a boycott of Ben-Gurion Airport.
The upshot was that the dump was closed for new business in 1998, and the flocks of birds were advised to find new picnic grounds far away from the airport. Garbage is still brought to the site, but much of it is recycled there, and the rest carted off to a proper landfill in The Negev. What remained was covered up, and the noxious methane gas trapped and sold to local industries for energy.
OK, so now what? You’ve got this covered up former dump; what do you do with it?
He wasn’t sure what to do, but Martin Weyl, who at one time had been the director of the Israel Museum, figured that somethingshould and could be done to turn the site into an attraction. He solicited plans from hither and yon and put together an exhibit of the most interesting ones. Weyl got the attention of Ariel Sharon. (You remember him, don’t you?) It just so happens that Sharon had a connection to the site, having been injured there as a young recruit in The War of Independence. He personally mustered support for a park to be designed by the German landscape designer, Peter Latz.
That’s where we were, standing in the late morning on top of a hill, strategically planted with local flora, with our guide explaining how this park came to be. There’s one thing she told us that you won’t find in Wikipedia. Once the garbage dump was no more, and especially as the development of the park was underway, the land in the surrounding area went from being almost worthless to being some of the most prized real estate in the country. We’re talking about an area three times the size of New York City’s beloved Central Park, situated in the heart of the Dan region, right off some major roads. Yes, the crows and seagulls were gone, but in their place came the Big Money Vultures, ready to build high rises everywhere in sight. At this point, the former prime-minister was lying in a coma at one of the area hospitals, in no condition to fight for the preservation of his park. What Martin Weyl did next was brilliant. He secured the permission of Sharon’s two sons to change the name of the park from Hiriya to the Ariel Sharon Park. No one in the government was going to vote to dismantle that! The park continues to be built. Money is tight, but whenever any becomes available, they add a grove, a lake, a path.
As we walked around, we saw a number of groups, including lots and lots of schoolchildren. Something I had no reason to think about when we were there, but it occurred to me now, especially after reading about Death by Garbage. There are also children at the dump in the other country. But they are in the dump, not on top of it. And they are not on a school trip; they are picking rags to sell so they won’t go hungry.
I am very glad for us and very, very sad for them.