In Israel's High-Tech Desert, Food Solutions For The Third World

Life in Israel's Negev desert
Life in Israel's Negev desert
Maurizio Molinari

YOTVATA — There are mud huts to block out the heat, solar micro panels for cooking, bio-gas production from waste, and wet mattresses to grow vegetables and flowers in the desert. This is the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Yotvata, the most torrid and depopulated area in Israel's Negev desert, where a community of scientists and researchers are relentlessly seeking solutions to problems that beset the inhabitants of the planet's poorest countries.

A three-hour drive from Tel Aviv, this is a scientific frontier where Israel is using high-tech and human ingenuity to find solutions to the planet's food security needs amid severe environmental challenges. The Israeli pavilion at Milan's Expo 2015 will be a window into this laboratory. Tali Adini, a researcher from the nearby kibbutz of Ketura, takes us to a village of mud huts that, from the outside, resembles many of those in the remote areas of Africa and Asia.

"We wanted to re-create the original environment, one that needs help and is not connected to any kind of network: electricity, water or telephone," Adini explains, showing how each hut has been internally transformed to a welcoming place, thanks to technology.

The mud huts are comprised of plastic bags containing fibers that can't be penetrated by excessive temperatures. Once inside a hut, you can see an electric oven in the center that is powered by a micro-solar panel outside. A little further on, a visitor sees that the village uses new techniques that have been developed for life in the desert: facilities for recycling organic waste into biological gases, the cultivation of seeds that are able to flower even in salty soil, development of desert grasses into materials for biofuel production.

In the kibbutz of Lotan, the Center for Creative Biology grapples with the construction of similar huts and technologies. Just to the north is the Hatzeva research station, where Noa Zer accompanies us to the greenhouses where more than 40% of Israel's agricultural exports are produced. As far as the eye can see, there are fields of fruit, vegetables and flowers, where even the most diverse can grow "thanks to the human ability to invent solutions," Zer says. He points out the wet mattresses, which are strategically placed in several directions "to allow the temperate air to circulate" via fans that take advantage of the desert air.

Teaching the Third World

Only 3,000 people live at the Arava — out of more than 8 million Israelis — and they are mostly scientists, researchers and high-tech pioneers, together with their families, who choose to engage with the adverse nature here. "There aren't many of us here," says Yaakov, who immigrated from Philadelphia more than 30 years ago. "But when we meet by chance in a field in the heat, then friendships that last are born."

It's not surprising that halfway between Hatzeva and Yotvata is the Keren Kayemet Le-Israel — the national Jewish fund that has taken care of the development of nature in Israel since the birth of the state — where there is an agricultural school that has welcomed hundreds of students from the Third World. When we arrived, there were four classes, each with pupils from Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia and South Sudan. The national flags hang outside the doors to indicate the students' countries of origin.

The young people, almost all of them in their twenties, race to tell us about their experiences. "I came here without knowing anything about Israel," says Nuri, from Burma. "And I discovered that I could help my village to better manage the water in the fields."

For the Indonesians, there's an additional difficulty: Jakarta has no diplomatic relations with Israel. The students tell us of their long route to obtain visas, expressing their hopes of "being able to repeat the miracles of life we see here in the desert every day in our own villages," says one 26-year-old student.

The aim of the Arava Institute is to transform agriculture into a high-tech bridge to the Third World, just like the successful recent project of Furrows in the Desert, which introduced agriculture to the village of north Turkana, Kenya. "Our students are all amazing," says professor Moti Harari.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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