Sunday, February 21, 2010

“Making the Desert Bloom”: Mormons, Zionists, and Tomorrow’s Water

I submitted my Udall Scholarship application last Monday, and wrote this essay about the connections between Udall's policy and my own ambitions:

When a desert blooms, the fruits of agriculture are rarely sustainable. Irrigated flowerbeds deceivingly pepper the landscape in temporary beauty. Just as the harvest season draws to a close every year, the days of intensive desert agriculture and desert flower beds are numbered when irrigation efforts overdraft water supplies. When agriculturists, homeowners, and policy-makers use water faster than it is naturally replenished, complex irrigation projects can temporarily alleviate drought but wreak serious environmental havoc.

Morris Udall favored construction of two major dams on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon National Park during the 1960s, a policy that he later regretted as myopically irresponsible. As Zionists today struggle to sustain Israel for generations to come, Udall’s maturation serves as a microcosm analogy for change that must take place. Zionists have built incredible beauty in the land of Israel, but the days of ubiquitous flowerbeds must come to a close.

Udall explains his decision to support the dams in the context of his Mormon ancestry. His ancestors were in awe of the beautiful southwestern landscape, but also built many dams to supplement rainfall irrigation:
I was caught between my Mormon upbringing, my environmentalist leanings, and my constituents’ near unanimous support for the dams. My decision finally turned on one irrefutable fact: water is life in the desert. (Udall, pg. 54)
I am disappointed that he made this decision, but inspired that he came to condemn it later in his career. Water is life, but he later acknowledged that these were band-aid solutions: expensive projects that would be environmentally disastrous and unsustainable in the long run. These particular dams would have irreversibly damaged the Grand Canyon National Park, temporarily supporting an unsustainable desert population.

Similarly, Israel’s impressive water engineering served a hugely important role in building the country, but now plays an increasingly troublesome role, undermining the nation’s future. The writer and Politician S. Yihzar poetically captured this duality of triumph and destruction:
Making the desert bloom meant doing away with the wasteland, erasing the nothingness, exploiting completely all natural resources. We felt that if we succeeded in doing this thing, if we could conquer the wilderness, do away with it, make it bloom -- in other words, if we could settle it, build it up, make it not wild, not devoid of human values -- then we would have achieved the Zionist dream.

Israel must draw down on its water use, given that the Jewish State’s water withdrawal-to-availability ratio is one of the 10 highest in the world. The once-mighty Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized, is now a trickle. The Dead Sea, a true anomaly at the lowest point in the world (400 meters below sea level) is disappearing, leaving gaping sinkholes in its wake. Water rights divide Israelis and Palestinians. The country’s largest reservoir, the Sea of Galilee, is shrinking. Israel must turn its policies around, as Morris Udall did.

These environmental crises require visionary demands of rewritten agricultural policies, impassioned calls for systemic change. They require an understanding that there is a harsh future in store if environmental limits remain ignored. When Udall looked back on his decision to endorse the dam projects, he realized that there might simply be too many people in the arid southwest. With Israel growing, it could do well to look at Udall’s thoughts. The pressing demands of constituents must be taken with a grain of salt. He sought a pragmatic balance between development and preservation. The civilizations of these two deserts irrefutably have the right to exist, but water must be used carefully if they are to exist for our children.

Udall’s self-criticism offers a clear model for the maturation of Israel’s water policies. Both heritages, Mormon and Zionist, are inspiringly rich with hardworking civilization builders. They can inspire us all to look back at our ancestors who toiled to shape the land, to eek out a basic survival. Mormon and Zionist settlers took awe in their landscapes, shaped the land, and built the societies that we must sustain for future generations. It is my dream that Israel, as a “light unto nations”, may become an example of sustainable development for the world.

An exuberant Carter beats Udall in the 1976 Wisconsin primary election. The election was so close that one newspaper actually misprinted its headline... "Dewey defeats Truman" anyone?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

From the Diaspora...

Since Monday morning I have met 3 inspiring professors, 1 outlandishly friendly journalist, an impassioned CEO, and 1 cousin who I had never known existed! I have been through the bowels of several central bus stations, toured a checkpoint, witnessed the complex reality of Palestinian life on the Green Line, and I have made my way half-way around the world, back home to the Diaspora…

This entry is rather lengthy. So if your time is limited then I suggest reading the first section as a basic summary of my trip. I will add photos and more thoughts as time and internet access allow.

This Blog Marches On!!

“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand and keep you. And I will establish you as a Covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations.” ¬ –Isaiah 42:6

This blog is not dying! We must keep the reality and wonder of Israel alive in our hearts and our minds. For non-jews, secular jews, and religious jews alike, the grassroots change happening in Israel is like none other in the world, because Israel is an absolute anomaly. Not only does this dwarf-state host the diversity of an entire continent, but its unique challenges make it a beautiful model for what is possible.
In relating the final stories and emotions of my trip, I hope to relate the sense of potent opportunity that pervaded my sojourn in the Jewish state. Yes, Israel absolutely has its faults. However, Israel also does incredible things. If it is possible for Israel to become a place of ecological sustainability, and peaceful coexistence, then forging sustainable peace must be possible anywhere. You may say that this is not possible, and indeed it is a high bar. However, the inspirational leaders I have met would be rather upset (as would I) if you consigned their passionate struggles to the realm of the naïve.
This semester I am working part-time for the Environmental Studies Department at Oberlin, and my work will focus on maintaining connections with institutions and individuals across Israel. I will write less frequently, perhaps every week or two, following the evolving thread of my passion for Zionism.
As I discussed with a mentor in Jerusalem earlier this week, I hope to create a book within 2-4 years. As I have begun to do, this opus would follow grass-roots change-makers in the footsteps of great thinkers and philosophies. As a resource, I hope this could inspire those keen on making a difference anywhere, not only Israel. Israel is a fantastic classroom, and will hopefully become the world’s teacher.


I visited Jerusalem several times during my trip. I always put off writing about the Holy City because it is nearly impossible to explain, and I knew I would be back soon. So, now, I’ll do my best to relate my wanderings there. It is a city great inspiration, true wonders, deep rifts, and true difficulties.
Jerusalem is home to holy sites of all three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ is thought to have been crucified. A short walk from there, I prayed at the Western Wall, the last remaining portion of Israel’s ancient temple. After climbing steps away from the wall I could see the Golden Dome of the Rock just beyond, where Muhammad ascended to heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. The city is partitioned, and even the holy sites themselves are partitioned:
- At the Church, six Christian sects each control separate portions.
- At the Wall, men and women are separated.
- At the Golden Dome, also home to the Temple Mount, Jews and Muslim are separated.
This separation echoes the city’s separation in the East and West, which echoes separation felt throughout the country. Although Israel is very diverse, the vast majority of communities are homogeneous. I am pro-Israel, but do recognize that we must make changes.
Israel does not owe very much to those who want to destroy her. But, that label is not applicable in a vast number of cases. I’ll speak to this more under my reflection on seeing Barta’a with Muhammad. (One clarification: Just as Arabs deserve equal rights in Israel, Jews should be allowed to live in Palestine without threats of violence or expulsion.)
Jerusalem is not, however, a place of gloom and doom. The city is full of inspiration, not only from history and diversity. Just one example is the Church of Saint Vincent DePaul, a church offering care for children and orphans suffering from Chronic diseases.

Jerusalem International YMCA

“We are not human beings have a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
– Great Buddhist Monk, as quoted by Forsan Hussein, CEO of the Jerusalem International YMCA

"Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed."
–Edmund Lord Allenby, dedication of the Jerusalem Y in 1933

Across the street from the King David Hotel, which regularly hosts world leaders including US Presidents, this YMCA promotes coexistence, peace, and interfaith dialogue.
Forsan Hussein, a young Palestinian-Israeli, has been the CEO here for 6 months. He is the first Muslim ever to become head of a YMCA. I was lucky to meet with him yesterday afternoon, and found his vision very impressive. The YMCA may become a model for Jerusalem, which may model peace for Israel, the region, and the world.

Barta’a – Living on the Green Line

From the mountains above Barta’a, I could see the alleged path of the Green line below. And, it goes straight through Barta’a. On one side there is a green-dome mosque, and on the other a yellow, but other than arbitrary landmarks it is impossible to see the line.
When I drove into Barta’a with a friend that afternoon, nothing changed after we passed over the “border”. The real border, marked by a fence and Israeli checkpoints, is significantly further into the West Bank. But would it make sense to draw a real border through Barta’a, straight through the center of a bustling market place where we stopped to walk around?
The division in Palestinian communities is not so dramatic as a border. Muhammad, the friend I visited there, explained that national services like the post office are drastically underfunded. Jewish communities have nice parks, and functional national offices. He takes his children to nearby communities so that they can play outside, because these spaces are not available in his community.
I do not want to become too political, but there are definite injustices here. This may not be institutional racism, but is a clear discrimination that demands redress.

Givat Haviva: Hashomer Hatzair

The Hashomer Hatzair movement is a progressive Zionist youth movement. It is about equality, community, and social responsibility. The movement has an educational center at Givat Haviva in northern Israel, where Palestinians and Israelis come together for dialogue work as the basis of peace through friendship. The center offers art classes, women’s studies and Holocaust studies as well.

Last Evening, and Cousin Ross

On my last night in Israel, I was hastily doing arts and crafts before I needed to leave. I sat at my cousins’ dining room table making bookmarks as I gave them pointers on how to bend wires into cute animal figurines. It was a wonderful way spend my final evening, although I could have done a more careful job with packing…
As I sat at the table with dried flowers, paper, tape, and scissors, my cousin Ross came in the front door! We had never met before, but Batsheva (my cousin I was staying with) had mentioned that this then-mystery-character would be joining us for dinner. It turned out that we are both very interested in environmental issues, specifically in Israel, and we are nearly the same age as well. It seemed poetic that even as I prepared to leave, I would meet wonderful family members in Eretz Yisrael.

On Returning to the Diaspora (written aboard the bus back to Jerusalem, via Tel Aviv):

Breaking my gaze from the window to check the time, a gut wrenching reality nudges a tear from my eye. I have gotten to know the public bus system, the “Egged”, very well, and this time tomorrow Egged and I will be shlepping my baggage to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. From there across the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and back home to the Diaspora…
Now I sit on the fourth bus connection of the night from the junction where Muhammad dropped me off. From there to Hadera. Hadera to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Jerusalem to Efrat. Farewell nighttime Jerusalem…