SESAME Field Trip: Reality checks in Jerusalem | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 17.09.2019
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Normality vs. Reality

SESAME Field Trip: Reality checks in Jerusalem

Can science bring peace to the Middle East? DW's Zulfikar Abbany traveled through Israel and the West Bank to a synchrotron in Jordan to find out. This is part two of his diary.

(Part 1 of Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME Field Trip diary is here : A rocky road to science and diplomacy in the Middle East )

You know the saying "some of my best friends are…  [enter minority of choice] Jews/black/Christian/Muslim/LGBT+/hermaphrodite/vegan… " — that line we drop before we say anything potentially offensive or just plain wrong?

Well, I have my own version of that, and I found myself using it once or twice in Israel.

"I grew up in a very Jewish area in North London," I told a bunch of people in Jerusalem. "And whenever I'm back, I still…" (hey, did I hear myself stress the "still"? Yep.) "I still buy my bagels at the Carmelli bakery on Golders Green Road. Religiously."

Except, I have no religion. It was just my way of saying, "Even though I was raised in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and had Jewish friends (actually, I did), I do not understand Israel!"

Jerusalem is so damn normal.

Street graffiti in Jerusalem, reading Stop Mass Surveillance (DW/Z. Abbany)

Scene from a quiet street for fine dining — graffiti that could have appeared in any major city around the world.

So beautiful. Tranquil. It was when we were there, anyway. Luck?

And the people so nice. Yeah, that's another one of those inverted prejudices. I'm no angel after all. No religion, see.

Fine dining for a carton of milk

We landed at Tel Aviv on a Saturday. A pack of science journalists from Europe and the USA, invited by James Gillies at CERN in Geneva and the EU's OPEN-SESAME project on a field trip to the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan. It's a project that aims to further diplomacy and bring scientists from around the region together in collaboration.

As we stood to ogle a burst water pipe in the airport carpark, a couple of us pondered the weirdness of our hotel's reluctance to check us in before the end of Shabbat.

But, then, you never got any fresh bagels at Carmelli's before 10PM on a Saturday, so why should we be allowed into our rooms? 

Market in Jerusalem, Israel (DW/Z. Abbany)

Time for sightseeing in Jerusalem in the early evening, down peaceful market streets

Read more: A rocky road to science and diplomacy in the Middle East

So instead we removed for some fine dining. We got wine, tartar, sashimi, electronic elevator muzak, and not a single atrocity on the streets.

I mean, I grew up in London. We had the IRA. For the bulk of my youth, I had no idea where to throw my trash at Victoria Station — one bomb in a bin meant they were all removed.

I experienced first-hand an Iran-related bombing at the shop next to my parents' place on Kensington High Street.

But while London was raving, all I saw on TV was turmoil in the Middle East.

So, what was this sense of normality all about? Ignorance? Sure.

A pervasive and inaccurate media filter? Sure again.  

Normality in Jerusalem is unsettling

By the time we got to the Weizmann Institute for Science early on Sunday morning, I was perplexed beyond belief.

One of the original buildings at The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel (DW/Z. Abbany)

One of the original buildings at The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel — a center for innovation that keeps growing in lush surroundings

I just blurted it out in conversation with Dr. Michal Rivlin. To whom I'd like to apologize at this point. She was very patient with me.

Me: So is the life of a scientist in Israel the same as the life of a scientist anywhere? Can you just focus on your job here, researching the retina — the brain and neurodegenerative diseases (as you do) — without thinking about other things? I mean, when I go to work, I work, and the only distraction I'll have all day is my thinking about getting some milk on the way home. But I don't have the issues that I imagine you have on a daily basis. Does that make any sense?

Rivlin: It does make sense. And I can understand where your question comes from. But I can also tell you, without your telling me that it's your first visit here, that you have never been in Israel before.

Bosch. She got me.

"And the reason, I think," Rivlin continued, "is that just as the retina is adaptive, we, as human beings are very adaptive. And wherever you are, you will find a way to focus on your everyday challenges."

Sometimes she does have issues, she says — like when she was building her lab and, every now and again, the sound of an alarm sent her team into the shelter.

"But, in general, I live a very normal life, and just like any other country has its issues, we also experience our own issues. As a scientist I don't feel it changes me in any way. I see a wonderful opportunity to work with other countries, especially if they are not necessarily from our side of the political map. Via science, we can do tremendous things."

A bust of scientist Albert Einstein at the Weizmann Institute of Science (DW/Z. Abbany)

Einstein everywhere at the Weizmann Institute

By this stage, I could tell that the perplexion was all hers, with, perhaps, an added note of irritation.

Understandably so.

Seeing things

Rivlin's science is — to me — about our ability to see. And seeing things clearly.

She is studying links between dopaminergic neurons (which produce dopamine) in the retina and the early stages of Parkinson's disease. A decrease in dopamine in the midbrain occurs as a symptom of Parkinson's, so if there are similar links between dopamine and the retina, it may become possible to diagnose Parkinson's using visual tests.

The first electronic computer in Israel, known as Weizac, housed at the Weizmann Institute (DW/Z. Abbany)

The first electronic computer in Israel, known as "Weizac," housed at the Weizmann Institute

I, meanwhile, had clearly failed my very first visual test in Israel. I was not seeing straight. And Rivlin told me so as we walked to her colleague, Dr. Rony Paz's office.

I'll have to paraphrase because the microphone was off… But she basically said that if we'd spoken a couple of years ago, she may have understood my concerns better.

But now? At a time when the whole world was a stage for terrorism? I hadn't thought it through, she said.

I reminded Rivlin that we had had the IRA in the UK and Baader-Meinhof in Germany. But that we also have a very filtered media view of the Middle East. And unlike social media platforms that shall not be named, such as Inst****, media filters seldom make the pictures look prettier.

Wires and other components from the first computer in Israel, called Weizac. It is housed at the Weizmann Institute of Science. (DW/Z. Abbany)

The historical display may be dusty, but the Weizmann Institute is keen on pushing new science and making money from patents

We shook hands, she turned, and left.  

Inducing stress 

Paz was in full flow by the time I sat down in his office. He was explaining a myriad of research projects at Weizmann's Department of Neurobiology, including studies into bats and memory, epilepsy, intelligence in humans and non-human primates...

And post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and their effect on education.

There it was again. That twitch in my gut. This had to be specific to Israel.

"I can't say whether our research would immediately have an implication for education and PTSD research in Israel per se," said Paz later. "PTSD is also a big target in the US because of all the recent things."

Watch video 06:30

Israel: Helping people with mental health issues

Read more: German military sees rise in soldiers suffering from PTSD

"I would say it's true that life in Israel on average is more stressful than a typical EU country, so stress-related research is definitely important here," he said. "[But] we try to focus our research on basic mechanisms. We do not make it culture dependent."

But surely, you can't remove the person from the science? I mean there's going to be some personal motivation…

"Erm, there is some motivation, although I don't have a special, direct motivation to work on that," he said. "A lot of my friends were in the army, I was in the army, and we see and know a lot of regions around us that are under stress on both sides — both the Israeli side and the Palestinian side. The whole region is inducing stress.

"So," continued Paz, "if we can do anything to help both trauma and research-based education for both sides, Israeli and Palestinian — and it's important for me to highlight that — then, I think, it would be highly viable."

What is reality?

From there we progressed quickly to a cafeteria, where we gorged on another incredible meal, involving pulses, pasta, humus and fish.

Until it was time to go.

The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel is built in beautiful, green gardens (DW/Z. Abbany)

Time to leave the Weizmann Institute and its beautiful, green gardens

I walked through the lush green gardens of the Weizmann Institute back to our bus, chatting to Jim Drury, a video journalist on the trip. And it was so normal, as if we'd worked together before. As if he were a cameraman I once knew in Australia.

Then on the bus, an Italian physicist-turned-journalist, Maria Longobardi, enthused about the beauty of cryostats (devices that maintain very low temperatures). She said she loved building them. My head hurt with wonder.

If only I could have seen into the future, I would have known what was coming at our next stop at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Another reality check.

Next to the Danish pastries, fresh fruit and English tea, was a random, unattributed quotation I had scribbled:

"Trying to recreate reality doesn't explain reality."

I read that now as I type and think: Too true.

Read more from Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME diary:

A rocky road to science and diplomacy

SESAME Field Trip: Models of science and society

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