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SESAME Field Trip: Reality check Jerusalem

September 17, 2019

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.

Water spurts from a burst water pipe in a car park at Tel Aviv Airport, Israel
Image: DW/Z. Abbany

(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+/non-binary/hermaphrodite/vegan… " — that line we drop casually whenever we want to say something potentially offensive or just plain wrong?

It's a horrible cliché. But I'm not above it. In fact, I used it once or twice in Israel.

"I grew up in a very Jewish area in North London," I told a bunch of people. "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 even though I had Jewish friends (actually, I did), I do not understand Israel."

Non sequiturs aside, my first impression of Jerusalem was that it was so normal. So normal, it felt weird. 

Street graffiti in Jerusalem, reading "Stop Mass Surveillance"
Scene from a quiet street for fine dining — graffiti that could have appeared in any major city around the worldImage: DW/Z. Abbany

Jerusalem is so beautiful. Tranquil. At least, it was when we were there.

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 and a carton of milk
We were 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 to join a field trip to the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan.

SESAME started with a dream to further diplomacy in the Middle East. But it's main concern is bringing together scientists from around the region so that they can work in collaboration. And it was our destination on the week-long trip. To get there, we traveled through Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nablus.

But we had only just landed at Tel Aviv. It was a Saturday.

As we stood to ogle a burst water pipe in the airport carpark, a couple of us pondered the 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
Time for sightseeing in Jerusalem in the early evening, down peaceful market streetsImage: DW/Z. Abbany

Read more: Models of science and society

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

Normality is unsettling

I mean, I grew up in London. We had the IRA. In my late teens, I had no idea where to throw my trash at the city's train stations — one bomb in a bin at Victoria meant all the bins were removed on public transport. There was Baader-Meinhof in Germany.

And I experienced an Iran-related bombing first-hand next door to my parents' shop on Kensington High Street. I still feel that today.

But by-and-large London was raving in the late 80s and early 90s. "Having it large."

Meanwhile, all I saw on TV was turmoil in the Middle East.

So, what was this normality in Jerusalem all about? Ignorance? Sure.

A pervasive and inaccurate media filter? Sure again.  

The adaptive human

By the time we got to the Weizmann Institute for Science early on Sunday morning, I was perplexed beyond belief. And the first chance I got, I just blurted it out.

One of the original buildings at The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel
One of the original buildings at The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel — with lush surroundingsImage: DW/Z. Abbany

Three of us were talking to a researcher called Dr. Michal Rivlin. I'd like to apologize to Dr. Rivlin at this point. She was very patient with me. See for yourself. Here's part of the transcript.

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 would send her team into a shelter.

"But, in general, I live a very normal life," said Rivlin, "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
Einstein everywhere at the Weizmann InstituteImage: DW/Z. Abbany

As I say, Rivlin was being generous. But I could tell the perplexion was now all hers. There was note of irritation, too. It was as though I had failed to see something that was so obvious to her.

Seeing things

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

She studies 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 can be a symptom of Parkinson's. So if Rivlin finds similar links between dopamine and the retina, it may become possible to diagnose Parkinson's using visual tests. But we didn't get to talk much more about that.

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

I had asked too many questions about "normal life" and we were way behind schedule. We continued to talk, though, as Rivlin showed me the way to her colleague, Dr. Rony Paz's office.

The microphone was off, so I'll have to paraphrase… But she basically said that if we'd spoken a couple of years ago, she may have understood my concerns a little 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 still have a very blurred media view of the Middle East. And unlike social platforms that shall not be named, such as Inst****, those old-school media filters seldom make the pictures look prettier.  

But now I think she had a point. She hit me with reality.

Then, we shook hands, she turned, and left. 

Wires and other components from the first computer in Israel, called "Weizac." It is housed at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
This historical display may be dusty, but the Weizmann Institute pushes new science to make money with patentsImage: DW/Z. Abbany

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...

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

I was trying to catch up. I stole a glance at my neighbor's notes to read what I should be thinking. Until there it was again. That twitch in my gut. All this, what Paz was saying, had to be specific to Israel. I put it to Paz, but like Rivlin before him, he knocked me back with a dose of reality.

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

Israel: Helping people with mental health issues

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

"Life in Israel 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… Isn't there?

"Erm," he thought for a beat, "there is some motivation, although I don't have a special, direct motivation to work on that. 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 induces stress, says Paz.

"So, 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 we're talking about both sides] — then, I think, it would be highly viable."

What is normal anyway?

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
Time to leave the Weizmann Institute and its beautiful, green gardensImage: DW/Z. Abbany

I walked through the lush green gardens of the Weizmann Institute back to our bus, chatting to Jim Drury, a video journalist from London. 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. I went "Wha...!" 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.

That was part two of Zulfikar Abbany's SESAME diary. Read more here:

Models of science and society (part three)

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI, the mind, how science touches people, European perspectives
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