Mourning Ramon and a national dream

For many in Israel, the death of Asaf Ramon is not just the loss of a promising young pilot, but also the end of a national dream rekindled.

The day after space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry under a blue Texas sky in 2003, editorial cartoonist Mike Keefe from The Denver Post drew six stars and one Star of David on a black canvas, representing the seven astronauts lost in the disaster.

Today we add an eighth star, another Star of David, to that cartoon, in honor of Asaf Ramon.

In our national narrative, Asaf was always going to be our second astronaut. And so we don’t just mourn the death of a young, promising pilot cadet, we mourn the sudden death of a national dream rekindled, of a promise unfulfilled.

Asaf was the eldest son of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. Ilan, and Asaf after him, represented our finest, our “best of the best.”

As the youngest member of the squadron that carried out the daring bombing raid on Saddam’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Ilan Ramon was more than just an ace pilot. He was what many young men, then and now, aspire to be.

To many, inside and outside the country, he was the manifestation of the new Jewish warrior, determined never to let evil men attain weapons that could annihilate us.

When Ramon, son of a Holocaust survivor, took an artifact from the Theresienstadt ghetto with him into space, Jewish hearts all over the world filled with pride.

“I was born in Israel and I’m kind of the proof for them, and for the whole Israeli people, that whatever we fought for and we’ve been going through in the last century (or maybe in the last 2,000 years), is becoming true,” he said.

Ilan Ramon was “our astronaut,” our national pride. When he was chosen by NASA, we walked a little taller. We had our very own astronaut – very few countries in the world could boast of that.

For a precious few days, when we saw video footage of him floating through his space ship, we floated a little above the ground, too. When we heard Hebrew songs being played in space, we sang them here on Earth. When he looked down at us through his ship’s window and said that little Israel looked so beautiful from space, we felt a little more beautiful, a little bit more special.

Every day he was up there was a gift for Israel. He made us feel better about ourselves, and we loved him for that.

He shared his experience with us fully, through video, phone calls, pictures, radio interviews, and, letters to his wife and children. He showed us a place where time and space weren’t dotted with the debris of war, twisted metal and tears. He showed us how high Israelis could one day reach.

When we gathered around the TVs to watch his imminent landing, our hearts pounded with excitement. When contact with Columbia was lost, we bit our nails, in denial, tortured in disbelief. Our anxiety slowly turned into angst, our hopes dashed, our hero fallen.

In real time, we all watched our dream shatter into tiny pieces across the Texan sky, over a town called Palestine. When Columbia’s hull scattered, our hearts broke into tiny pieces, and we didn’t walk so tall for a while.

And then came Asaf. Smart, strong, confident, just like his father. As a teenager in a Texas high school, it was clear Asaf was Ilan’s son through and through. His grades in mathematics, geography and physics were near perfect.

In 2006, we saw Asaf enter the IAF pilot’s course. He was following in his father’s footsteps, and we dared to dream again. A little glimmer of that light that went out with Ilan sparked within our hearts.

When we heard news that Asaf had skillfully maneuvered his training jet out of a dangerous, spiraling descent, barely saving his skin but managing to control the massive machine, the glimmer of light grew brighter and warmer. He was destined for greatness; he was a hero in the making. He was a Top Gun.

And on that sunny day just three months ago, when Asaf graduated as the most outstanding cadet in his pilot’s class, we collectively burst again with pride.

See, we said to each other, the dream is still alive. The son is taking his father’s place. He could take us all the way to the top again, and who knows, maybe he’ll go into space, and the whole world will hear our music again. Asaf fit so naturally into the narrative we had written for him.

So when rumors started spreading that the pilot killed in a training crash on Sunday morning was Asaf Ramon, our first reaction was one of adamant disbelief. Surely not. Not Asaf Ramon. Not again.

We desperately wanted the rumors to be false. And when confirmation finally came, the old wound reopened.

We were mourning Ilan Ramon all over again.

Courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

A new kind of philanthropy

When members of the board are tuned in to the needs of their organization, a new kind of giving becomes possible.

When one thinks about philanthropy, one most likely thinks of bettering humankind through the donation of money for a specific cause. But money is not the only “gift” philanthropy brings.

What most of us think of as philanthropy has no doubt undergone some revision this past year. Particularly in an environment where there is more competition over fewer funds, it is important to do things differently, with increased cooperation and awareness. And it is important to get everyone on board – including an organization’s board.

I feel privileged to have recently seen one such example of effective cooperation when, through board members’ awareness and speedy intervention, the Jerusalem College of Engineering (JCE) received valuable advanced equipment from a high-tech company that closed its operations in Israel.

JCE welcomed the substantial addition of a one-of-a-kind electron microscope, a gift from Tessera Israel Ltd., generously given as it closed down its operations in Israel.

A beneficial partnership between academia and industry

This unusual gift, a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), images a sample surface by scanning it with a high-energy beam of electrons. But, technical jargon aside, this advanced piece of equipment, priced at over half a million dollars, can magnify an object to up to 300,000 times its size.

As Tessera was closing its doors, JCE Board Member Shlomo Oren, who was at the time also the CEO of Tessera Israel, aware of the value of educating engineering students with the use of advanced equipment, secured the donation of the microscope to JCE.

The same students who will benefit from studying with this equipment today are being prepared for employment in high-tech companies like Tessera after they graduate.

The college had to respond just as quickly as Oren did. The microscope had to be moved right away – but it was no simple task. The SEM contains very fragile systems that are easily damaged in transit. Its relocation was therefore carefully planned, and the SEM successfully reached JCE’s Materials Lab without as much as a scratch.

Generosity leads to more giving

To operate the microscope, JCE needed to add a chiller to keep the diffusion pumps and microscope lenses at a cool temperature. Mr. Yonathan Wand, Numonyx Israel Ltd.’s General Manager and also a member of JCE’s board, searched for a compatible chiller. Within a few weeks, Intel’s Manager in Jerusalem, Mr. Ariel Wasserstrum, graciously announced the donation of a chiller to JCE on behalf of Intel.

Having recently joined JCE for the purpose of resource development, I could only hope to see such a feat. It is precisely this kind of collaboration, awareness and intervention for a common goal that enables such innovative donating to occur.

At the Jerusalem College of Engineering, it is the collaboration between academia and industry that has inspired several of its board members to be highly involved.

As further evidence of the successful partnership between academia and industry, JCE has created educational programs that not only meet high academic standards, but also meet the standards and needs of the high-tech industry. Having advanced machinery in the laboratories enhances the smooth integration of JCE graduates, as engineers, into the industry.

Creating win-win situations

And so this is a win-win situation for both industry and academia, working in partnership in Jerusalem. And it is exactly these types of partnerships, when utilized effectively, which can bring about win-win situations.

When a board of governors is fully on-board – not just showing up for the annual meeting, but effectively seeking out and recognizing opportunities for the benefit of the non-profit that it represents – its members can seize an opportunity when it arises.

This case further proves that it is not only in prosperous times that philanthropy can thrive. Even when shutting down a company, there are ways to help others – gifting, or perhaps “re-gifting,” included. Cooperation, while focusing on a common goal, recognizing an opportunity and seizing it are what it takes – at all times.

In this case, those who will benefit from this generous donation are the 165 students of JCE’s Advanced Materials Engineering program, Jerusalem’s next generation of engineers.

Naomi Shmueli David works in resource development at the Jerusalem College of Engineering (JCE)

In pride, without fear

Last weekend’s attack on a gay community center in Tel Aviv may have shocked Israel, but the country’s gay community takes strength from the response.

Justin Rudzki is an Australian freelance writer living in Tel Aviv.

Ask any local lad in the know and he’ll tell you that Saturday night here is all about Cheech Beach. An open-air bar on the shores of the Mediterranean where the boys gather from about 23.00 onwards to see out the close of the weekend together. Situated smack in the middle of the city’s main waterside promenade, its location characterizes a country where everything must coexist: there is little choice in a nation that is almost half the size of New Jersey. In some areas this creates a tension that is palpable; in others, less so. On most days the average Tel Avivian will tell you that their metropolis is the place that does it best: one of those harmonious multicultural melting pots that seemingly works.

Last Saturday night it was a very different tale.

The facts are already well known: as is par for the course in the modern age, within hours a local tragedy became front-page news around the globe. At around 23.00 on Saturday evening – the end of the weekend in a country that works Sunday through Thursday – a lone gunman entered one of the two community centers that service the gay community in Israel’s largest city and opened fire on gays and lesbians attending a weekly support group for teenagers.

Two died – Nir Katz, 24 and Liz Trobishi, 17. A further 15 were injured. For many, the incident was a forced coming out to family members who were contacted by police and hospital officials.

Some four days on and the impact still looms large: the victims are struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what has happened to them; the perpetrator is yet to be found; and the city is in shock – even in this part of the world, where violence and terror are regular guests on the evening news, an event like this can shake people to their core.

Spreading the news and gathering support

Within hours, citizens who have uncomfortably familiar networks for spreading bad news, swung into action. Modern technology as the bearer of bad news: text messages, internet, social networking sites. By midnight a group of local gays spearheaded an initiative to have Facebook profile pictures changed in support of the victims: vanity gave way as countless scrapped snaps of their best pose in favour of  pride flag images adorned with black ribbons and memorial candles.  By 8am the following morning, less than 12 hours after the city was ripped from its lazy summer slumber, the work turned to gathering support for a speedily convened rally in the city’s heart.

At 16.30 people began assembling on Rothschild: a leafy tree lined boulevard dominated in the middle by a pedestrian thoroughfare, a kind of year round gathering place where locals sit on benches in deep conversation, ride bicycles, drink coffee and play Bocce. The Aguda building, scene of the prior evening’s sinister events, is tucked into a side street less than 50 meters away.

Shortly before the anointed start time the crowd had the appearance of a low level sit in. A core of passionate activists gathered chanting choruses of “In pride, without fear” and other emotionally charged catchphrases. By the time the official program of speakers got underway the gathering had shifted dramatically in form, its scale well and truly symbolizing a community and city mobilized. Traffic was forcibly stopped as the crowd spilled out covering the boulevard from pavement to pavement.

A list of high profile MP’s came to speak, including a former Education Minister as well as Israel’s only openly gay Member of Parliament. And then there was Tzipi (Livni). The charismatic National Opposition Leader addressed the crowd with a passionate conviction. In one of the most poignant commentaries of the afternoon she urged the community to see “this crime as a turning point” and expressed the hope that it “give the strength to everyone in the gay community to live their lives… give strength to a child to go to his parents and say: ‘I am gay’ or ‘I am lesbian’.” In other parts of the country, strong statements given by both the Prime Minister and the President completed a triad of condemnation from the nation’s top political powerbrokers.

A tolerance that runs deep

They spoke about the many things to be learnt from a tragedy like this. Strong voices that talked of how this event will mobilize the community; how we need to fight for more rights, more acceptance and a tolerance that runs deeper and ultimately permeates well beyond a few square inner city miles. Although borne of the desire to see something good ultimately come out of something so heinous, there is no denying the necessity of these calls to action. In this sense, Tel Aviv is not so unlike many other bastions of tolerance around the globe.

In addition to the demands for a better tomorrow, there is much talk on the street here about the things to remember and contemplate: like the young man and woman who lost their lives as the result of a brutal crime; the random and inexplicable nature of evil that sometimes rears its head in even the most civilized of societies; and some of the deeper prejudices those actions may or may not represent.

But when the shock wears off, one of the most important things will be for this city to not self-flagellate, – to ensure it remembers the value of what it has managed to construct. That in the moments before and after the tranquility of a summer evening were shattered by a violent crime, there were many symbols of a place that, on most days, provides a secure, accepting and free environment for gays and non-gays alike to live: an open celebration of life in a beachside bar; a forum of support for the newest members of the community; the sort of people that would mobilize in an instant in support of their own; and a National Opposition leader who is willing to come out at a moment’s notice in support of a group whose mere existence often polarizes the electorate.

That in the middle of one of the most troublesome regions in the world there exists a place like this is a reason for Tel Aviv to retain a sense of pride amidst all the work still to be done.

Can Israel lead in clean tech?

If Israel truly wants to lead the world in clean tech investment and innovation, there must be state support.

Many articles have been written claiming that Israel can become a leader in clean technology over the next 10 years. Maybe yes, maybe no.

To make such a prediction with any degree of accuracy, we need to define “clean” technology. To date, clean or green technology, often referred to as “clean tech” comprises several categories and sub-categories including, although not exclusively:

 

  • Renewable energy (solar, wind)
  • Energy efficiency
  • Storage
  • Pollution remediation
  • Water purification/desalinization
  • Agricultural advancement

Part of the challenge of establishing a center of excellence for clean tech is that, unlike information technology, its genesis can take place at any university or laboratory around the world. The necessity for a Silicon Valley or Route 128 has been reduced by the fact that electrical engineering is no longer the only academic background required to solve environmental and energy challenges.

Microbiology and chemistry graduates are more likely to find employment at clean tech startups than are their electrical engineering counterparts. Thanks to the internet a clean tech universe has been created, and companies are cropping up all over the globe, with no apparent bias toward any particular climate or time zone.

Why Israel might be a clean tech epicenter

Some factors make certain sectors more conducive to leading in clean or green technologies. Solar technology in the Middle East is one example. Due to advances made because of Israel’s urgent need for reliable solutions to deal with its own environmental challenges (mainly the water crisis) the country’s clean tech market has become very attractive to foreign investment.

Despite being one of the world’s most arid regions, experiencing ever-increasing water consumption and alarmingly low levels of rainfall, Israel has succeeded where others have failed.

Water demands have been met over the past few decades by effective water management, including rain harvesting, flood reservoirs and the introduction of innovative irrigation methods to serve the needs of agriculture. Significant advances have been achieved by Israelis in desalination of seawater, recycling and purifying of municipal wastewater, and reclaiming of sewage water.

At least 30 percent of agricultural water is drip-irrigated to orchards and non-food crops. Relatively speaking, Israel has devoted more resources to the development of wastewater treatment and reclamation than any other country in the world.

Israel also has a head start in the solar thermal realm, as nearly all apartment buildings in the country have simple solar thermal panels on their roofs. Motivated more by the will to survive than by a hunger to address environmental issues, Israel has more reason than most nations to wean itself off crude oil.

While every country wants to lessen its dependence on crude oil, for Israel, it’s personal. This may prove to be one of the most compelling arguments for why the relatively small nation state may indeed become the next epicenter of clean technology innovation. Israel is home to Ormat, one of the leading companies in the world for geo-thermal power plants and recovered energy. In agriculture, Israel is the birthplace of and world leader in drip irrigation, literally turning a desert into an agricultural country. Netafim is the leading company in the world in this field.

In the energy storage arena, Israeli company Tadiran has become one of the leaders in long-life industrial strength batteries. Israel’s strategic location, with easy access to both Asia and Europe, has enabled these companies to garner customers on several continents while operating from home.

But where are the clean tech entrepreneurs?

However, to date there are no leading Israeli solar power companies on the market. There is an innate inertia at work in Israel cautioning the country to adhere to what it knows best – IT and telecom – while stifling potential investment and diversion of talent to clean technology. While there is no shortage of smart scientists and clean tech research, there is a surprising lack of clean tech entrepreneurs.

Historically, Israelis have been skilled at improvisational thinking within an already established category (think ICQ). Clean tech, however, is a completely new paradigm that requires category builders more than improvements.

One need only look at the mass of “technology refugees” to see that Israelis have been slow to adapt to the new opportunities in clean technology.

Conversely, technology entrepreneurs in the US have been migrating to the clean technology sector in greater numbers. Part of the reason that this migration has been slow in Israel is that the Israeli entrepreneurs and scientists are too isolated from one another.

Overtures from one side to the other are lacking. Furthermore, scientists are slow to leave their tenured posts at universities for business ideas that are, admittedly, still a few years away from proving themselves.

Lastly, Israel is a small country. Currently, there just aren’t enough demonstration projects to show to the rest of the world. Without the significant helping hand of a large government endowment, Israel’s chances of competing with the likes of the US, China and India seem unlikely.

The same location that provides regular and dependable exposure to the sun leaves Israel in a region of the world almost bereft of wind, when compared to Europe and the Americas. Not surprisingly, there isn’t much wind energy in use, nor are there many wind experts.

More “dating” between university researchers and entrepreneurs is the only way to create a marriage of industry and science. Also needed is a shift in focus from the Office of the Chief Scientist. More grant money should be in the hands of clean tech companies (currently it represents less than 15%) if Israel is to distinguish itself from its competitors.

In summary, Israel must realize that clean tech is certain to be one of the growth industries of the next 10 years, but to truly lead the world in clean tech investment and innovation, there must be greater support from the state.

Israeli army experiences reveal complex problems

For Santa Fe resident Daniel Farber, his service in the Israeli military was a manifestation of civic responsibility.

My time spent as a staff sergeant in an Israeli Special Forces unit has afforded me unique experiences and perspectives. Contrary to what many might believe my service in the Israeli military was not an expression of hate. It was an extension of the values that were instilled in me growing up with parents who belonged to the civil-rights movement. My service was a manifestation of civic responsibility – responsibility toward the Jewish people, and at the same time, responsibility toward the innocent Palestinians I interacted with during complex operations to root out the not-so-innocent terrorists. I joined the Israeli army because it was real. I was presented with real responsibility and real moral dilemmas. As the recently appointed Israeli ambassador to America, Michael Oren wrote that the Israeli dilemma is “whether the IDF should pull its forces out of major Palestinian cities and take a risk for progress toward peace, or increase the likelihood of suicide bombers reaching our municipal buses – between reducing the danger to my eldest son, who is currently patrolling those cities, and enhancing that of my two younger kids, who ride those buses to school.” Throughout my time in the Israel Defense Forces, I kept close ties to my hometown Santa Fe. In both reading the local publications about Israel, and in personal interactions with some locals concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have come across misconceptions that are disturbing, funny and all-out ridiculous. It is disturbing that some Palestinians live in horrid conditions. Even more disturbing is that the Palestinian Authority, along with the other 22 Arab countries, have the ability to end their poverty but they don’t. It is disturbing that the notion is that peace is about land, and that peace can be achieved by three politicians on different sides of the table making concessions to people they really would rather not deal with. Complexities of life It is disturbing that people have not yet recognized that peace cannot be forced. It is disturbing that people have been blind to the realization that the stepping stones of peace would be promoting coexistence, reforming the Palestinians’ education system, and improving economic ties between Israel and the Palestinians. It is funny that so many people in New Mexico think that because they have spent a few days in Israel or a Palestinian city, they have the slightest idea what the complexities are of daily life for either side of the conflict. I have a deep-down certainty that if the tables were turned, and terrorists were launching rockets into Las Cruces from the Mexican border, every single peace-loving Santa Fean would petition the U.S. Congress to bomb the hell out of Mexico. They would not petition because they were pro-war, rather because they were pro-survival. It is ridiculous that activist groups in New Mexico, backed by organizations such as Amnesty International, have put up billboards accusing Israel of murdering children without ever acknowledging the fact that Israel serves as a safe haven to groups such as Palestinian homosexuals and Darfur refugees. It is ridiculous that there is a double standard in which Israel is criticized as being a racist and apartheid state for protecting itself against terrorists. All men are created equal Does Israel make mistakes in the process? Yes. However, my comrades and I made a concerted effort, even in the heat of battle, to respect innocent Palestinians as people and to apply the values I learned growing up that all men are created equal. When people generalize Israeli soldiers as being killers, it deeply offends me, and it demeans the efforts the Israeli army takes, and I took, to protect innocent Palestinian lives. It is easy to preach from thousands of miles away without getting your hands dirty and dealing with real life challenges. During my mandatory service, from 2001-2003, I was involved in complex operations during which we entered terrorists’ houses knowing that there were armed terrorists inside – and suspecting that there might be innocent family members inside as well. Instead of blowing the house up like most armies would do under the same circumstances, we risked our lives on numerous occasions to try and save innocent Palestinian lives. So, when ludicrous anti-Israel activists compare Israel to apartheid and the IDF to the Nazis, please remember that the world is complex, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex, and only through complex thinking will any genuine change evolve. This article was first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican Newspaper. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of ISRAEL21c.