Science in the shadows

Two headlines caught my attention this morning at the beginning of what promises to be a totally routine week after the wonderful, long weekend of Shavuot holiday.

Israel to ally with Arab neighbours around Red Sea in bid to save world’s corals“ Was one headline.

The second one, I did not fully understand. Clear was only, that the article was also about science, in this case, archaeology. However, this one did not talk about cooperation, but rather the opposite.

Reading the two pieces draws a fascinating picture of what is going on aside from – but always in the shadow of religiously infected politics.

What is so stunning about the research on corals? For one thing, Israel has no diplomatic or any other ties with most of the countries bordering the Red Sea. These countries blame Israel and the Jews for everything wrong in the world and preach its destruction. So, how can there be cooperation on any national level?

And then there is my own dream-like memory of diving into the unbelievably stunning beauty and magic of the coral reefs down in the Sinai. This is, however, something, that does not belong to every-day life in Israel – unless maybe you live in Eilat.

So what’s the story behind this? There are people in each of the Red Sea countries who care more about the treasures of the sea and less about politics and religion. Sure, there are. But how do they get together? Well, they don’t have to.

The Red Sea Transnational Research Center coordinating the project is managed by someone completely neutral. This is a Swiss initiative to study why the corals in the Red Sea are less affected by the bleaching effect, due to rising temperatures, that destroys coral reefs all over the world.

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology functions as an umbrella. In Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, researchers collect data, which is then sent to the Research Center in Lausanne. Voila!

For now, each of the countries conducts the same research but separated from the other, and the Swiss coordinate and compare in the hope to find clues how other coral reefs may be protected and saved.

Or maybe for the Swiss, the motivation is to create a form of diplomacy through science. They may just have spotted an opportunity to bring like-minded people together who have no way of exchanging and sharing their knowledge and maybe get the chance to bridge some of the enormous gaps between their countries.

Whether for the sake of the corals or the purpose of cooperation – I support both with all my heart.

Less cooperation is evident when it comes to archaeology on and around the temple mount. And the history is less of a common issue. On the contrary, it is a matter to fight over, and archaeology becomes a tool to win the struggle.

Each side is determined to find evidence of their presence before the other. Or, as I learned from the second article, one side is more concerned with the elimination of evidence that proves Jewish presence thousands of years ago.

O.k., let’s not judge and just say, the Waqf, which is the Muslim Organisation managing the area and responsible for construction work, never cared for any archaeological findings on the temple mount. When they built something, the debris they cleared out from this history-loaded area was simply dumped in the Kidron valley.

Not only is any excavation work on the site against mutual agreements, but it is also illegal to dump building debris anywhere. On top of this, it means the loss of archaeologically valuable artefacts.

An Israeli initiative has been going on to sift through mountains of building trash to try and save what they can still find. They discovered items from all different periods, among them also coins from the first Jewish Temple period with Hebrew markings.

To the not-unbiased reader, it may seem that Israel is driven by selfish political goals. But in a time, where the UN claims the temple mount has no significance for the Jewish people, can you really blame us?

There are too many people in the world who would be delighted if all evidence of Jewish life was erased, especially that linking Jews to the Holy Land. How ridiculous is that to anyone who grew up with the old and new testaments as first written accounts if historical events?

Another mountain if debris and jumble are still on the temple mount itself, unreachable for Israeli archaeologists. One of the chief archaeologists on the project is optimistic and hopes the political atmosphere will allow them to sift through the material one day. For the researchers, it is not a matter of supporting any political claim, but to learn about the many cultures that occupied this space over the centuries.

For the time being, this remains a dream. The reality is better described by what he said about politically motivated criticism: „Sneezing in Jerusalem is an intensive political activity. You could turn your head to the right, or the left“.

Whether for the sake of truth or the purpose of understanding history, I think both are worthwhile causes.

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