Goodwill Towards Men

Alexander Yannai, Jewish king, creator of an empire unrivaled since the time of King Solomon, is a colorful figure in Jewish history. The third son of John Hyrcanus, Judah Maccabeus’ great nephew reigned Judea from 103 B.C.E. to 76 B.C.E. We remember Judah Maccabeus from the story of Hanukkah which will be celebrated this month.

Alexander_JannaeusAfter he becomes king, a title he took along with high priest, Yannai spends much of his reign engaging in battles. On the foreign front, he enlarges Judea by conquering in the north, south, east and west. He builds a lighthouse castle in the Dead Sea to control the lucrative trade of spices which he wrested from the Nabateans. Along the Mediterranean coast, he conquers many of the ports, including Gaza and Akko. He pushes north into what is now Syria and south to control the Negev.

Many see this expansion, coupled with increased economic stability and military might staving off conflicts, as what Judea will resemble in the end of days.

However, there was a darker side to his reign, especially when it came to dissension within Judea. Both Josephus and the Peshur Nahum, part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, paint a picture of a king who would not hesitate to go to extreme lengths to ensure his rule and stamp out his critics. Now archaeology may have found proof of just how far he was willing to go.

According to recent finds in Jerusalem in the area of the Russian compound, the ancient sources were not exaggerating Alexander Yannai’s cruelty. Remains from a mass burial were found by Kfir Arbiv, Yossi Nagar, and Tehillah Lieberman in a cistern. They claim that these skeletons were all from one event and deposited at the same time. Based on the bones and pottery shards which were also found in the cistern, the find is dated to the days of  Yannai.

The bones attest to a violent death and have countless signs of sword wounds on the bones themselves. Broken cheeks and severed skull bones suggest beheadings. From analysis, the bones were not just men, but also women, children and even embrionic bones.

Alexander Yannai faced opposition from groups of Jews who opposed the ruler-ship of a non-Davidic king and priesthood of someone who was not a descendant of Aaron, the first high priest and brother of Moses.  Yannai opposed the Perushim, who were one of the larger sects in Judea at his time. He also was hated by the Qumran sect, who called him the “Lion of Wrath”.

As a response to his detractors and to keep the peace, Josephus relates that in Jerusalem:

“His [Yannai’s] rage was grown so extravagant, this his barbarity proceeded to a degree of impiety; for when he had ordered 800 to be hung upon crosses in the midst of the city, he had the throats of their wives and children cut before their eyes; and these executions he saw as he was drinking and lying down with his concubines.” Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 1:4:97

This so frightened the population, that they fled Jerusalem by the thousands, according to Josephus, until Yannai died.

“So at last, though not till late, and with great difficulty, he [Yannai], by such actions, procured quiet for his kingdom.” ibid, 1:4:98

The Second Temple was destroyed, according to the rabbis, because of senseless hatred. Yannai, in destroying his opposition so brutally, procures peace for his kingdom, but stirs hatred among the Jewish people. When searching for peace, he forgot goodwill towards his subjects.

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Southern Expectations

15 seconds.

That’s how long it took me to find my phone in my purse and check where the latest siren went off. My phone app said that the current siren near my hometown of Beer Sheva was in a place where the residents have 15 seconds to find shelter before the rocket will hit. In those same 15 seconds, a parent has to find and wake a child and move them to the safe room. In those same 15 seconds, a child playing in a park needs to find shelter. In 15 seconds an elderly person has to navigate to get to their safe place. It’s an unbelievable situation which has existed, off and on, for over a decade.

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Rocket fired from Gaza Strip towards Israel

This evening, I had left the center of the country where I had a business meeting and was heading home. During the meeting, my phone informed me time after time that another siren was going off somewhere in the South. Over the course of my 2 hour meeting, over 80 sirens were heard in various parts of the Negev. I just kept pushing “silent”, a prayer and a way to continue the meeting despite my mounting apprehension. Couldn’t it just stop and return the silence?

After the meeting as I expressed my worry, my friend said to me, “What did you expect? You live in Beer Sheva.” As a new resident of the Negev after having lived in the center of the country for almost 25 years, I thought, “What DID I expect? Is this part of what my expectation package was when I moved South?”

I did not expect my move to the South to be without challenges. I would have to really come out of my shell and meet new people and make new friends – not so easy at my age. I needed to find a community which would be good for me. There were many friendships which I wanted to maintain and how was that going to work without physical proximity. Besides the personal issues, there were the general issues. Beer Sheva is far – not as far as some people think – but far from much of my work and meetings in the center of the country. Far from some of my kids. Far – not in the center. It is a city in the periphery and still holds some of its issues from when it was a development town. These challenges I accepted; I chose to live with them, as the benefits to me far outweighed these difficulties. I DID expect this. Every place has its challenges and those who live there need to accept those negative attributes. Nothing and no where is perfect.

But rockets fired at homes of civilians! No, this I cannot and should not accept or expect. All citizens of Israel deserve to have a life free from terror. No child should have to sleep in a bomb shelter because of fear of rocket attacks. No farmer should have to worry that his crops will be burned by incendiary balloons. Oy, oy to us if the citizens of the center become numb to these threats as happening “over there” to those people on the “periphery” in the Negev. Oy, oy to us if we should just come to accept and expect that our lives will be under threat just because we live in the South (or the Golan Heights or in Judea and Samaria….).

Instead, I believe in the Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel…will foster the development of the country for the benefit of ALL its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and PEACE as envisaged by the prophets of Israel”. Amen, Amen.

God willing, all of the citizens of Israel should have peaceful sleep – as it says in the Bible all the way from Dan to Beer Sheva.

Right in Front of Your Eyes

How many times have you been looking for something only to find it right in front of your eyes? In St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, researchers are finding ancient heretofore undiscovered literary works right in front of their eyes on the page – yet hidden under later texts.

The monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula has been functioning since the 6th century CE and has the world’s oldest continually operating library in the world. This small library, now headed by Father Justin Sinaites from Texas, has opened its doors and its pages to researchers from all over the world to examine its literary treasures. (Some of the literary treasures have been mentioned before in this blog.)

Among the thousands of texts in the library, the researchers found remnants of script written under the current text. Writing texts has always been a major part of monastic life. In order to perform this important function, however, you need materials on which to write. Following the rise of Islam in the 7th century, many other monasteries in the Sinai Desert began to disappear, leaving St. Catherine’s in relative isolation. Only because of a agreement with Mohammad, according to tradition, was this monastery saved.

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Palimpset, with earlier Greek text beneath medieval Greek text

But materials became scarce, including parchment for writing. The monks found a creative solution to their dilemma. They took older, less relevant texts, soaked them in lemon juice and scraped off the old text. They then had a clean page on which to write new text.

These re-written texts are called palimpsests and around 130 of them have been investigated from the St. Catherine’s library comprising some 6,800 pages. Michael Phelps, the director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library and leader of the project at St. Catherine, in conjunction with scientists and linguists, has helped to elucidate these earlier writings. Tiny bumps and shadows are photographed from different angles in different lights helped to reveal bumps and depressions in the surface. Technology helps to turn those discrepancies into readable text.

The hidden writing dates from the 6th to the 12th century CE and represent a wide range of languages. Among the exciting discoveries are 108 previously unknown Greek poems and the earliest copy of a recipe from Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine. Knowledge and expansion of the vocabulary of rare languages such as Caucasian Albanian and Christian Palestinian Aramaic, have greatly benefited from examining their use in these palimpsests. Caucasian Albanian was used by Christians living in today’s Azerbaijan, and had only been found on a few stone inscriptions; their churches were destroyed in the 8th/9th century CE bringing an end to their unique community and language. Christian Palestinian Aramaic was a mix of Syriac and Greek but was discontinued in the 13th century.

There is urgency today for this project as the Islamic State’s presence in the Sinai Peninsula has, again, made St. Catherine’s even harder to reach. We can only hope that St. Catherine’s can be protected in these days and continue to function as a sanctuary, not only for pilgrims, but also for its important library.

Four Words

History is made of up “his story”. Indeed, what we leave to future generations is only our stories. These stories are made up of our words. Recently, an inscription of only 4 words discovered near the Jerusalem Convention Center has caused a fury in the archaeological world and caused speculation about the story behind them.

The 4 words in Hebrew or Aramaic translate into English as: “Hananya, son of Daedelus, from Jerusalem”

hananya inscriptionThese words were found carved into a column segment which was being used (in secondary usage) to support a floor from the late Roman period. Archaeologists have dated the column itself to the time of Herod the Great in the 1st century B.C.E. “Jerusalem” appears written in Hebrew as we write it today (fully) and not as it occurs in the vast majority of biblical appearances (shortened).

Many want to make Hananya out to be an important artist. They write stories about his life from these 4 words. But I prefer him like this:

Once upon a time, at the end of the Second Temple period, lived a Jew called Hananya, just like hundreds of other Hananyas in Judah. He lived on the fringes of history – apparently, he didn’t kill anyone; he didn’t revolt against anyone; he didn’t give public speeches; and he didn’t teach or judge or sin. It is reasonable to suppose that he worked for his daily bread; maybe he was a potter in the old industrial area to the west of the city, maybe he was another kind of artisan. Maybe his father was named Daedelus using a Greek name, as many Jews did of his time including Judah Maccabeus, the hero of the Hanukkah story. And maybe Hananya called himself by this Greek nickname, as a way of describing himself as a skilled craftsman. He came from Jerusalem and was apparently proud of it, and so he carved it on a column segment in the place of his residence in the potters’ village. The name of his city he wrote as he pronounced it – Yerushalayim – and not as it was customarily written by the scribes – Yerushalem.

Evil days came to the city. The rebels, and the speakers, and the teachers, and the murderers ruled the simple man’s life, and the city was destroyed by the hands of other fighters and murderers who came from far off and spoke differently and dressed differently and sacrificed differently. Hundreds of thousands of people, workers and rebels, righteous and murderers, found their deaths in violence, and passed from this world. The conquerors erected a new town on the potters’ village and continued to make vessels for their needs, they even used the building materials that they found there, including the column segment of Hananya. They also passed from this world in blood and fire, and also their conquerors, and the conquerors of their conquerors.

Last week, Hananya, son of Daedelus – the artisan from Jerusalem – declared his victory over the rebels and the other conquerors, over the kings and the priests, the murderous and the wise, and over the murderous and wise conquerors of those conquerors. He raised his head after 2000 years, and was pleased: Look at the people working here! Excavating, and paving and building and traveling. Simply living. Everything is good.

Taking on the Swamp

Malaria, as much as government policy, kept the Land of Israel vacant. In 1902, a report on the distribution of the Anopheles mosquito and malaria in Upper Palestine describes the conditions. “It (Palestine) was guarded by a small company of Turkish soldiers, and the platoon had to be changed every month because malaria sickened and debilitated everyone after 10 days.”

Reports of early Jewish settlement from the end of the 19th century describe widespread fatality from the conditions in Israel. Around the Sea of Galilee, 95% of workers in the Jewish settlements suffered from Malaria. Of the approximate 75,000 Zionists which arrived in the land of Israel between 1882-1914, about half had either died or left by 1914 because of the severe conditions, including malaria.

Even the British army under General Allenby, famous for receiving the surrender of Jerusalem in 1917, collapsed from malaria in 1918 after the battle of Megiddo.

No successful campaign had ever been launched which did anything other than control the disease. Before 1917, the only experience in dealing with malaria control anywhere in the world was by General Gorgas at the Panama Canal. Their efforts involved thousands of men, vast sums of money and was too costly for most countries – particularly the slowly crumbling Ottoman empire. Even Balfour’s declaration could not hope to encourage masses of Jews to settle in Israel if malaria held sway.

Enter Louis Brandeis, president of the American Zionist Federation. He saw the negative impact of malaria on the Zionist enterprise. He approached Chaim Weizmann to invest in his efforts but they declined. Brandeis put up $10,000 of his own money and teemed with Dr. Israel Kligler, Zionist and brilliant public health scientist, to come up with a new, affordable method for dealing with malaria. More than that, though, he saw the solution not as malaria control but malaria elimination and ushered in a new model of public health.

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Educational post in English, Arabic and Hebrew

Involvement of the community and culturally-sensitive education were the bulwarks of the new approach. Instead of employed personnel, individuals could impact the spread of the disease. Kligler went to Palestine in December 1920 to direct Hadassah Hospitals’ laboratories. He shared Brandeis’ vision: no Jewish homeland without eliminating malaria. His plan included: detection and treatment of carriers, destruction of breeding sites, use of quinine as a prophylactic, education through lectures, pamphlets and home visits, and a change in attitude to convince the public that malaria is preventable.

Mandatory Palestine did become malaria-free, but only after the death of Kligler. One of the Jewish missions is fixing the world, Tikkun Olam; and by not taking a fatalist approach to malaria, but rather a proactive stance to beating this disease, Israel provides a model for the rest of the world.

Change is Hard

Historical facts are presented as hard fast numbers. Historical periods start and end on particular dates as marked by large scale changes in sovereignty or policy. In reality, though, it takes some time for those policies to trickle down and become reality for people. The edges of historical periods are marked by a lot of graying when the old ways and the new ways interact and intermingle.

Case in point is the city of Hippos/Sussita. One of the cities of the famed Decapolis (which included Beit Shean) Hippos/Sussita was a thriving, pagan metropolis situated above the Sea of Galilee in today’s Golan Heights. The Roman empire united under one emperor, Constantine, who moved the seat of the empire to Constantinople in 330 BCE, becoming what we call today the Byzantine Empire, which supported Christianity. Paganism and Christianity, however, coexisted for many years in the Decapolis, as in other parts of the empire.

Recent excavation in Hippos has uncovered a pagan amulet in the Northeast Church. The hematite pendent with the Greek inscription “Digest!” was crafted in the pagan Roman period (3rd-4th century CE) but only set into the gold pendant during the Christian Byzantine period (late 6th century CE). Because of the location of the find and the other finds around it, it was believed to be worn by a high ranking cleric (who probably suffered from indigestion).

Anti-digestion-talisman-combined-with-a-gold-pendant-

In a building adjacent to the church, a figurine of a dancing maenad, who would have accompanied processions devoted to the god Dionysus, was found. She was dated to the gray period between the Roman and the Early Byzantine era. What was she doing near the church?

Sometimes old symbols were re-purposed for new world-views. Such is the theory surrounding a fresco of the goddess of fortune, Tyche, found in a home near one of the churches. Her crown depicts the city walls of the Hippos. According to Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa, director of the expedition to Hippos/Susita, “During the Byzantine period, Tyche became a municipal emblem embodying a local patriotism that had deep roots in the classical tradition. As time passes following the transition to Christianity, Tyche and the other former religious emblems probably lose their ritualistic characteristics and become cultural symbols.”

The transition from paganism to Christianity is the last of the gradual changes which affect Hippos. The next change is sudden, as the city is destroyed and abandoned following the earthquake of 749 CE. Now, more than 1300 years later, we look back and uncover the process of change which affected the people of this great city.

I Came, I Saw, I Conquered

Israel has seen its share of conquerors. History here is littered with a list of one power after another coming in and wresting control, usually through a bloody war. Perhaps no other empire in history is known for their brutal fighting strategies than Rome. At the heart of the Roman military apparatus stood the Roman legion. Ever since the siege of Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E., until the 4th century C.E., Roman legions fought the battles and controlled the main crossroads in Israel.

The VI Legion, Legio VI Ferrata (Sixth Ironclad Legion) was one of those legions. They are famous for winning the battle after which Caesar declared to the Roman Senate simply, “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered.” Recruited by Julius Caesar in Northern Italy, they served under Marc Anthony in Syria. After the battle of Actium which cemented Octavian’s victory over Marc Anthony, they served under the new emperor and established their base camp in the Galilee.

In the last year, this base camp of the VI Legion has been uncovered near one of the major intersectionlegiovis in the north, Megiddo Junction. Archaeologists have uncovered the principia, the heart of a Roman military base. All important functions happened here and it served as the legionary commander’s headquarters and the legion’s shrine. In the courtyard stood the legion’s standard, the sacred eagle; and it was the site for the aguere, consultation with birds for omens in preparation for battle. The principia was the site of the treasury, the armory and scribal activity of the legion. Archaeologists found a stone mark at the gate with a dedicatory inscription, including the name Flavius, perhaps alluding to Flavius Silva who was the general in charge of the battle of Masada, in which the VI Legion participated.

Soldiers came to the legion for life; and the camp near Megiddo has signs of day-to-day life. Latrines, a standard of Roman society and found in every large Roman city, were found here, as well as Roman coins, glass, potter, and animal bones (like soldiers today, they probably enjoyed a good barbecue). Death happened in the camp as well and the archaeologists found, inside a man-made cave, a Roman cooking pot with the remains of a cremated soldier.

The camp came to a well-planned end. Towards the end of the 3rd century C.E., during the reign of Diocletian, the Ironclad Legion, Legio VI Ferrata, was deployed to the eastern frontier and the base was decommissioned and dismantled.

The Legion which was famous for “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered” added “I Left” to their legacy in Israel.

Flour and Torah

In a recent article in Segula Magazine about Jews living in Beit Shean (Beisan) before the Independence War, the subject of Jews living in mainly Arab towns pre-state was examined. I looked at statistics of the Jewish population of my home town, Beer Sheva, and found that the statistics were similar: a largely Arab city (population in 1931 almost 3,000) with a very small Jewish population (11) and assumed that the story would be the same. While certain elements of Beer Sheva’s story mirror the situation in Beit Shean, many elements are different.

Firstly, Beer Sheva is a modern town, unlike Beit Shean. The first modern settlement was started in 1900 with the establishment of the town by the Ottomans. The Ottomans wanted to both control and serve the Bedouin community while establishing a military base against the British in Egypt. Interestingly, almost immediately Jews arrived to the town. Among the first residents, arriving in 1901, were 2 Jews who founded a flour mill right on the main street. Unlike Beit Shean’s Jewish population which consisted of mainly Arabic-speaking Sephardim, these two Jews, Yaacov Gordon and Meir Shnaiderovitch, were Ashkenazim. Prior to coming to Beer Sheva, they had worked in the winery in Rishon LeTzion and been fired. Beer Sheva provided them with a second chance to see what they could build up in this Arab Bedouin town.

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Gordan and Shnaiderovitch Flour Mill building today

The Ethics of the Fathers, 3:21, states, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah,” and this adage was true for the Jewish community of Beer Sheva. The flour mill, pictured, was the focal point of the community, housing at one point a well, a synagogue, a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) and a chicken coop. Bedouin preferred going to the Jewish mill instead of one of the other Arab-owned mills in the town because the Jews set a fixed price for the flour and had superior equipment to grind the flour finer.

Prayers in the community were said in the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Edot HaMizrach styles depending on who was leading and who was attending, as the population was varied.

By 1923, the Jewish community had grown to around 30 people. The population included not only a miller and a butcher, but a teacher, storekeeper, doctor, tailor, shoemaker and even a police man, with their spouses and children. Many of the Jews were related or became related. Each person made a niche, raised and educated families, and created a small Jewish community in the Land of their Forefathers. They were not your typical Zionists and were largely ignored by the large Zionist organizations, receiving almost no help or support.

The Jewish community, and the flour mill, came to an abrupt end with the Arab revolt of 1929. The Jewish population of Beer Sheva fled, and the mill was sold to a local Arab. The Jews did not stay away for long though, as the 1931 census records indicate that there were 11 Jews living in Beer Sheva, rebuilding Jewish life there. The Arab riots of 1936-1939 ended the Jewish community in Beer Sheva and only a few individuals returned afterwards, leaving no signs of Jewish communal life.

There is a legend that during Israel’s Independence War, the remaining Jewish population of Beer Sheva got into a van and fled the city. There were fewer than a dozen individuals. It’s hard to believe today when looking out over the modern city with over 200,000 Jewish residents, that the Jewish life in the modern city started with such a small population. Like its pre-state community, Jews from all over the world make up a patchwork. And like for Gordon and Shnaiderovitch, Beer Sheva offers a second chance and a different kind of Zionism – a unique chance to make something new as envisioned by Ben Gurion.

Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is a popular way for non-historians to learn about and relate to the past.  Whether from books like The Red Tent, Sarah, or The Dovekeepers, the world of the ancient Jewish personalities comes into the foreground on a semi-regular basis.  It is no surprise that these stories continue to surface; the bible and ancient texts introduce us to some of the best storytelling ever.

This method of interacting with the biblical text is not modern but ancient.  Ancient biblical fictional stories have been preserved not just in the Agadta – non-legal sections of the Mishna and Gemara – but also in “pop-fiction”.

These stories’ preservation was for centuries a well-kept secret.  Christian monks living in isolated monasteries included within their walls treasures of the past.  Monastic libraries, which are now coming under scholarly scrutiny, include manuscripts  composed during the end of the Second Temple Period but not included in the Jewish or Christian canons.

Pseudepigrapha are texts that were written by Jews in the Greco-Roman period and not canonized in most major religious traditions.  These writings included different genres from wisdom texts to apocalyptic documents to adventure tales.  Most include the casting of a biblical character in these stories or ascribing apocalyptic prophecies to biblical personalities.  The motives behind the authors are also varied.  Some serve to satirize contemporary Jews, some are fan fiction.

Included in pseudepigrapha is the story of Joseph and Aseneth (Osnat), which is based on verses from this week’s Torah portion.  Three copies of this story were found in St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert.  The copies were written in the 10th, 15th and 16th/17th centuries but were based on much older texts.  Scholars believe that there was one original written somewhere in the late Second Temple period or late Roman period (2nd century B.C.E. – 4th century C.E.) by a Jewish author.

The basic gist of the story has all the elements of a Danielle Steele novel.  Asenath, daughter of the priest Pentephres, is an idol worshipper and reacts in disgust when her father says he is giving her in marriage to  Joseph – a lowly Israelite.  When she sees him, however, she falls in love and renounces her idols.  Some of Joseph’s older brothers,  Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher (the son’s of Bilha and Zilpa), ally with Pharaoh’s son to kill Joseph and steal Asenath.  When Leah’s sons hear, they fight their brothers and save the happy couple.  aseneth

The story of Joseph and Asenath would have appealed to the Second Temple Jews.  Here we have our hero, Joseph, living outside of the land of Israel in Egypt.  At the time, there were hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Egypt.  Joseph was respected by the Egyptians; he found a balance between his Judaism and modern culture.  The story is crafted within the literary Greek tradition with an unlikely romantic pairing, threats to the hero’s life and a fight between good and evil.

The question remains:  Why did the Orthodox Christian monks save these stories?  They didn’t really see them as Jewish writings but rather as Christian texts since there is no mention of the major external Jewish customs: Shabbat and holiday observance, circumcision, dietary laws or ritual purity.  The Christian monks underscored the ethical concern and universalistic messages without understanding that these are core Jewish values as well.

The Jewish authors of the texts surely cared about those themes.  They also focus on devotion to God and clinging to Jewish traditions.  In order to present Judaism as a sophisticated religion which could be combined with their modern reality, they emphasized ethical aspects rather than ritual ones.  Judaism, besides being a orthopractic religion is not devoid of ethics and philosophy and these Jewish authors 2000 years ago understood how to bring these Jewish ideas to the modern reader.

Water, Water Everywhere

Israel has entered winter. The nights are cold, dipping into the single digits centigrade (30’s and 40’s Fahrenheit) and sometimes during the day it rains. During these colder, damper months it is hard to remember that Israel is now in the middle of a drought. Water issues have been a limiting factor in settlement and a cause of conflict for years. Even in the Biblical text, Abraham has disputes over water. Genesis recounts a tense situation in Abraham’s life:

And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away….And Abraham put seven ewes of his flock by themselves. And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewes that you separated?” And he said, “Because of these seven ewes which you will take from me, and it will be a witness that I have dug this well.”

In World War I, Beer Sheva was a target for the British because of the well water there.

Today in Israel, wells are not sufficient to supply the population with water. Israel is forced to turn to other sources, including the development over the last 20 years of desalination.

The first desalination plant in Israel was constructed in the 1950’s for the city of Eilat. There is no fresh water source for this city and if Israel wanted to develop the town into an international port to the east, water was a necessity. The technology of this first plant was distillation, the oldest desalination technique. Distillation was even used in the 1700’s on ships to provide sailors with water. As the quote reminds us, “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

Distillation is costly, however, and by 1973 Eilat had switched to reverse osmosis, a process which forces salt water at high pressure through a series of filters to remove the salt. They located this plant not on the Red Sea but on above a brackish ground water reservoir. This water source was not as salty as the sea and halved the cost of desalinating Red Sea water.

Desalination remained isolated in Eilat until three consecutive years of drought (1998, 1999, 2000) forced Israel to look for solutions to a water crisis in the rest of the country. Desalination again came on the table. Technology had improved, and a new funding strategy of BOT ventures (build-operate-transfer) lured foreign corporations into the equation. A French company built the plant in Ashkelon, which came online in 2005, at a cost of $250 million with rights to collect revenue for 25 years. This plant was the largest reverse osmosis plant in the world at the time with the cheapest water cost at $0.52 per cubic meter.  The construction of the plant in Ashkelon and 3 other coastal plants  jettisoned Israel into the world scene as a leader in desalination.desalination ashkelon

There are environmental challenges in the production of water through desalination. Chemicals released through reverse osmosis and increased saltiness of the effluent released back to the ocean affect marine ecosystems. The biggest economic footprint, though, is from the energy used by the desalination plants themselves. If the energy used is dirty energy, then the carbon footprint from desalination increases. Currently, Israel relies on coal to power the coastal desalination plants. Brackish water desalination plants inland take their energy from the electric grid. Israel needs to develop new renewable energy sources to power her water crisis. Stay tuned for Israel’s emergence not only as a water-technology leader but a renewable-energy leader in the world scene.