Friday, June 30, 2017

Dogged defender of science and human rights

My wife asked me yesterday if I wanted to go with her to a talk that evening at the museum where she works.  I think she said the topic was the flora and fauna of the Holy Land.  I can’t say the topic captivated me, but it sounded like a cheap date for a Thursday evening.  The museum cafĂ© has good sandwiches and cold micro-brews on tap.  So I said sure.

Now I’m curious what her ulterior thinking was.  The speaker, I now know, was Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, Director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History.  The museum, located in Bethlehem in the West Bank, is a shoestring operation – Dr. Qumsiyeh himself draws no salary -- so he is touring the U.S. raising money and making connections to support his work.

Qumsiyeh was in town yesterday in his capacity as a scientist.  At other times, he acts as a human rights activist and overall thorn in the side of the Israeli government.  I suspect my wife simply wanted to show up in support of this guy.  His name had provoked a lot of calls from local Jewish groups wanting the museum to cancel his appearance.  He also attracted the attention of U.S. Homeland Security when he entered the country.  He might allow himself to complain about these things on his blog, but the bastards couldn’t stop him.

His talk, to be honest, was a little dry.  He was not an ace presenter: mike held too far from his mouth, PowerPoint slides a little too crowded.  But his lack of pizzazz worked, by way of contrast, to enable the power of science, facts, reason, to cut through the scrim of political posturing.  For example: Access to drinking water is a looming crisis in the Middle East.  Israelis consume several times as much water per capita as Palestinians – and West Bank settlers consume more than other Israelis.  Qumsiyeh underscored the point with a simple bar chart.  Second example: Some parcels of West Bank land were set aside for their environmental value, only later to be filled chock-a-block with ugly concrete settlement flats.  Qumsiyeh had the before-and-after photos.

Though I didn’t know what I had signed up for in advance, it was inspiring just to learn about Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, to be reminded that people like him exist in the world.  The theme of the evening was the struggle for environmental justice.  That includes the struggle of oppressed people, young and old, merely to learn about and appreciate the natural world.  To assert that a nature museum should exist at all in the West Bank, is to assert something about basic human worth.

The Q&A may have been better than the scripted talk; the audience had thoughtful questions.  One question linked the injustice of the Likud government to that of the American GOP, and the long-run futility of the Haves being punitive toward the Have Nots, instead of looking for win-win policies.  In the end, we’re all in the same boat and are fools to think otherwise.  Pollution does not recognize borders or factions.  Fortunately, nature still exists, life is tenacious, even in a landscape blighted by war and military occupation.  

The Israeli government refuses to build adequate sewage facilities in Gaza.  So the people there dump raw waste into open sewers.  The waste then flows to the sea, and the prevailing currents send it to Tel Aviv and Jaffa.  “They are swimming in the shit of Gaza.”  That was the rhetorical high point of the evening.