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How academic efforts to boycott Israel harm our students July 4, 2015

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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My  opinion piece in the Washington Post. July 2015.Washington Post op-ed picture

In March 2014, I and my co-teacher stood with 27 Vassar College students at the sparkling Auja Spring in the parched West Bank of the Palestinian territories. We listened attentively as environmental educators from the Auja Eco Center and a Palestinian graduate student from Al-Quds Universityexplained the Auja village’s dependency on this sole water source. Sadly, this learning experience almost didn’t happen. My colleague and I were nearly prevented from embarking on the trip by opposition from a surprising source: the faculty and students of our own academic institution.

I am a tenured geology professor at Vassar , an elite liberal-arts school . I research, teach and write about the complex and intimate connections between land and water resources and social justice. For the study trip I led to Israel and the Palestinian territories, I created a syllabus designed to explore difficult issues and engage diverse perspectives that was vetted by Vassar’s faculty and administration. I have successfully led numerous similar trips to locations such as the Appalachian Mountains and the Mojave Desert. My modest goals for such trips are to impart knowledge and share experiences with my students that can be realized only by traveling to the regions we are examining. In studying arid regions without seeing the situation with their own eyes, it is difficult for students from places where water is relatively abundant to think about solutions to the problems that occur when local residents must share a meager supply.

Several months before my trip, the American Studies Association voted to support an academic boycott of Israel, a position that several faculty members at my college also held. Apparently, my course and the study trip associated with it were subject to the boycott, and the trip became a flash point for theboycott, divestment and sanctions — BDS, for short — debate on campus. Protesters bearing anti-Israel signs stood chanting outside my classroom; students were pressured by their peers to drop the course. My integrity was attacked in a standing-room-only forum at Vassar’s campus center led by pro-BDS faculty members. The stress affected my health, and my faith in longtime colleagues and the college administration was shaken. If not for the support of my family and reluctance to yield to such tactics, I very well might have backed out of the trip. And I and my students would have missed out on an educational opportunity of a lifetime.

What are the implications for education when students are pressured to avoid unique and difficult educational opportunities? Is it responsible for educators to support an academic boycott — essentially, a boycott of ideas? Isn’t our mission to teach students to engage with ideas that are different from their own? Vassar’s mission statement asserts that the college “nurtures intellectual curiosity” and “respectful debate.” Is it consistent with this mission to restrict study trips to regions of the world where the political landscape is similar to our own (which many would argue has its own share of overlooked injustices)? We are in dangerous territory if our ability to even travel for study’s sake to a politically charged region can be blocked by political agendas.

This is not to say that protest does not have its place; of course students should protest and argue about positions with which they disagree. I would have liked for the students holding placards and chanting slogans outside my classroom to come inside and debate in full sentences with a fuller command of the issues at hand. Had they done so, I am sure we would have had some challenging and uncomfortable discussions. But we would have all grown from the exchange, and we would have come closer to fulfilling the mission of my college and educators everywhere. By fostering narrow perspectives, bullying stymies learning and is anti-intellectual.

I understand from national reports that what happened at Vassar is happening in some form or another at academic institutions across the country. Instead of working to engage debate and refute contentious ideas, students and faculty are shutting down avenues of inquiry and blocking the attempts of others to examine difficult issues. Though it came at great personal cost, I decided to stick to my educational principles, and I’m glad I did. By learning on the ground from Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians instead of just from texts, my students and I came to appreciate why water issues are central to the conflict in the region. We also learned lessons about principled stances and forms of protest that I never would have thought to put on my syllabus. This is something I would teach again — field trip included — in a heartbeat.

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Losing Ground: A Sad Earth Day Post April 22, 2015

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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This piece is also reprinted at Truthout.

As I’ve indicated here, here, here, here, and here, I’m not a big fan of Earth Day because I believe that every day should be Earth Day. But a recent article in Haaretz moves me to offer these thoughts on this inauspicious day.

Have you read the story in the April 19, 2015 issue of Haaretz “Geologists: Road along Dead Sea coast must be diverted toward nature reserve“? It’s worth paying attention to if we aspire to work towards what theologian and historian of religion Thomas Berry referred to as the Ecozoic Era, a period in which humans and the Earth interact in a “mutually enhancing manner.” That is, a period in which  all beings (human beings, non-human beings and the Earth itself) live together peacefully and in good health.

Or, we could disregard lessons such as those taught by the encroachment of sinkholes from the Dead Sea coast toward the Judean Hills and move towards what the renowned entomologist, E.O. Wilson, at first called the Eremozoic Era  and now speaks of as the Eremocene, the “Age of Loneliness.” “Eremocene”– the term moves me to feel bereft.

Though I wish I felt otherwise, I believe we are on a path to the future of which Wilson warns. Expansion of sinkholes along the Dead Sea coast and proposed solutions are emblematic of the wrong approach to living with the planet and each other. Israel, a tiny country the size of New Jersey, clings aggresisvely to land that ultimately must be shared with Palestinians. And the country, apparently, is trying mightily to avoid losing ground literally in the form of sinkholes along its western edge of the Dead Sea.

Sinkholes form sometimes where rock below the land surface is easily dissolved by groundwater. The dissolution causes cavities to form beneath the land surface. The cavities grow into caverns and become so big eventually that the land surface collapses into them.  In Israel, adjacent to the Dead Sea the sinkhole problem is severe. Why?

Ample freshwater flowing south from the headwaters of the Jordan River has been reduced substantially so that the Dead Sea receives only five percent of its historic water flow. As a result,  this once massive water body is evaporating at a rapid rate of nearly three feet per year.  But Israelis and Jordanians can only blame themselves. Excessive withdrawals for unwise agricultural practices in the watershed as well as political conflict with Syria at the confluence of the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers, (not by Palestinians in the West Bank whose access to water is severely limited by Israel’s Water Authority) together with diversion of water from the Dead Sea for resorts and the extraction of minerals from the briny sea to produce cosmetics and fertilizers has caused the surface of the sea to shrink by nearly 45% since the 1930s. Because the Dead Sea is drying up, decreasing levels of salt water allow fresh groundwater to well up and eat away at subsurface salt layers. Hence the sinkholes.

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Palestinians in Auja, West Bank, showing Vassar students the source of their town’s water supply.

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Israel Water Authority water well tapping into aquifer. Auja, West Bank.

Last month, a substantial portion of the major north-south roadway connecting Eilat to northern Israel, collapsed between the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi, an oasis with abundant waterfalls in the desert.

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Vassar students at Wadi Arugot, an oasis near Ein Gedi, March 2014.

The proposed solution? Build a road closer to the oasis to facilitate movement of residents and tourists in the area. Such action would displace bugs and birds, invertebrate species, not to mention the “charismatic megafauna”– ibex, hyrax, wild boars, desert cats, hyenas, jackals, and wolves–that drink from the fresh water pools in the oasis.

Why not attempt to curtail the water mismanagement? Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli Director at EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East says that restoring water flow to the Dead Sea to at least 30% of its historic amount would be a step in the right direction.

Though we may lose ground along the way, may we step off the road that leads to the Eremozoic Era and on to an awakened path that leads to the Ecozoic one.

Mary Anning: Google doodle celebrates the missing woman of geology May 22, 2014

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in feminism, gender, geology, history of science, science, women in science.
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Google doodle celebrates fossil collector and paleontologist’s 215th birthday as reported in The Independent.

And since Google is celebrating Anning, whom I’ve always associated with ammonites, an extinct group of marine invertebrate animals (phylum: mollusca; class: cephelopoda), I’ve posted below a photograph of two of my students from our March 2014 study trip in which we visited the famous “Ammonite Wall” in the Negev Desert.

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Pliny the Elder referred to these fossils as the “horns of Ammon” because their coiled shape was reminiscent of the ram’s horns worn by the Egyptian god Ammon. The photo below shows the remarkable exposure of a laterally extensive sedimentary layer chock full of ammonite fossils. That’s yours truly standing on the steeply dipping bedding plane.

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And note the the great piece in The Guardian about Anning and the other lost women of geology.

Vassar College Study Trip to the Jordan River Watershed and Surroundings March 4, 2014

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Uncategorized.
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            One generation comes and another generation goes but the Earth remains forever. So goes the Ecclesiastical statement that motivated me to wade metaphorically and literally into the sullied and diminishing waters of the Jordan.

            I’m about to embark on a two-week journey with 28 Vassar students to the Jordan River valley and its surroundings. I was motivated to propose and teach such a course because from my perspective as an earth scientist, I understand how daily and future access to clean water in ample supply is one of the key issues about which people in the region fight. It is also a problem on which Arabs, Jews, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis have worked together with integrity and compassion.

            And yet, as solid as I was in my commitment to this endeavor before my College’s “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” last night I was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel. Our trip will take us from the headwaters of the Jordan River near the border with Lebanon down to the shrinking Dead Sea and through the bone dry Arava valley. With assistance from Friends of the Earth Middle East and EWASH (Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene in the occupied Palestinian territory), along the way, we’ll meet with Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians to learn about their perspectives and efforts with regard to the basic human right of ready access to clean water.

            I hope to have the time and energy to use my blog to process and articulate through mind and heart what I learn on this journey.