By Simon Isham–
Noah Efron, an American transplant to Israel, gave two lectures on Thursday, Oct. 18 in Chao Auditorium in the basement of Ekstrom Library. Efron is a professor of Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University who has served as on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council. He is on the Committee on Genetically Modified Organisms at the Ministry of Agriculture and a senior fellow of the political think tank Shaharit. He also blogs for the Huffington Post.
His lecture entitled “Nature: They Ain’t Making It Like They Used To” was given at 1 p.m. He was introduced by philosophy professor Avery Kolers, who had invited Efron to speak on behalf of the Jewish Studies Committee.
Efron opened his first lecture of the day with an anecdote about the life of controversial clergyman Carlton Pearson. Pearson’s life famously fell apart in the early 2000s when he began to preach that Hell was not created by God, but was instead manifested on Earth and fueled by human depravity. Efron used the unpopularity of this view to exemplify the hypothesis that conceptions of nature can act as keystones to both organizations and to human lives, and that changing these ideas can cause collapse.
He then explained how he believes that notions of nature have differed over time. The ancient Greeks, he said, considered anything natural to have been “primordial stuff,” whereas all artifacts were unnatural. Newton added another dimension to the thought with his “Principia” which defined and explained further the natural world. The Founding Fathers contributed their famous phrasing of the Declaration of Independence to the American understanding of nature: that certain truths may be self-evident beyond the realm of pure science.
But recent advances in science, such as the advent of synthetic biology, have allowed people to sculpt and coax life to how they would like it to behave. From bacteria that produce antibodies to mood and performance altering drugs, people have “accepted the artificial as natural, but refuse to see it,” said Efron.
The distinction between acceptable use and unacceptable use of artificial compounds is blurrier than it seems, Efron argued. He used the example of Lance Armstrong, who was recently discovered to have been at the heart of an anabolic steroid trading ring, but who, without the aid of artificial chemicals, would have died years ago from testicular cancer.
What this blurriness has led to, Efron said, is a casual acceptance of synthetic solutions to natural problems. During his term on Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council, this was a problem that frustrated Efron. On one occasion, the mayor wanted to replace the city’s trees “with woven plastic overhangs that provide equal shade, yet never need to be pruned, thereby saving money.” Efron found himself unequipped with the language he needed “to explain that something not made by humans is a crucial addition to a cityscape,” other than resorting to emotive statements such as “The people like trees, and you want the people to vote for you.”
“I find little comfort in realizing that I am confused,” concluded Efron. “I am thrilled to see go the notion that it is natural and good for women and men to marry, but that it is unnatural and bad for women and women or men and men to marry. So I do find some comfort in the notion that bringing nature under human control may be liberatory. The notion that nature is fixed is dangerous, as all of us know. But I can’t help wondering if the notion that nature is infinitely pliable—so pliable in fact that it basically doesn’t exist—I can’t help wondering if that idea isn’t dangerous, too, and that the pendulum has maybe swung enough so that I cannot wonder if this isn’t, right now, the greater of the dangers that we face … We are all, in this way, fugitives in our own realm.”
Efron gave a second lecture, called “Occupy Israel? Notes From a Year of Social Protest” at 7 p.m., again in Chao Auditorium, and again introduced by Kolers.
Efron opened this lecture with another anecdote, this time about giving a speech in front of the Tel Aviv Council whilst being simultaneously admonished by the Mayor and the Council Chairwoman Yael Dayan. He juxtaposed this experience with being a young soldier in the Israeli army, wondering what he’d gotten himself into. Both of these stories, he said, formed the cornerstones of his life in Israel.
He said that he came to Israel as an idealistic young college graduate because he wanted to be different, and “not just another American Jew destined to be a professor of something, somewhere. Israel was a place I wouldn’t mind being molded by.” It was also a place he would help to mold himself.
“There was beauty in the ideals of the early decades of Israelis,” said Efron, “but there was also much cruelty.” Efron described how settlers were shipped to far-flung development towns, Holocaust survivors were ashamed of the numbers tattooed on their arms, and kibbutz children were kept from sleeping beside their parents at night … In the first decades of statehood, Israelis embraced their ideals with hardened hearts, but I have seen these hearts grow more yielding.”
One bit of evidence of these changes is the Tent City Movement, which was started by 25-year-old video editor Daphne Leef who set up camp in the city center. Leef posted on her Facebook page that she was tired of getting a salary that didn’t line up with her rent, and that she was moving to the streets. She was soon joined by a number of others, with a variety of social qualms.
One in four Israelis is below the poverty line, hospitals struggle to provide for patients even under a nationalized healthcare system, and even public education costs money that many Israelis don’t have, says Efron.
“(A)ll the while, by conventional measure, Israel’s economy has thrived. Though the country is tiny, it now maintains the 24th largest economy in the world. More Israeli companies trade on Wall Street than any other country in the world save one. The number of Israeli millionaires has grown briskly; the rich have gotten richer and more numerous, and the poor have gotten poorer and far, far more numerous.
“One result of all of this is that the average newly-built apartment is huge and expensive. Apartments are built for people who can afford them, and as the market is reorienting itself towards the wealthy, there are fewer and fewer apartments for anyone else, including solidly middle-class video editors like Daphne Leef,” Efron explained.
Efron said that he hopes that the most lasting effect of this movement for social justice, which has uniquely affected everyone who lives in Israel, will be that politics will become less focused on “us versus them” and more universally inclusive. He believes that the Tent City Movement has already been instrumental in facilitating conversations between different demographic sectors and uniting them to improve the country.
Efron attended a protest rally with his friends and family in late October of last year. “As we spilled into the square, pressed shoulder to shoulder, into the largest crowd I had ever seen in my life … I felt dizzy and giddy and relieved. Relieved because seeing the goodwill and the good and the will of the nearly half-million people around me, it was possible to think that all I’d hoped, all I’d imagined, all I’d set out to build or to be—maybe all of this was possible after all,” Efron concluded. “Maybe in this embattled place, my kids would find a better future than our own present. Maybe in this people, there were good signs of the moral sense, the moral maturity, the moral responsibility, the moral vision, the love and the decency to bring our problems, huge as they are, to the ground.”
Ashley Burkhead, a junior political science major, attended both of Efron’s lectures.
“When he was talking about the Occupy Israel movement, he was talking about people who essentially live in tent cities,” Burkhead said, “and they would just sit under the stars at night and talk. I did relate to that. I would like to see everyone in our community be able to talk that way.”
Several students from across the university’s departments, including Burkhead, volunteered to publicize events for ‘Shavua Tov! Jewish Cultural Diversity Week 2012’, of which Efron’s talks were a part.
After the lectures, Kolers, the event organizer, commented to the Cardinal: “(T)he audiences were great both in size and in participation. One of the abiding difficulties at U of L is getting students out to events, getting people interested in things that are neither sports-related nor required for a class. But when students come to such events they tend to love them and to have their minds expanded. And I thought Noah’s lectures in particular were of the caliber and nature to do this.”
Photos: Kassie Roberts/Ryan Considine/The Louisville Cardinal