On Botched rescues

•August 26, 2013 • 1 Comment

On Botched Rescues
at the St. Louis fireman’s memorial

Downtown, a nameless fireman in bronze rises
out of a marble plinth, a child clutched in his clobbered, burnished paws
just like an airline seat cushion braced for flotation.
Her cotton nightie and her flaxen tresses unsinged
but as black as fresh-bought charcoal under
the canopy of her apish savior’s rubber hat
hitched brow-low to empediment a stoic, dust-bowl face
that stares ahead in mulish flabbergast.

Of course, he doesn’t know yet
she is dead, already gone to embers in the conflagration
we don’t see, because that is not what is remembered,
storied night of witnessed uniform manifesting from smoke
leaden with something precious, carrying some tiny angel
from a certain death into one of a lesser certainty—
all anyone remembers are the rescues, threshold, the rare
coming out alive that gilts and smothers all the failures.

And on occasion, even those rescues were a half-truth.
And it is like that with most things,
the stories we retell that weren’t ours to begin with,
gifts thrown out, the promised time we finally set aside
when it’s too late, the love we try to drag out of the burning houses
that we are to one another, just like this fire fighter
carrying his hollow, heat-forged shell of girl
out of the monument we’ve made for him,
making a space to lay down
in the marbled mausoleum of our memory.



8/2013, Saint Louis


Where have I been?

•February 4, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Astute readers will notice that this blog has been logjammed in limbo for exactly two years. Well, I’m back. Back to work, back to the US, back to Thused. Back in 2011, I began another blog named ‘Jon in Haiti’ to chronicle my activities as an agricultural development worker in post-earthquake Haiti. Though that blog picked up some decent posts, it fell by the wayside as the emotional burden of working in Haiti made reflection and recollection too exhausting. I did write some poems (which I will eventually post to the sister poetics blog), but all blogging/journaling/reporting was halted. For the curious, I am reposting an entry from my Haiti blog below.

Now, things have changed. I not only left Haiti, but also left Israel. Who knows when I will return. I took a job working on algae-based wastewater treatment with a biotech startup, and the general outlines of my life have blurred and shifted somewhat. You may notice some changes in my topics of choice. I hope you remain interested. I look forward to updating the site with improved regularity. Now, without further ado,

Spaghetti For Breakfast
(reposted from joninhaiti.wordpress.com March 3rd, 2011)

If you were a Haitian farmer, you’d be smelling the air for rain. You’d be counting up your cash, watching the price of seeds crest to its yearly peak. Maybe you’d be checking the few buckets of beans you have leftover from the meager December harvest, tossing out the rotten losses and pulverizing the fat little grain borers you find crawling through your stores, preparing for the planting. Probably you’d sit down and sharpen the blade of your hoe, imagining its broad face slicing through the wet muck under the measured force of your own arms. Now, as all year round, you wait for rain to grow your food.

Haitians farm as they have farmed, more or less, for the last three hundred years. Not much has changed. Some farmers have access to modern inputs such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, but these are largely misused (sometimes dangerously) for lack of training. Tractors are available sparsely, mainly for hire, at high prices and steered by often unscrupulous operators. With no access to credit or modern seed and crop storage systems, risk-averse farmers follow the tide of the market like flotsam, and find themselves smashed thin between the rocks of supply and demand. The formula is to buy the seeds that others buy, when others buy, plant what others plant, when others plant, to harvest when others harvest and to sell when others sell. As the rains of the wet season vanish through thinning soils, the markets flood with cheap manioc and maize. Buy high and sell low. This is not a formula to farm by.

Yields are not really the problem, at least not directly. Haitians, for the most part, have enough to eat, mainly because their first concern is to grow enough to get their families through the year. Moreover, cheap food is available aplenty; foreign food. This, of course, is the rub. When you are a small country with an anachronistic economy, you cannot compete with foreign farmers. While the developed world enjoys the spoils of such wonders as mechanization, agronomic research, economies of scale, public water projects, farm subsidies and agribusiness, you are left to fend for yourself, heir to centuries of now-irrelevant farming tradition. You are, in effect, a blacksmith’s stand inside a hardware store.

So, you eat spaghetti for breakfast. American spaghetti. Middle-class farmers in Iowa can outcompete you on your own land. Bill Clinton offers his apology. The Dominican Republic imports 1 million eggs per day into Haiti (that’s almost one egg per person per week), despite the fact that nearly every Haitian wakes up to the sound of squabbling hens. When there is no cheap chicken feed, the hens don’t eat. When they don’t eat, they don’t lay eggs. In the DR, massive commercial coops produce cheap eggs by the ton. Haiti simply cannot compete, and thanks to NAFTA, there is no recourse.

What’s the solution? Cuban-style revolution? Isolationism? Pass the throne back to Baby Doc? Easier. Learn to play the game. Modernize. Develop water catchments that store water year-round. Invest in drip irrigation. Grow three crops a year instead of one. Grow cash crops to boost revenue. Purchase pest-resistant varieties bred by first-world agronomists. Learn to stabilize and enrich your soil. Reforest. Organize. Learn to make compost and seed storage systems. Build cool storage facilities and learn to prevent post-harvest losses. Diversify. Develop credit systems. Invest wisely. Export. In short, get with the program. This is not easy. You have to take risks.

This model demands a solid foundation: massive capital investment, training and professional experience. On a large scale, it requires a functional government. These are all things that are hard to come by in Haiti. Nevertheless, the international community has committed to Haiti, at least for now. Let’s put the money in the right place.

This is what Tevel B’Tzedek/IsraAID has begun working on, with the help of the Arava R&D. This is the project which I have been given the privilege to implement. We will try to build carefully, step by step. For now, it’s a small project, but it’s part of the greater Haitian projectMy hope is that we (and Haiti) will get the help that we need.

Act Global: Sustainable engineering and the developing world

•February 4, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Today’s Haaretz newspaper (English edition) carried my Op-Ed on the need for more engineers, scientists and students to work on the problems of the developing world. You can read an online version of the article HERE. Due to stringent length restrictions, the article was heavily edited, and therefore I am posting an earlier (and somewhat longer) version of the article:

When travelling in my diplomatic capacity (that is, as an Israeli tourist), I am often posed the same question again and again; how did Israel develop such a strong economy so quickly? Though I am not an economist, I stand behind my perennial response: intellectual capital. Lacking both natural resources and a powerful manufacturing sector, Israel’s economy is fueled primarily by ingenuity, whether in biomedical, electronic, agricultural or other technologies. While the country’s gains in these fields are impressive, we certainly had a running start. Our fledgling state has benefitted from the beginning from massive imports of educated and talented professionals from around the world. Jewish scientists and engineers arrived in Israel fully trained, providing huge intellectual returns without the investment of years of academic and on-the-job training. Unfortunately, we cannot continue to rely on an endless influx of cheap intellectual capital. In a world where Chinese and Indian engineers make stiff competition for Silicon Valley, Israel must stay at the forefront of engineering education to keep its economy growing. Strangely, teaching our young engineers to work in places like China, India and Africa may be precisely the solution.

The world, like Israel, has made progress. Brazil and China are sudden superpowers, development indices have spiked across continents, and yet two-thirds of the world’s population lacks access to clean water. The developing world is indeed developing, both as a competitor and as a market, but due to widening gaps between the rich and poor, the majority of its citizens are not reaping the rewards. For their part, Israeli companies are building water, agricultural and other infrastructural projects in many of the world’s least developed nations, but the vast majority simply copy Israeli designs and paste them into foreign contexts. Is an expensive, Israeli-style automated dairy the best way to provide food security for rural Angolans, when labor is cheap and jobs are scarce? Our firms are paid by governments, development banks and aid programs, but their nearsighted approach does not provide a long-term solution. They perform little or no knowledge sharing, meaning that local professionals are not trained to maintain, repair, upgrade, expand or adjust these systems after the Israelis go home. They provide large-scale, centralized, high-tech solutions where smaller, networked, low-tech solutions would allow for more flexibility and easier repair, and they completely ignore potential consumers in areas where only small-scale solutions are feasible. The old copy-paste mentality is simply not sustainable, and what is unsustainable is quickly becoming uncompetitive. Worldwide, sustainability is becoming a prerequisite of multinational, national and private projects. International development policies such as the UN’s Agenda 21 are defining and legislating sustainability as a pragmatic methodology, and modern consumers (public and private) are learning to demand a sustainable approach. The rules of the game are changing, and Israeli engineers must learn to keep up.

In the US, small but motivated groups of engineers and students are already learning sustainable engineering principles while working to improve the lives of the world’s destitute poor. Chapters of “Engineers Without Borders” (EWB) have sprouted at major universities and Fortune 500 companies, as more and more institutions realize the benefits that EWB provides to students and engineers alike. Even NASA has a chapter. Experience has shown that professionals snap at the opportunity to spend a few hours per week designing technologies for underdeveloped communities; the work provides a unique challenge while satisfying the moral imperative to do good for those with less. While a new processor will become obsolete in a year, providing clean water to a community is an accomplishment with no expiration. Corporate chapters have undertaken dozens of projects, including building solar energy systems for Haitian schools coupled with training for local technicians, and digging wells in Cameroon while providing sanitation education and establishing local water committees for long-term maintenance of water resources. By providing an opportunity to focus employees’ skills toward a higher calling, EWB chapters ultimately make for less burnout and happier workers, and make excellent tools for attracting talent. Moreover, by working within developing countries, EWB members learn to understand the developing markets of tomorrow. To illustrate this point, consider the non-profit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which designed the world’s first $100 laptop for school children. OLPC is providing an invaluable educational opportunity today, but it is also opening up whole new markets for previously “first-world” technologies (computers and internet access) in the future.

EWB chapters provide even greater advantages for university students. Working in developing countries demands the sort of cooperative, creative problem-solving and resourcefulness that standard lecture-based pedagogy struggles to teach. Copy-paste solutions are simply not an option. Volunteering with EWB, students get much-needed hands-on experience, develop their social consciousness, and network with professionals from around the world. In this context, sustainability is studied not as a concept but as a design tool, a modus operandi. As a bonus, chapters are self-funding and provide massive publicity and fundraising opportunities. Here in Israel, chapters have opened at Midreshet Sde Boker and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, where Prof. Mark Talesnick insists that “there is no better way to learn engineering” than to work on the problems of the developing world. The Technion chapter has worked extensively in Nepal, supporting a technology that produces cooking gas from cattle dung, so that rural communities do not need to chop down forests to meet their energy needs. The system also reduces the health problems associated with life-long smoke inhalation. Now the chapter has moved on to technologies that purify drinking water without chemicals and utilize the excess electricity that is wasted in small-scale hydroelectric systems. The toolkit for sustainable global engineering is expanding every day, and includes Israeli innovations such as drip irrigation, fish farming techniques, new solar energy and desalinization systems. Of course, a sustainable approach is required to integrate these technologies into communities alongside social tools such as microfinance, education, professional training, local leadership, community empowerment and the like. This is where the next generation of Israeli engineers can rise above the competition, and some institutions are heeding the call. Deep in the desert, students of the Arava Institute’s graduate program are already hard at work developing a sustainable framework for new agricultural, energy and water technologies. In Haifa, Prof. Talesnick wants the Technion to become a national center for “global engineering education,” where EWB can move out of the extracurricular margin and into the classroom.

What’s missing is professional and administration support. The faculties at Israel’s large universities need to recognize the potential of this type of learning, and to build more courses around these concepts. Professors should have the option of mentoring these projects as part of their teaching responsibilities, and students should be able to earn credit for participating. At the same time, Israel’s leading engineering and technology firms should help employees build corporate chapters to spearhead sustainable, moral, life-changing projects in developing countries. Together, students and professionals can build the skills that will keep Israeli engineering at the forefront of new global markets and sustainability practices. If only a fraction of Israel’s high-tech brainpower can be invested in the developing world using sustainable designs, then young Israeli tourists will never again have to account for their country’s accelerated success. The world will have seen for itself.

Haiti on the Horizon

•January 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment

One week to takeoff.

Let’s recap. Turned in my thesis, sent out some job apps, last minute reports for Engineers Without Borders, edits on an op-ed, edits on a publication, edits on other people’s publications, callback from Tevel B’Tzedek. I’m going to Haiti. Next week.

I will be spearheading a new project for Tevel B’Tzedek (TBT), an Israeli NGO, in Leogane, Haiti. The idea is to address serious gaps in drinking water quality and sanitation, in an attempt to prevent the further spread of cholera and other gastrointestinal diseases in a series of semi-rural and rural villages about 12 mi outside of Port-Au-Prince. I will also be lending a hand on a couple of other TBT projects in the fields of agronomy, community empowerment and entrepreneurship. This blog will document my efforts and experiences.

While googling for first-hand accounts from aid or development workers in Haiti, I’ve only found a few blogs, mainly by missionaries writing avuncular diaries full of hand-holding and theophany. My goal is to provide something a little different. I would like to focus on my project and its progress, to introduce some concepts of sustainable development  and its pursuit, and to document my acculturation. My hope is that this blog will also serve as a forum for sharing information and ideas with others in (or out) of my field. Let’s see how I fare as a non-native species in the ecology of post-earthquake Haiti..

But first I have to get there, which means I have to move out of my apartment. Anyone want a cupboard’s worth of half-used spices?


(P.S. If anyone does know of a good blogger who shares some of my interests, let me know and I will link to them!)

Disagreement is not censorship

•October 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment

This post is my response to Kevin Coval’s Huffington Post article on being “censored” by J Street.


Dear Kevin,

I love and respect you and your work, but I think on this issue you may have missed the mark. Overall, you and I share relatively similar political goals, but I think that this sort of rhetoric does more harm than good.

First off, censorship is clearly inexcusable (including the events you mention in your ‘burning books’ poem). Political black-listing is worse. But the loss of distinction between violence, political threat, and legitimate disagreement is arguably just as dangerous. You were not arrested or prosecuted for your views, nor were you silenced or otherwise disenfranchised. You were simply disinvited from speaking at an event whose hosts disagreed with your rhetoric. Moreover, no attack was made on your freedom of speech or access to public discourse. If someone at J Street had misguidedly invited Glenn Beck to speak, and then realized that he rages far to the right of their political comfort zone, no one would cry McCarthyism or censorship at his removal from the program. What you are doing here is co-opting the historical oppression of censored, jailed and ruined leftist artists and intellectuals in an internal argument about the relative political slant of modern reform Jewish movements. You want movement to move to the left. The movement has other plans. This kind of “fight me and you fight justice” equivalence argument is a slippery slope. An intellectual should recognize his position on a spectrum of thought. The legitimacy of disagreement is a cornerstone of our democracy, even if that disagreement comes from conservatives. It was, after all, the “leftist” communist party in China and the Soviet Union that forced its citizens to sit through endless speeches, rallies and “cultural programs.” They insisted on installing their own values into every shred of political and artistic discourse. In our modern democracy, nobody has to listen to us if they don’t want to.

In terms of the poetry, I’ve seen Josh’s poem, and frankly I don’t get much out of it. With statements like “Ann Frank is Matthew Shepherd” and “Guantanamo is Auschwitz”, he is apparently trying to put modern events in a historical context that endows him (and all of us) with an agency for creating change. Unfortunately, his unsupported equivalences paint each historical injustice with such a coarse brush that it is impossible to get any real clarity out of his poem. Was Matthew Shepherd the victim of his own government’s massive industrial genocide campaign? Are we trying to wipe out all Muslims from this planet by gassing them at Guantanamo? Instead of complicating the discourse by examining the truth up close, he is oversimplifying the past. Instead of holding up the events of the day and turning them in the light like a jeweler inspecting all facets of a stone, he is smashing them with the hammer of equivalence; “Look, its all just carbon anyway.” If I were head of an organization dedicated to educating and empowering American jewery, I would steer clear of such cheap similes myself.

With love, Jon

Volunteers Needed

•September 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Just published an Op-Ed in today’s Haaretz in English newspaper on the difficulty of convincing young Israelis to volunteer their time. Peep it HERE.

Why We Are Overreacting

•August 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment

In the eleventh hour of the recent Swedish media scandal, in which suspicions (not allegations) of IDF trafficking in Palestinian organs were published by the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, a good friend of mine emailed from her home in Stockholm to see what I thought of the whole mess. Her perspective—which boiled down to why are the Israelis overreacting?—was predictable, though one remark stuck out to me in particular: “I believe any army being [sic] capable of pretty much anything. Nothing surprises me.”

This single statement, through misunderstanding, fans the flames of many IDF-related feuds between Israeli Jews and the global “liberal establishment.” It is no secret that Israeli media is often more critical of the IDF and Israeli government than foreign outlets, so why do cases like the Swedish body-snatchers story devolve into full-scale international incidents? In this most recent case, Israelis were not angered by the grotesque conspiracy-theory of a bereaved Palestinian family. The prevailing outrage was that anyone, especially a modern European readership, would believe such monstrous garbage. Who would print such things? The motivation must be racial prejudice and political slander. Or, perhaps, it was simple gullibility?

The answer, probably, was a little of all three. Still, why are we so surprised? In the shadow of Abu Ghraib and Guantanimo, the global perception of powerful militaries is decidedly negative. In places where citizens enjoy little or no contact with the armed forces, soldiers are often intuitively perceived as killing machines, automatons capable of any atrocity. Why do we Israelis take it so personally when our soldiers are treated with the same generalized suspicion?

The answer, and the fact which foreign liberals must come to realize, is that we cannot separate our nation from its army. While some countries have professional armies in which soldiers are self-selecting, the Israeli military drafts everyone. In Israel, ‘soldier’ is not an identity, it is a life-stage, like high-school. Our soldiers are our friends, our brothers, our parents and ourselves. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Americans were furious that their leaders could have encouraged such barbarism, but they did not feel personally implicated. Here in Israel, where the military remains a vestigial bastion of collectivism, we can not make the mental leap which turns the army into an impersonal tool of the government. If an Israeli soldier commits a war crime, it is our own son who has strayed from the path of righteousness. For many Israelis, the IDF is understood as a sort of a moral lens which reflects the society at large.

This unique sensitivity creates enormous tension abroad. Our hair-trigger accusations of anti-Semitism, and the double-standard by which only Israelis are allowed to question the IDF’s moral compass, project self-righteousness and promote the misperception that Israelis give carte blanche to an army that is answerable to no one. As citizens and soldiers ourselves, we support the business of holding our military to the highest moral standard, we just don’t want anybody else sticking their nose in it.

In the case of the Aftonbladet article, the editor should have vetted the story before it was published, and moreover, should have considered its effect on anti-Semitic activities within Sweden. A healthy dose of critical thinking would have helped, since the organ-stealing angle was clearly influenced by old-school Semitiphobic propaganda, but I believe that this was more a case of bad journalism coupled with bad damage-control than any sweeping indicator of Swedish bigotry. Foreign media outlets should have very convincing evidence before printing rumors of IDF malfeasance, since Israelis take these stories very seriously. Still, not every charge deserves a counter-strike. Maybe its time we learned to take the accusations, both reasonable and ridiculous, a little less personally.