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A boat trip aimed at saving the Dead Sea also explores the marvels revealed by its evaporation

DEAD SEA, Israel (JTA) — As the owner of the second boat to sail the Dead Sea in the past 75 years, Noam Bedein knows its salty waters better than almost anyone. But lately, his excursions have led him to discover sites neither he nor anyone else has ever seen. 

A few days before World Water Day in late March, Bedein came upon a bubbling brook feeding into the sea, which he named the Jerusalem River. The stream, the animals surrounding it and the beach it flows through were submerged underwater as recently as the mid-2000s. Bedein and his partner, Ari Fruchter, believe they are the first people ever to set foot there. 

It’s an experience Bedein keeps having, and for him, it’s a paradoxical one: His mission is to save the Dead Sea. But as it dries up, it reveals new wonders to him. 

“Out of the devastation, life finds a way,” Bedein told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency during one of his boat’s first excursions.

Bedein is the latest activist to confront a problem that has bedeviled Israel — how to save this ecological marvel and tourist attraction that is being depleted by water scarcity, industry and climate change. Bedein’s approach with his and Fruchter’s nonprofit, the Dead Sea Revival Project, is to raise awareness about the disappearing Dead Sea by bringing people to see it for themselves.

Bedein’s immersive boat tours provide visitors “with an intimate encounter that fosters deep connection and understanding” about the Dead Sea, he told JTA. 

The odds of saving the Dead Sea are steep. Bordered by Israel and the West Bank on the west and Jordan on the east, it is the deepest point on earth, has almost 10 times as much salinity as the ocean and is renowned for its therapeutic mud. In 2019, according to records from the Israeli Tourism Ministry, it was the country’s third-most visited site, after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, drawing a million tourists per year, reported Israeli business publication The Marker.

The Dead Sea is also an economic engine for Israel — something that, ironically, is a threat to the sea’s continued existence. A market research report published last year found that the Dead Sea mud cosmetics market is slated to be worth $2.6 billion by 2031. The chemical factories producing the cosmetics, which extract potash and bromine from the area, are found in both Israel and Jordan, and pump some 61.3 billion gallons of seawater per year in total as of 2018, according to NBC.

That extraction, plus a reduction in the inflow of water from the Jordan River, has led the Dead Sea to dry up in recent decades. A 2022 Israeli government report said that since 1980, the sea has lost some 40% of its volume and is retreating by more than three feet per year. According to Bedein, the Dead Sea’s water loss amounts to as much as 600 Olympic pools every day. 

The southern basin of the Dead Sea, which is called Ein Bokek and is lined with hotels, has been disconnected from the northern part. Today, the “sea” at Ein Bokek is actually comprised of 12 foot-deep evaporation pools that are entirely artificial. According to Bedein, most tourists at the hotels are entirely unaware that they are not actually at the Dead Sea. 

“However you look at it, there isn’t a magic pill to fix this, and that’s the reason nothing’s been done so far,” Nadav Lensky, head of the Dead Sea Observatory at the Geological Survey of Israel, told JTA. “Every solution that is put forward comes with problems of its own.” 

The Dead Sea has lost 40% of its volume in recent decades. (Noam Bedein)

Hailing from the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, Bedein, 41, worked in Israel advocacy in the Gaza border town of Sderot before shifting his focus to the Dead Sea. He is an environmental photojournalist by training who has now trained his lens on this body of water, hoping to show people what it actually looks like — and the ecological damage that is caused — when a large saltwater lake disappears.

To do that, he convinced the Israeli government to allow him to sail a boat on the Dead Sea, a quest that involved more than a year of overcoming bureaucratic hurdles. It is only the second boat to take to the water since Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The boat, which holds up to 13 passengers, makes up to three trips a day, three times a week, but as of September, its operations will be expanded to five days a week. In total, Bedein says he has hosted between 400 and 500 people on private excursions. 

Bedein is acutely aware that the end goal of saving the Dead Sea is “way above my personal shoulders,” but, he said, that knowledge does not detract from his mission.

“The journey is fascinating and motivating for me,” he said. 

The boat’s two-hour journey is filled with wonders. On a recent outing, the blinding white salt formations look like glaciers or penitentes, and clash with the backdrop of the Judean Desert’s brutal reddish rock. Graduated terraces hewn out of the cliff look manmade, but each three foot-high step represents another summer in which the waters of the Dead Sea have evaporated. 

A salt cavern perched on a rock several meters above sea level elicits a gasp from Bedein. He has not been to the area in at least three years. Rifling through a wad of photographs, Bedein shows the passengers on the boat a photo of the same cavern from 2016, its mouth at sea level. He snaps a shot of the newly elevated cavern. The side-by-side images went on display as part of a timelapse photo exhibition marking this year’s Earth Day at the Cultural Center in Arad, a city 17 miles west of the Dead Sea.

“You can feel the density of the water lugging at the boat and the bitter, sticky spray on your face and lips,” said Naomi Verber, who was on board with her baby. “The salt rock formations are otherworldly, like seeing the transition between sea and land in suspended animation.”

(Bedein claimed that Verber’s child was “the first infant to sail the Dead Sea in at least 100 years.” Whether that is true is unclear. Orit Engelberg-Baram, an environmental historian who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Dead Sea, told JTA that a baby may well have sailed its waters during the evacuation of Kibbutz Beit HaArava, located in what is now the West Bank, during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.)

The receding waters of the Dead Sea have revealed new rock formations. (Noam Bedein)

Fruchter, meanwhile, is spearheading an effort to promote awareness about the ecological crisis of the Dead Sea  by raising money to build the Dead Sea Museum of Art on a five-and-a-half-acre parcel of land in Arad. The museum, which hopes to attract half a million tourists a year once it is constructed, will combine exhibits on climate tech innovation and multimedia art installations in a carbon neutral building to both educate people about the sea and, in a grim but possible future, memorialize it.

While the industrial activity surrounding the sea often gets blamed for its depletion, Bedein says it isn’t the main culprit. He estimates that the chemical plants contribute to 30% of the problem, while the other 70% is due to the reduction of the source of the water in the Jordan River. 

According to Lensky, 60 years ago, a billion cubic meters of water flowed from the Jordan River into the Dead Sea. Today, less than 10% of that amount reaches it, partly because of the construction of dams around the Yarmouk River — which flows between Israel, Jordan and Syria — and partly because Jordan, one of the driest countries in the world, cannot afford to both provide water to its population and regenerate the Dead Sea. Jordan, Syria and Israel all draw water from the Sea of Galilee basin that would otherwise be flowing into the Dead Sea. 

The chemical plants, Bedein said, also draw attention to the Dead Sea, which he sees as a positive.

“It’s not about how much water is being pumped out of the Dead Sea, it’s about how much water is coming in,” he said. “It’s very reductive to blame the factories. If you close down all the factories tomorrow, there goes the entire industry in Ein Bokek, and you will have reduced awareness even more.”

The key to saving the Dead Sea, researchers say, is to bring freshwater back into it, or what Bedein terms as “restoring its historical flow.” According to Lensky, bringing freshwater back into the Dead Sea is easier said than done. 

“We have no freshwater in the region and if we wanted to create some, it would come at a high price, environmentally and economically speaking,” he said.

Several projects – planned within the Israeli government and between countries – to mitigate the Dead Sea’s evaporation have been launched, including a proposed plan to construct a canal to replenish the Dead Sea with desalinated water from the Red Sea — called the Red-Dead Canal. That plan, like others, has attracted its fair share of controversy, in part because of the environmental risks it poses both to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea itself.

Bedein is not optimistic about those initiatives. The last meeting of the Knesset committee on saving the Dead Sea, which Bedein attended, took place in 2017. The five rounds of elections Israel has held since 2019, he said, haven’t helped. “The government changes every year or two, this isn’t a priority and there’s simply no one to speak to,” he said. 

In the meantime, Bedein will keep taking passengers out on his boat, and will keep marveling at the new features that come to light as the sea level dips lower.

 “We have the opportunity to explore uncovered landscapes for the first time,” he said. “It’s inspiring.”

The post A boat trip aimed at saving the Dead Sea also explores the marvels revealed by its evaporation appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Number of living Holocaust survivors is about 245,000, according to new analysis

(JTA) – Fewer than 250,000 Holocaust survivors remain alive today, according to an unprecedented new report by the organization that has sought to ensure that they are compensated for their suffering.

The oldest known survivor, according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, is New Yorker Rose Girone, who turned 112 last week. She and her family fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai, where they endured terrible conditions before making their way to the United States.

“My mother will be the first to tell you, we’re very lucky all around,” said her daughter Reha Bennicasa, who at 85 is just below the median age of survivors today (86).

The Claims Conference has long shared basic information about who is receiving the aid it negotiates annually with Germany and offered a similar number of estimated survivors last year. But the new demographic overview is the first to break down the population of Jewish survivors by country of birth and current country of residence; age; gender; and the percentages receiving various compensations and services.

It identifies survivors in more than 90 countries: 49% reside in Israel, 18% in North America, another 18% in Western Europe; and 12% in the former Soviet Union.

The youngest are on the cusp of 80 — the Holocaust ended in 1945 — and, in a reflection of geriatric gender disparities, 61% are women.

The organization says the statistics show that the work of helping survivors is far from over. “Now is the time to double down on our attention on this waning population,” said Gideon Taylor, president of the Claims Conference. “Now is when they need us the most.”

The organization was founded in 1951 and over the decades has negotiated various compensation programs with the German government for survivors around the world, mostly distributed through local service agencies. Last year, the Claims Conference negotiated $1.4 billion in compensation, a record high that the group said was needed to cover the higher costs incurred by an aging population. (The organization also funds Holocaust education efforts.) Survivors receive an array of support, from direct payments and pensions to home care, food, medicine, transportation and social programs.

The new demographic report is based in part on information about Jews served by such programs. The data were combined with published reports on the numbers of recipients of compensation administered by Israel, Germany and Austria.

Though some survivors may choose not to be identified, there are still occasional applications for compensation, the Claims Conference reported. Even with a few new cases added, the overall survivor population is dwindling — an expected trend that has worried schools and synagogues that have depended on survivors to teach about the Holocaust.

The newly released data are “an important contribution in our obligation to the living witnesses that deserve any support they need in their remaining years,” Jewish demography expert Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry said in a statement.

It’s important for people to look for the stories behind the numbers, said Bennicasa in a phone call from her home in Queens, New York.

“Given the declining survivor population and the rise in antisemitism, we need to encourage the world to learn about our collective history so that the Holocaust will never happen again,” she said.

Bennicasa was born in December 1938 in what was then the German city of Breslau (today Wroclaw, Poland). Her father, Julius Mannheim, was one of the 30,000 Jews imprisoned in concentrations camps in Germany at the time; like many of those arrested early in the Nazi campaign against the Jews, he was released from the Buchenwald camp on the condition that the family leave Germany.

After an arduous journey by ship, the family finally reached Shanghai, China — where some 20,000 Jews from Europe found refuge. The Japanese occupiers of Shanghai forced the Jewish refugees into ghettos, confiscating virtually everything they owned. For seven years, Bennicasa and her parents lived in a bathroom that was turned into a living space.

Still, she said, she and her mother feel lucky to have had the experience they did.

“Our experiences were not like people in camps, people that were branded in any fashion. Our experience was so different,” she said. “And for me as a child,  whatever circumstances you’re given as a child, you accept them. This is your life.”

It was in Shanghai that Rose Girone (née Raubvogel) started knitting to earn  a living. The skill served her well after the family left Shanghai for America in 1947. After a year, Rose divorced her husband. Some 10 years later, she married Jack Girone, and built up a knitting business in Queens, New York.

“Mother’s talents were quite well known, and whoever knit knew Rose’s Knitting Studio,” Bennicasa said. Her mother retired in 2002 and volunteered in a senior center teaching knitting until she fully retired at the age of 102, in 2014.

For the last two years, Rose has been living in a nursing home, where she is currently recovering from a brief illness. “She goes with the flow and rolls with the punches,” said Bennicasa, who tries to follow her mother’s advice: “Don’t ever get up without a purpose. You have to have a purpose every day.”

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Pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia claim to be hit by ‘chemical weapon’ as they call for intifada

(New York Jewish Week) – Pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University disrupted a “day of dialogue” meant to ease campus tensions over the Israel-Hamas war, and claimed that pro-Israel activists sprayed them with a chemical agent.

Friday’s protest came after Columbia confirmed to JTA that it was extending the suspension of two leading pro-Palestinian student groups, Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. The groups were suspended in November for violating university regulations at prior programs, and the university said they had not yet committed to abiding by school rules.

The demonstration was led by a pro-Palestinian coalition of more than 80 student groups that has formed in their absence called Columbia University Apartheid Divest. Despite the snow and cold temperatures, around 100 students gathered outside the school’s Low Library and chanted slogans including, “There is only one solution, intifada revolution.”

Protesters also railed against the “day of dialogue” held at Columbia’s Barnard College, which included scholars of Israel studies, Islamophobia, law and political science. The protesters demanded a boycott of the event, reported the Columbia Spectator, the student newspaper.

A small group of counter-protesters carrying Israeli and American flags gathered opposite the pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside the library. Video showed the pro-Israel demonstrators carrying orange balloons, a symbol of the Israeli hostages, holding up images of the captives, chanting “Bring them home,” and singing Israel’s national anthem.

After the protest, SJP claimed on X, formerly Twitter, that two Israeli “soldiers” had “sprayed a chemical weapon” on the demonstrators, and demanded action from the university. The group claimed that protesters were hit with “skunk spray,” a reference to a foul-smelling liquid Israeli police and soldiers have used to break up demonstrations by Palestinians, haredi Orthodox Jews and, last year, opponents of the government’s judicial overhaul.

But, as of press time, it’s unclear what the social media post was referring to. The student groups did not respond to a request for comment or elaborate on how they determined that soldiers had deployed a “chemical weapon.” The school said in a statement its Department of Public Safety was “investigating incidents reported in connection with Friday’s protest that are of great concern,” without mentioning a chemical agent.

The NYPD said a 24-year-old woman reported that an “unknown substance” had been sprayed into the air, causing her to feel nauseous. On Friday evening, police received five more reports about the incident. There were no arrests and the investigation is ongoing, police said.

The university said in a Monday night statement that information had surfaced about the incident the previous night, and that “alleged perpetrators identified to the University were immediately banned from campus.” The NYPD was taking the lead role in the investigation, the statement said.

Columbia staff told protesters that the university “welcomes the opportunity to engage with recognized student groups to support sanctioned and safe events.” But the university told the protesters that the rally was “an unsanctioned event held by an unrecognized student coalition” and a violation of the university’s policies and procedures, a Columbia spokesperson told the New York Jewish Week.

SJP, whose national umbrella celebrated Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, has been suspended at several schools, including Florida’s public universities, George Washington University and Brandeis University. It was suspended and reinstated at Rutgers University. Columbia’s suspension of JVP appeared to be the first time a university suspended the Jewish anti-Zionist group.

Columbia was a focal point for controversy in the weeks after Oct. 7, amid dueling protests for and against Israel and the reported assault of an Israeli student. It is one of several elite schools to draw scrutiny amid the Israel-Hamas war. The presidents of three other elite universities told lawmakers last month that calling for the genocide of Jews did not necessarily violate university policy, provoking a firestorm of controversy that led two of them to step down.

Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, was invited to appear before Congress at the same hearing, but declined, citing a scheduling conflict.

The protest on Friday aimed to keep the school’s focus on the war. It was part of an “action week” announced by Columbia University Apartheid Divest that began with the start of the spring semester last week. The activists demanded that Columbia divest from Israel, reform campus policing and commit to financial transparency. The students also announced a “tuition strike,” pledging to not pay the school until Columbia “concedes to our demands.”

According to a video of Friday’s protest taken by the Columbia Jewish Alumni Association, a newly formed advocacy group, around 100 student activists gathered outside the school’s Low Library and chanted, “Globalize the intifada,” and “Resistance is justified when people are colonized.”

Others carried signs that said, “Yemen Yemen make us proud, turn another ship around” — a reference to attacks on global shipping by the Houthis, a US-designated terrorist group that has claimed it is fighting Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

The Jewish alumni group charged that the new anti-Israel coalition was effectively a substitute for the suspended groups. The association said it had been hopeful the new semester would bring quiet to campus, but “that hope was quickly shattered with a week full of disruptive, antisemitic events on campus.”

The group demanded Columbia enforce its policies on protests, discipline students who violate campus policies, and condemn and ban “all antisemitic, genocidal words and actions.”

“The university is looking the other way and ignoring that the same kids are doing the same thing and they’re deciding not to enforce and it’s just disappointing,” Ari Shrage, a board member of the alumni association, told the New York Jewish Week. “Personally, I’m concerned that someone is going to get very hurt.”

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Following Auschwitz visit, Elon Musk says X could have saved Jews from the Holocaust

KRAKOW, Poland (JTA) — Elon Musk said that X, his social media platform, could have saved Jews from the Holocaust after visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp on Monday.

Musk made the comment during a conversation with Jewish right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro during a forum of senior politicians and Jewish leaders from 25 European countries hosted by the European Jewish Association in Krakow. Speakers focused on a dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents across the world since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel responded with on a bloody war on Hamas in Gaza.

The tech mogul has drawn criticism over several antisemitism controversies in recent months, including his endorsement of an antisemitic conspiracy theory, vicious spats with the Anti-Defamation League and a documented spike in antisemitic posts on X — formerly known as Twitter — since he took over the company.

But he was treated as a heroic figure at the EJA conference, in keeping with his reception among right-leaning Jewish audiences generally. To demonstrate how X might have mitigated the mass murder of Jews, EJA Chairman Rabbi Menachem Margolin played a video that scrolled through an imagined X feed during World War II.

Set to dramatic music, the posts included messages such as, “The Nazis told the Jews to get inside the synagogue – entire families, infants in their mothers’ arms, right? They’ve closed the doors and windows with metal bars and then SET IT ON FIRE! OH. MY. GOD. The world must know!”

Another post suggested that social media could have improved upon Jewish resistance efforts. “It’s time to fight back,” it said. “Join the Jewish Fighting Organization, under my command, and attack Nazis in Warsaw Ghetto!”

When the video concluded, Margolin said about the platform, “It could have saved millions of lives.”

Musk endorsed this alternate historical universe. “If there had been social media, it would have been impossible to hide,” he said about the Nazis’ campaign against the Jews. “If there had been freedom of speech, as well. One of the first things the Nazis did when they came in is they shut down all the press and any means of conveying information.”

Historians have also pointed out that the Nazis were masters of using existing media to press their case against the Jews, suggesting that in this alternate universe, the Nazis might have weaponized social media as well — as countries today have been accused of doing in their internal and external conflicts.

As a token of appreciation, Margolin, who is affiliated with the Chabad Hasidic movement, also presented Musk with an art piece made from a Hamas rocket that fell on a kindergarten in Kibbutz Beeri, where about 100 residents — a quarter of the population — were killed on Oct. 7. 

“Never again” was carved on the rocket, along with a plaque reading, “Presented to Mr. Elon Musk in January 2024 in recognition and appreciation of your fight against antisemitism and to mark your visit to Auschwitz.”

When asked about critiques that X is permissive when it comes to antisemitic content, Musk argued that the platform’s “community notes” feature, in which users can attach context to others’ posts, counteracts hate speech.

“If somebody tries to push a falsehood, like Holocaust denial or something like that, they can immediately be corrected,” he said. 

Despite the increase in antisemitic content under his watch, Musk said he was nearly unexposed to antisemitism in his personal life because of his personal Jewish circles.

“Two thirds of my friends are Jewish,” he said. “I have twice as many Jewish friends as non-Jewish friends. I’m like Jewish by association — I’m aspirationally Jewish.”

Margolin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he did not know enough about social media to weigh in on specific policies at X but said he believes Musk’s visit to Auschwitz will help him combat antisemitism online. 

“I believe that he is absolutely against any expression of antisemitism and that the visit today helped him to understand it even better,” he said. “So I can only anticipate that we will see much less antisemitism on social media.”

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