Did you know that if you put a bucket in your backyard in Israel to capture rain water, the water belongs not to you but to the state?
That was one of the interesting tidbits I picked up at an L.A. Jewish Film Festival screening of “Who Are the Marcuses?” a documentary about a mysterious Jewish couple from San Diego who donated half a billion dollars to Israel, the largest single gift in the history of the state.
The film intermingles two stories—the donors and the cause. The donors are Lottie and Howard Marcus and the cause is water.
The first story is about two Holocaust refugees who invested their nest egg with Warren Buffett and eventually bequeathed half a billion dollars to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to study water management. That story, and the philosophy of giving that it represents, is compelling in its own right.
But the real power of the film is its deep dive into Israel’s existential relationship with water, and how Israel can impact the future of humanity through its mastery of life’s indispensable element.
As you watch the film, it’s hard not to juxtapose Israel’s water miracles with the loud calls to boycott and condemn the world’s only Jewish state. The absurdity of shunning, rather than embracing, a nation that can save the planet is never more in evidence.
The film delves into Israel’s long history as a leader in alleviating water scarcity, from Theodore Herzl’s early writings about “water for the people” to David Ben-Gurion’s enormous investment in water transportation to the research and innovations in desalination, water generation and purification that have transformed the country.
It’s impossible to overstate the depth of the relationship between Israel and water. Early pioneers who confronted the desert landscape understood that water would be a decisive factor in the success of the Zionist project. Having a strong army to defend the state was indispensable, but without plentiful water there would be no state to defend.
Water, then, entered the bloodstream of Zionism. It consumed everyone from farmers to politicians to scientists to philosophers. When philosopher Micah Goodman speaks in the film about the “two Zionisms,” he refers to both the “safe harbor for the Jews” and the “opportunity to contribute to the world.”
Water now exemplifies the second Zionism—sharing with the planet Israel’s extraordinary know-how about this universal life-giving force. As much as oil was the liquid of the past century, water has emerged as the dominant liquid of the new century.
Water touches every aspect of societies. The film shows, for example, how droughts in Syria triggered the mass migration of cotton farmers that led to millions of refugees. That humanitarian disaster could have been prevented with the benefit of Israel’s water management, especially its cutting-edge purification of sewer water for agriculture.
Purified sewer water now supplies about 80% of Israel’s agricultural needs, by far the most in the world. The next country is around 15%.
The heart of Israel’s water miracle is desalination, and for good reason. Indeed, there’s something almost mystical about living on dry land, looking at the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea and dreaming that one day you might drink from it. The film traces how, through the miracle of desalination technology, refined over decades, Israel has made that dream a reality, turning sea water into drinking water for eternity.
The bond between Israel and water is so deep that it can transcend the usual conflicts. In the film, a water expert waxes philosophical about sharing water with neighbors, even hostile ones. “Having thirsty neighbors is morally incorrect,” he says.
Because water and climate change are inextricably linked, it goes without saying that Israel’s mastery with water will have a huge impact on the environmental issue of our time.
According to the latest U.N. World Water Development Report, between two and three billion people worldwide experience water shortages. The report notes that “these shortages will worsen in the coming decades, especially in cities, if international cooperation in this area is not boosted.”
The world now has its ideal headquarters for this international cooperation: Israel.
It’s also fitting that this is the week we celebrate the festival of Shavuot, when we commemorate receiving the Torah at Sinai. As Rabbi Ismar Schorsch once wrote, “Torah to Jews is as vital as water to humans. They are both indispensable sources of life.”
May we continue to honor both.
Originally published by Jewish Journal.