How Evolution Became a Dirty Word in Israel

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Visitors to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem.
Visitors to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem.Credit: Michal Fattal
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The Museum of Human Sciences and Environment Museum in Petah Tikva is a lovely municipal institution that caters mainly to children in teaching ecology, the human body and health. At the moment it features interesting exhibitions on the human heart, air, water and nature. In no exhibit is there even a hint about the origin of mankind. Evolution is a dirty word.

The children who visit the museum, which is recognized by the Education Ministry, receive not an iota of information about where the human race comes from and how it developed. According to a sign hanging in the museum: “Man hasn’t changed for tens of thousands of years, but our lives have changed beyond recognition from the Stone Age and life in caves to the present era.” None of the dozens of visitors, most of them religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox Jews, lingered next to this sign or protested its message.

“The museum deals with the human body and our relationship to the environment,” said the museum’s director, Limor Barzilay. “We reflect the scientific aspect and nothing more. We deal less with the past and more with the future” – which would suggest that the origin of man isn’t a sufficiently scientific subject.

The next day I went to the Stalactite Cave near Beit Shemesh. About a year ago a scandal racked the site when a visitor claimed that a minor detail had been omitted from a sign: how many years ago the cave was formed. A sign giving the cave's age had been destroyed, and the guides didn’t mention the age – nor did the introductory film. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which is in charge of the cave, promised to look into the issue.

The group I did a tour with at the cave numbered about 30 people, including many children. About half the group looked secular and half religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox. “The cave was formed between 5 million and 20 million years ago,” began the guide Yael.

The Stalactite Cave near Beit Shemesh.Credit: Michal Fattal

For a moment you could hear the drops of water falling from the ceiling. A man sitting near her remarked: “But the world was created 5,000 years ago.” Yael looked at him for a moment and continued with an explanation about the composition of the rock and the long process of formation of the stalactites and stalagmites. Nobody protested. Nobody complained.

At the end of the explanation the participants turned onto the path that surrounds the cave. One of them, a woman who looked ultra-Orthodox, approached the guide and asked: “How do you know the age of the cave? Is it because the archaeologists said so?”

Yael explained to her patiently how the cave’s age can be determined scientifically. The visitor said politely, “We think differently.” The guide replied: “Everyone has his own time.” That was the end of the conversation, and the visitor looked satisfied.

Several incidents from the past year attracted my attention to these issues. The first took place at the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, where the museum covered an exhibit on evolution with a curtain so as not to offend ultra-Orthodox visitors. The second came after the opening of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv in early July for a trial period. In my critique for Haaretz I noted that there was no mention of the theory of evolution – something that seemed surprising at a university museum dedicated to nature.

The article stirred a raft of reactions; the museum administrators were angry that I hadn’t waited for the opening of a display called “What is Man?” in which the theory of evolution would be discussed. Prof. Tamar Dayan, a senior zoologist at Tel Aviv University and a founder of the museum, said this week that the exhibit would open in September.

A curtain covering part of the evolution exhibit in Jerusalem's Natural History Museum, 2018Credit: Michael Bechner

In the museum’s other wings it’s hard to find any reference to the subject. About a month ago I left the place with a feeling that an uncomfortable subject had been pushed under the rug. In self-respecting nature museums evolution isn’t absent, it’s exhibited in detail – whether it’s a display of birds, apes or humans. A nature museum without extensive coverage of the theory is a phenomenon unique to Israel.

The main question is whether in the Israel of 2018 an effort is being made to blur the Earth’s age or conceal biology’s most significant theory. How can one present the scientific truth to the average Israeli, who is curious and has a wide variety of beliefs? Is there anywhere in Israel where an exhibit claims unapologetically that man descends from apes? Is there any public explanation of Darwin’s theory?

If there is such an exhibition, I don’t know where it is. My searches came up with nothing. But no website or museum that I visited claimed that it was required to conceal, blur or distort the truth; instead, precautions were  taken simply to avoid flak.

A process of extremism

Dayan and another zoologist at Tel Aviv University, Shai Meiri, agree that evolution by natural selection is something completely fundamental in biology. “I can’t even imagine that anyone questions it,” Meiri says.

Chimps at the safari park in Ramat Gan.Credit: David Bachar

“I don’t think that there’s a uniform and all-encompassing opinion about the status of the theory of evolution in Israeli society. It’s entirely clear that not every religious or believing person in Israel objects to it automatically,” Meiri says.

“That’s not the case. It would be more correct to say that it’s a controversial subject, and because Israeli society is undergoing a process of extremism, on controversial subjects they turn almost automatically to extreme opinions,” he adds.

“My feeling is that there’s an atmosphere that the subject of evolution is more controversial than it actually is. The feeling is that if I open a museum tomorrow I’d better be careful. Everyone wants to cater to a broad common denominator, so maybe I shouldn’t say what I think – even if I’m certain that it’s right. Maybe someone will be offended and maybe I’ll lose an audience and won’t be forgiven.”

Meiri says the situation in Israel is worse than in the United States. In the United States there’s a constant debate between the scientists and the creationists. In Israel, many people assume in advance that evolution is a controversial subject, so they opt to avoid the conflict.

“Although evolution is included in the school curriculum, nobody has the courage to come out and say that it’s the central idea in biology and we have to devote more attention to it,” he says. “At present we’re on the way to places where we don’t want to be.”

Charles DarwinCredit: Reuters

According to Meiri, not all Israeli universities have a required course in evolution for a bachelor’s degree. Every year he has master’s students who are totally unfamiliar with the subject.

“It’s quite exasperating. I’m an Israeli and a biologist who deals with evolution. The feeling is that it’s not always a good idea to speak here about what you believe in – and that’s frustrating,” he says.

“If I have to be careful when I talk about the subject of my research, why do I do science? After all, we scientists believe that there is a truth and we try to discover it.”

For its part, the Education Ministry said that “the theory of evolution is taught in the high schools, in the context of the biology elective, for five study units. The subject is taught in the Introduction to Biology (Introduction to the Sciences in 10th grade), and in the elective subject Science and Technology for Everyone.”

Thus a small percentage of high school students receive any information about evolution; only 13 percent of those taking matriculation exams elect to study biology at the five-unit level, compared with 70 percent for English and 34 percent for math.

The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv, where there is no mention of the theory of evolution.Credit: Naama Riba

Yomiran Nissan is a doctoral student in zoology and the CEO of the group Little Big Science, which aims to make science accessible to the general public. About 115,000 people follow the organization’s Facebook page.

“It’s a hot field that the readers like. Website managers and cultural institutions in Israel don’t give enough credit to the people who visit them, I think,” Nissan says.

“In other places, such as the Natural History Museum in London, you can’t miss the preoccupation with evolution. Here the feeling is that everyone is extremely cautious, walking on eggshells. You don’t always have to pay attention to every detail in the visitors’ opinion or be afraid of an angry marginal reaction,” he adds.

“If I were them I’d paint the word evolution in the largest letters possible. It’s the scientific explanation, it’s the truth. There’s no reason to treat it in a roundabout way here.”

Nissan says the scientific literacy of Israeli high school students is “substandard” – he’s constantly encountering good students who don’t know what an atom, a molecule and DNA are.

Geological time and faith time

Dayan of Tel Aviv University prefers to discuss the way evolution is exhibited at the new Natural History Museum rather than its status in Israeli society. “The museum presents the subjects that are important to us to exhibit in biology, including evolution,” she says.

“We’ve tried from the beginning to focus on subjects where we have a relative advantage. We have no remnants of meteorites or dinosaurs, and it’s important to us to focus on subjects related to nature in Israel,” she adds.

“We have to find a balance among lots of messages, and not everything has added value for display. It’s a tremendous challenge – to take the science that we love so much and teach it to the general public. In the end, we chose our model, and in the month since the opening the audience seems to like the museum very much.”

Dayan adds that a museum exhibit isn’t a textbook; many subjects and details have to be omitted. To enable people to delve deeper, she and colleagues launched the website Gateway to Evolution.

Raaya Shurki is the community director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. She mentions two sites in Israel where the question of evolution comes up: the caves of prehistoric man in Nahal Hame’arot at the foot of Mount Carmel, and the Stalactite Cave near Beit Shemesh. One of the caves at Mount Carmel was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to “a cultural sequence of unparalleled duration, providing an archive of early human life in south-west Asia ... [and] cultural deposits representing at least 500,000 years of human evolution.”

Here there is no evasion of the age of the caves; Shurki says very few ultra-Orthodox people visit the site.

At the Stalactite Cave the situation is completely different. The site is visited by 200,000 people every year, and about 50,000 of them are ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim. The fact that Beit Shemesh is near Jerusalem is part of the explanation.

“The Stalactite Cave made us aware of the need to familiarize ourselves with the leisure habits of the Haredi community. Our policy is to present the scientific, geological and archaeological truth at all the sites,” Shurki says.

“At the same time, I’m careful. We discovered that there’s geological time and there’s the time line of religious believers. We want Haredi visitors, who are part of Israeli society, to come to nature sites, so we have to be sensitive. The nature authority doesn’t instruct us to be very cautious, but there’s a sensitivity that comes from the people in the field,” she adds.

“There’s a consensus that we’re not allowed to dismiss or distort scientific truth, but I’ve learned that the Haredim have a great appetite for taking trips that we’re not always aware of. They want to use our products, they want to visit nature reserves. They’re an audience that I respect, so we try to give them a good visiting experience.”

Yael, the guide in the cave, seemed far more worried about the fact that everyone, whether secular, religious-Zionist or Haredi, wanted to photograph the inside of the cave with a flash, which can damage the sensitive stalactites. When was the world created? She’s less concerned about that.

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