Visitors to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. Michal Fattal

How Evolution Became a Dirty Word in Israel

A nature museum without extensive coverage of the theory is a phenomenon unique to this country



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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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