The Israeli Who Wants to Save the World With Salt

Chemical engineer David Bloch claims salt is an aphrodisiac and wants to color huge areas of the planet white in order to save it. He could care less if people call him obsessive

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David Bloch
David Bloch.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

On stage at the 4th World Conference on Climate Change held in Rome earlier this month, Israeli chemical engineer David Bloch presented his method to reduce global warming before an audience of researchers: coloring huge areas of the world white, in order to cool the planet. His proposal would use the qanat or fogara technique invented by the Persians 3,500 years ago and adopted by the Arabs. Qanats are channels that streamed water from the hills to the heart of the desert. There are tens of thousands of qanats dug into the ground in antiquity, from China to Morocco. In this region there are qanats in the Jordan Valley, the Arava Desert and Gaza.

'If you color the desert white, it will be possible to send back 2 to 3 percent of the sun’s energy, instead of it being absorbed into the planet'

- David Bloch

Bloch, 76, is convinced that one of the functions of the qanat is to produce salt, which comes from the desert soil. That’s why he wants to flood huge areas of the desert with water and then dry them out so that a layer of white salt will remain. With this method, he says, the albedo – in this case, the fraction of solar energy (shortwave radiation) reflected from the Earth back into space – of the desert will jump from 30 to 90 percent, which will compensate for the melting of the glaciers, thus reducing global warming.

Bloch is obsessive about salt. When he explained his grandiose plan to me over the phone, I mentioned that the method might be dangerous, since the salt is liable to kill the sparse flora and fauna in the desert. He sounded shocked and our phone conversation abruptly ended. Half a minute later, he called back and, trying to be patient with me, explained: “Salt is not death, salt is life.”

An aerial view shows large salt formations in the southern part of the Dead Sea, near Ein Boqek, November 10, 2011.Credit: AFP

“If you color the desert white, it will be possible to send back 2 to 3 percent of the sun’s energy, instead of it being absorbed into the planet,” Bloch explains. “Even if there are people who claim the planet isn’t warming, we have to prepare for the day when we’ll have to control the weather ... There have already been proposals to paint the roofs in every city white, to paint the roads. But here we’re talking about much larger and flatter areas, which are easy to color white.”

What do you think the scientific establishment will say about this?

“They’ll probably laugh at me. To color the earth white? There’s never been any such thing. But I’m not planning to color the entire planet – only the dead parts, in order to improve the albedo.”

Bloch is the son of scientist Moshe Rudolf Bloch, a recipient of the Israel Prize and Weizmann Institute of Science prize, who was the chief researcher at the Palestine Potash Company (which later became the Dead Sea Works), as well as head of the Negev Desert Research Institute. David was born in the Kalia Kibbutz Hotel at the Dead Sea in 1940. But he didn’t grow up in Israel because the relationship between his parents deteriorated.

Moshe Rudolf Bloch

“Mother was a broadcaster for the BBC and my father was in the Lehi,” he says, referring to the pre-state underground militia. At the end of World War II his mother returned to England and sent him to a boarding school there. Bloch still has a British accent. After studying chemical engineering, he went to work in Iran under the shah, in the city of Isfahan. “I worked at all kinds of things I prefer not to talk about,” he says now. “It was the period when the largest refinery in the world was in Persia.”

'Had I wasted time on a doctoral degree, I wouldn’t have come to these ideas'

On his way back to England from Persia, Bloch made the fateful decision to stop in Israel to visit his father. During the visit, he met his future wife, actor Miri Fabian, who appeared in “Schindler’s List.”

After deciding to remain in Israel, Bloch started his own chemical engineering company, specializing in separation of gases and other substances as well as in other technologies. It is now run by his son Dan Bloch (who also plays bass in a local indie rock band) and his daughter, director Ella Bloch. For his part, their father is now busy with his independent research and establishing the Salt Archive, which will gather all the information related to salt as a factor that caused the rise and fall of civilizations. He doesn’t have a doctorate (“Had I wasted time on a doctoral degree, I wouldn’t have come to these ideas”). No less significant is the fact that Bloch sees himself as his father’s successor.

“Everything I know about salt is from him,” he says. The idea of coloring the world’s deserts white also echoes an original patent registered by his father. In order to accelerate and increase the efficiency of the evaporation of the ponds at the Dead Sea, Bloch, Sr. searched for an ideal color for the water and discovered one called “naphthol green,” for which he registered a patent.

‘I was conquered’

David Bloch wants to save the world with salt.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Moshe Bloch, born in 1902 in Sudetenland in what was then Czechoslovakia, was considered an academic star from a young age. He received a doctorate at 24 and began to work in the German chemical industry. With the rise of the Nazis, he fled in 1933 to Switzerland. According to his son, he worked on a project there that also involved Albert Einstein. Finally, he ended up in British Mandatory Palestine, where he met Palestine Potash founder Moshe Novomeysky. “He came to me and asked for my opinion. I went down to the Dead Sea: I came, I saw and I was conquered,” recalled Bloch, in an interview with Maariv in 1966 (he died in 1985).

His discoveries and inventions were not limited to the company’s core business. Bloch, Sr. was considered one of the fathers of the solar pond, which is used in the solar energy industry, and also worked on a method for producing artificial fuel with algae. He did research on reverse osmosis, which later became crucial for the desalination of seawater.

“There was a war between him and Alexander Zarchin [a Ukrainian-Israeli chemist and inventor], who found another method of desalination that was less successful. But today, reverse osmosis is used for desalination,” says Bloch, Jr.

Two streets in Be’er Sheva were named after the desalination rivals.

Dead Sea Works.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

I met David Bloch in his apartment in north Tel Aviv. He has one green eye and one brown, is dressed in an open-collared shirt and looks young for his age. A hearing problem is the only sign that he isn’t in his 50s. We go up to the lovely balcony to enjoy the sunset and autumn air. He is so eager to talk about salt that he doesn’t notice night has fallen, and we continued to talk for a long time.

Bloch says his father’s research, which linked salt to the discovery of oil, was one of the factors that aided the natural gas discovery off Israel’s coastline.

“We found a great deal of gas in the Mediterranean because there’s a huge layer of salt in the sea, into which the heavy solutions seeped in. That’s a theory of my father’s,” he explains, adding. “Father designed most of the products of the Dead Sea Works. If he were still alive, they would have a nice plant producing lithium – one of the metals found in the Dead Sea. Then they really would get rich: This is the metal of the future, which is used in the new batteries of mobile devices.”

Did you tell the company executives?

“Not only did I tell them, they know it. Father wrote a plan for producing lithium from the Dead Sea. When the plant was owned by the government, many research studies were conducted at the Dead Sea Works. The problem is that, in private hands, they think only about money. The research has almost disappeared, but that’s the way it is with private companies – I have no complaints against them.”

Others do have complaints, though – such as against the Dead Sea Works’ contribution to the destruction of the Dead Sea.

“The Dead Sea Works is a wonderful place. They’re accused of evaporating water for industrial purposes, and [people] say that’s why the level of the Dead Sea is falling. That’s not true: The level is falling and sinkholes are being formed because they aren’t bringing in water from the Jordan River. Even before the factories were built, the water evaporated.”

The Dead Sea is in critical condition.

Two tourists look at salt deposits in the Dead Sea shore, in Ein Gedi, Israel, 07 July 2009.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

“In my opinion, its condition is wonderful. The big problem with the Dead Sea Works is that the Chinese learned to produce potash. But as I said, many other things can be produced from the Dead Sea. If not potash, then lithium. There are many more precious metals there.”

What was your father like as a person?

“First, he was a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist.”

He chose to join a terrorist freedom organization like Lehi – probably not the first choice of a pacifist.

“That was one of his problems in life. He agonized a great deal over this story, because he was nonviolent by nature and this conflicted with the violence of Lehi. I know from conversations with him that it was on his conscience. He was their chemist.”

Did he make bombs?

“He made smoke bombs. He’d put a substance similar to potash on the exhaust pipe of a motorcycle. When the motorcyclists had to flee, a smokescreen was formed. That he was willing to do. At the same time, he helped the British during World War II and invented a patent for transporting bromine, which is a hazardous material. The British used bromine for photographs.”

Wasn’t Lehi anti-British and in favor of the Germans and Italians at the time? How did that work out?

“There’s no organization without a back door to the authorities.”

So in what way was he a pacifist?

“He was never in the army. The peace and quiet of the desert were very important to him. When [David] Ben-Gurion spoke about the dream of the Negev, Father was part of it.”

What was he like as a father?

“From the age of 5, I was at a boarding school in England. I saw him once every two to three years until I arrived in Israel.”

David Bloch wants to save the world with salt.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Salt as an aphrodisiac

Since he retired from business, David Bloch’s main project has been the Salt Archive. “I have a huge collection of books about salt, and I also prepared a website for my children. The purpose of the archive is for people to understand the place of salt in world history, and in Judaism in particular.”

He adds that “this library is now my project ... and it will be added to IT and indexed for access specifically for schools.”

'I have no theories, it’s all facts. The religions are based on salt'

David Bloch

Salt and Judaism? One of Bloch’s claims is that the impressive concentration of geniuses and creativity among the Jews is related to an overconsumption of salt, due to kashrut. “Due to the dietary laws pertaining to salting meat, the Jews ate more salt than any other people, except the English. It’s known that salt is responsible for the electrolytes in the head and body. Physiologically, a surplus of salt in the body improves thinking.”

I always thought we were supposed to eat less salt.

“I have a serious problem with the medical establishment. I claim that salt is like water. If you consume too little salt, you reduce your fitness. As with water, the surplus will be eliminated. You should eat as much salt as you want, although in large quantities the taste is unpleasant. But we’re all addicted to salt. If there’s a drug everyone is addicted to – it’s salt.”

Don’t kill our readers. Doctors won’t agree with you.

“There are people with kidney problems or high blood pressure – for them, salt is dangerous. But if a doctor confirms that you’re healthy and you don’t have problems with blood pressure, in my opinion you should eat a little more salt.”

'The Jews ate more salt than any other people... Physiologically, a surplus of salt in the body improves thinking'

David Bloch

The Japanese also consume a lot of salt, including in desserts.

“Why do you think they live so long? I wouldn’t go too far, but anyone who eats salt will be smarter. That’s why it’s an aphrodisiac.”

An aphrodisiac?

“It increases blood pressure, and therefore it’s an aphrodisiac.”

I saw that you have a theory that links the ancient Temple in Jerusalem to salt.

“I have no theories, it’s all facts. The religions are based on salt. The Temple was, in effect, a slaughterhouse. And according to Christianity, temples such as the Pantheon and the Acropolis were also slaughterhouses. Jesus turned over the tables [of the money changers] because he was angry about the commercial aspect of their livelihood. The Temple was basically a salt monopoly. In many countries, salt is a traditional monopoly. How did businessman Nochi Dankner make his money? Salt.”

Let’s get back to the Temple.

“The Temple was built for sacrificing 400 animals a day. The Levites took tithes and also ate. If you wanted to have a barbecue in those days, you could slaughter at home and eat the same day, because the meat would spoil, or go to the Temple and there they would turn the meat into a sacrifice and salt it in such a way that you could eat it for several days.

“If you go to Kiryat Malakhi [a city in southern Israel], there’s a huge slaughterhouse there that looks very nice and is very reminiscent of the Temple. Just that in Kiryat Malakhi there’s stainless steel, whereas in the Temple they used wood. The monopoly on the Temple Mount was the salting process, plain and simple.”

How can you say such a thing?

“It’s written in Leviticus. They explain the sacrifices there.”

If I ask an archaeologist, would he agree with your claim?

“There were several archaeologists who were friendly with my father. For example, Yigael Yadin, who found salt on Masada.”

Bloch repeats his claim that the story of the Temple is mainly the story of a monopoly. “What reinforced my understanding of salt and monopolies was a story from 1932. My father led a convoy then from the northern Dead Sea to Jerusalem. On the way, they saw two British soldiers who had placed the bodies of two people on mules. They asked the soldiers why they had killed the two men, and they said they were smuggling salt. If you look at the newspapers of the time, you see that the soldiers were acquitted because they claimed that, according to the law, the punishment for smuggling salt is death.

“Yigael Yadin didn’t like hearing that the Jews’ wars against the Romans were over salt,” Bloch continues. “The Jews were living on Masada and they fought the Romans for control of Mount Sodom. Nor is there any doubt that the Romans came here because of the salt, which was excavated at Mount Sodom and was called marble. Does it seem logical to you that we would export marble to Rome? It was salt. At the time, salt was hard to obtain in Europe because of the rising sea level, which destroyed the evaporation ponds in the Mediterranean. Salt was very expensive.”

Ronny Reich, a retired professor of archaeology from the University of Haifa and an expert in excavations in the Old City in Jerusalem, agrees with some of Bloch’s claims regarding the Temple.

“I visited the Samaritan community at Passover,” says Reich, “and counted 30 sheep that were slaughtered there. So we can assume that for the 25,000 inhabitants of Jerusalem [in ancient times] and a similar proportion of pilgrims, they slaughtered about 3,000 sheep in one afternoon, before sunset. [The Talmud] described three shifts of skinning and slaughtering. What’s that if not a slaughterhouse?”

Reich agrees that salt was used in the Temple, but doesn’t accept the claim about its central significance: “What’s the source of the information about 400 sacrifices a day? There was a daily public sacrifice [one sheep in the morning and one in the evening], and people brought sacrifices here and there, usually pigeons. Not in large quantities. The entire business of the salt is unfounded. But people who study something specific tend to relate to it exclusively.”

A case of monomania

One of David Bloch’s most interesting/far-reaching claims is that the Israelites in ancient Egypt were engaged in salt production, and that the bricks referred to in the Book of Exodus are blocks of salt, not bricks for building. “The word ‘slave’ is understood incorrectly,” says Bloch. “We’re mistaken when we relate to it as slavery in its present meaning. These were salt field workers. There were fields of salty water in the Nile Delta, they placed a rod in the water and the solution crystallized around it and a block of salt resulted. Before there were coins, they used these blocks. In Egypt, they were equal to money.

“In the land of Goshen [where the Jews lived], there’s no agriculture, there’s nothing to do except produce salt. The Israelites taught the Egyptians how to use salt. After they learned the Israelite technique for producing salt, the Egyptians expelled the Jews. And then the two spies arrived in the Land of Israel [Joshua 2:1] and saw the Dead Sea. I’m not a Bible scholar, but the story is written there.”

'The symbol of peace is salt and bread. We don’t eat bread because of the bread – try eating bread without salt. Try eating food without salt'

It should be noted that on his own website, Bloch warns that he suffers from monomania – in other words, excessive concentration on a single object or idea. A person with a mania for brussels sprouts will see the world through brussels sprouts. For David Bloch, it’s salt.

“I added this warning because it’s a gentle way to say that I have an obsession. There’s a tendency to laugh at people with monomania and not to take them seriously. My problem with archaeology is that there aren’t many findings of salt. It dissolves over the years. They find a pitcher of salt, but it’s empty. But it’s known that the diet of a Roman soldier was garum, a fermented fish sauce, in which the amount of salt was five times the weight of the fish. Just think how much salt the Romans needed.”

So is this research or more of an obsession?

“Many people don’t believe these things. If my wife were here, she would tell you how tired she is of hearing my stories. But you’re someone new, so I can tell you.”

People see a historical event, you simply see salt.

“Definitely. The only way to understand things is to be obsessive. Hercule Poirot was obsessive, and that’s how he had the intuition to solve murders. Look at the word milhama [war in Hebrew]. It comes from the word melah [salt].”

The Hebrew root of milhama is lamed, heit, mem (also “bread”).

“The symbol of peace is salt and bread. We don’t eat bread because of the bread – try eating bread without salt. Try eating food without salt.”



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