Thursday, February 28, 2013

How Israel Beat the Drought

How Israel beat the drought
This country was on the brink of water catastrophe, reduced to running relentless ad campaigns urging Israelis to conserve water even as it raised prices and cut supplies to agriculture. Now, remarkably, the crisis is over

Until a couple of years ago, Israeli radio and TV regularly featured commercials warning that the country was “drying out.”

In one of the most powerful TV ad campaigns, celebrities including singer Ninet Tayeb, model Bar Refaeli and actor Moshe Ivgy highlighted the “years of drought” and the “falling level of the Kinneret.” As they spoke plaintively to camera, their features started to crack and peel — like the country — for lack of moisture.

Ninet Tayeb in the no-longer-broadcast ‘Israel is drying out’ commercial (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

So compelling was this ad, so resonant its impact, I hadn’t actually realized it was no longer on the air. Alexander Kushnir put me straight. “We decided it simply wasn’t justified to alarm Israelis in this way any longer,” said Kushnir, who heads Israel’s Water Authority.

How so? Israelis don’t need to watch their water use any more? Isn’t this region one of the world’s most parched? Haven’t we been warned for years that the next Middle East war will be fought over water?

Kushnir’s answers: Yes, Israelis must still be wise with their water use. Yes, emphatically, this is a desert region, desperately short of natural water. And yes, we have indeed been worried for years about the possibility of water shortages provoking conflict.

But for Israel, for the foreseeable future, Kushnir says, the water crisis is over. And not because this happens to have been one of the wettest winters in years. Rather, he says, an insistent refusal to let the country be constrained by insufficient natural water sources — a refusal that dates back to David Ben-Gurion’s decision to build the National Water Carrier in the 1950s, the most significant infrastructure investment of Israel’s early years — led Israel first into large-scale water recycling, and over the past decade into major desalination projects. The result, as of early 2013, is that the Water Authority feels it can say with confidence that Israel has beaten the drought.

Alexander Kushnir, head of the Water Authority (photo credit: Courtesy)

Speaking to The Times of Israel from the authority’s offices in Tel Aviv, Kushnir identifies that refusal to “rely on fate” as the key to a genuine strategic achievement — a rare, highly positive change in an age and a region where most of Israel’s challenges appear to be worsening, not receding, much less disappearing.

“How did we beat the water shortage? Because we said we would. We decided we would,” says Kushnir, a big man with a warm smile and a robust Russian accent. “And once you’ve made that decision, you build the tools to reduce your dependence. We’re on the edge of the desert in an area where water has always been short. The quantity of natural water per capita in Israel is the lowest for the whole region. But we decided early on that we were developing a modern state. So we were required to supply water for agriculture, and water for industry, and then water for hi-tech, and water to sustain an appropriate quality of life.”

The National Water Carrier — which takes water from the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) south through the whole country to Beersheba and beyond — exemplified Israel’s ambition. Contemplated even before the modern state was founded, its planning and initial construction were “a dominant feature of the first Ben-Gurion government — an unprecedented investment,” Kushnir notes. “It stressed our desire to achieve a different reality.”

Carrying almost 2 million cubic meters a day nationwide, that supply line, together with water from underground aquifers, kept Israel watered through the 70s. By the 1980s, though “we had a bigger population, bigger needs and the natural resources were overstretched. So we experimented with a small desalination plant in Eilat. And we began recycling purified sewage, and bringing industry into purifying water.”

“Use any superlatives you like,” urges Kushnir, to describe the fact that, today, “over 80% of our purified sewage goes back into agricultural use. The next best in the OECD is Spain with 17-18%. It’s so justified energy-wise, and environmentally as well.”

But even these innovations weren’t enough to meet the needs of an ever-growing population through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the more so when the rains failed.Average rainfall in Israel is about 1.2 billion cubic meters. But in relatively dry years, it can sink to 900 million.

As the gulf between available water resources and needs widened, Israeli agriculture moved away from water-intensive crops and pioneered enormously improved efficiency, with trailblazing drip irrigation techniques. Israel also increased the use of brackish water in agriculture. And all that still wasn’t good enough. “We knew we had to be careful not to hurt our natural resources,” says Kushnir. “Ultimately, we had no choice but to reduce the supply of natural water to agriculture, and to increase prices, which hurt our agricultural sector.”

Plainly, this was no long-term solution. Elsewhere in the region, poorly managed countries were over-drilling, over-using, and risking major damage to natural sources. “In Syria, for instance, they drilled wells everywhere and destroyed aquifers,” he says. “They had irrational, erratic water management and a lack of government policy.” Even before two years of civil war began, Syrians turned on their taps and got nothing most days of the week.

‘We didn’t want to switch off the water to a population in Israel which has enough problems to deal with’

“By 2000 our balance was really strained,” says Kushnir. “We would have had to cut back drastically in agriculture or industry or home use and we weren’t prepared to do that. We didn’t want to switch off the water to a population in Israel which has enough problems to deal with.”

The solution was desalination, on a major scale — the third phase in a water revolution that had begun with the water carrier and continued with recycling. The first large desalination plant came on line in Ashkelon in 2005, followed by Palmahim and Hadera. By the end of this year, when the Soreq and Ashdod plants are working, there’ll be five plants — built privately at a cost of NIS 6-7 billion (about $2 billion).

Israel’s desalination plant on the Mediterranean Sea at Ashkelon (Photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

Israel uses 2 billion cubic meters of water per year — which is actually a little less than a decade ago, as efficiencies have been introduced in agriculture (which uses 700 million), and water-saving awareness has permeated. Of that two billion, half will be “artificially” manufactured by year’s end — 600 million cubic meters from those desalination plants, and 400 from purified sewage and brackish water.

“We’re not the world’s biggest desalinators,” notes Kushnir, “but no one has made the shift so fast to a situation where half of its water needs are filled from ‘artificial’ sources. And it means we are now ready for the next decade, without dramatic dependence on rainfall fluctuations.”

Kushnir regards this as a remarkable achievement — “a lesson for the rest of the world,” he says, “or at least those many parts of the world that are grappling with variants of the difficulties Israel has overcome.”

The panicked warnings are over. But that doesn’t mean Israelis should now wash their cars with sloshing abandon, shower for hours, or hose their lawns (if they’re lucky enough to have one) day and night

So the “Israel’s drying out” ads have gone off the air, and the panicked warnings are over. But that doesn’t mean Israelis should now wash their cars with sloshing abandon, shower for hours, or hose their lawns (if they’re lucky enough to have one) day and night.

“In our region, you always have to save water,” Kushnir stresses. “There has to be intelligent water use. But I’m not going to scream at people anymore.”

The campaigns were demonstrably effective; they reduced water use by at least 10 percent, Kushnir says. “In 2000, it was 100 cubic meters per person per year. Nowadays it’s 90. That saved us a desalination plant.”

But Israel can afford to relax, at least a little. “Our job is to ensure that when you turn on the tap, water comes out,” says Kushnir. “Well, we’ve done that. People have to continue to be smart. This isn’t London or Washington, DC. You have to use water as appropriate to our region. There has to be awareness that water is a precious resource, and we have to manufacture much of it, and that costs money. The manufacture also creates carbon dioxide and that affects the environment. So, I’m not trying to scare the public. You want water, here’s water. Use it. Use it as you want, but use it wisely.”

Where does Kushnir stand on global warming? Does he see it impacting annual rainfall? “There are dramatic changes in water fall,” he responds. “We need to be prepared for graver, longer droughts. If we see global warming having more of an effect, we’ll have to increase the desalination factor. If not, we’ll stay at the current fifty-fifty.

“Personally,” he goes on, “I’m a bit skeptical that global warming is a consequence of human activity. There is partial proof that human activity has exacerbated it. [But] it might be normal fluctuations. Remember,” he adds, “I’m supposed to be skeptical when I decide where to spend our billions.”

For all the announced success, should we be concerned that it might have come too late — that desalination should have been implemented earlier, reducing the heavy pumping from the Kinneret and the aquifers?

Shuli Chen, who works for the National Water Authority, stands in the Sea of Galilee to take a measurement of the water level, March 2007. (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“Yes, we could have started desalination earlier. The damage to our natural resources would have been lighter,” Kushnir agrees. “We came very close to the black lines in the aquifers and the Kinneret which could have caused multi-year damage. Did we do harm? I hope not. But we’re moving away from the black lines now, even from the warning red lines. The immediate refilling and rehabilitation of the Sea of Galilee looks nice, but the aquifers are the key and we’re still 1 billion cubic meters to the optimal levels. Yet we’re legitimately optimistic.” (As of late February, the Sea of Galilee was at 210.24 meters below sea level, its highest level in seven years, which is a healthy 2.65 meters above the “lower red line” and 1.56 meters below the “upper red line” — the point at which the lake is considered full.)

At the same time as desalination has supplemented natural sources, he adds, Israel has also become more efficient in the collection of rainfall. “As we improve, our aquifers will refill. Our springs will fill up. Then we’ll really have done our bit.”

What about the rest of the immediate neighborhood, those who work with Israel, and those who are hostile to Israel?

Kushnir says Israel supplies an annual 100 million cubic meters in total to the Palestinian Authority (30 million) and to Jordan (70 million), in line with formal agreements. He says the PA has failed to develop all the infrastructure necessary to maximize available water, and would reach “reasonable, appropriate levels” if it did so. “They can take quite a lot from the eastern aquifer. There are natural sources they didn’t develop. It’s detailed in the interim agreements.” He also says that among Jewish settlers in the West Bank, water use is similar to that inside sovereign Israel.

Kushnir says he meets with the head of the PA’s water authority, Dr. Shaddad Attili. “We speak to them all the time and we tell them how we managed, including by purifying sewage.”

Attili, for his part, last October accused Israel of charging “extortionate” prices for the water it supplies, and the PA has claimed that Israel’s refusal to let it drill in various locations above aquifers, as well as disappointing results from the developments it has introduced, force it to continue to depend upon those Israeli supplies.

“Our water market is no longer subsidized by the state,” Kushnir responds, “not since 2007.”

As for Jordan, Kushnir says the two countries work together effectively. Ever since the Israel-Jordan border demarcation was adjusted under the 1994 peace accord, Jordan has allowed Israel to maintain its drilling facilities inside what became Jordanian territory in the south, “and we help them in the north.”

It was King Abdullah’s father Hussein who would warn about water shortages prompting the next Middle East war. As far as Kushnir is concerned, the Israeli-Jordanian working relationship where water is concerned assuages any such worry. “There is such good mutual respect and interest,” he says. “We help each other. [Relatively speaking,] they have water; their challenge is how to deliver it. There’s the Red-Dead project where we can argue about the specifics. They’re thinking of desalination in Aqaba. They have a plan for use of brackish water. They can solve their problems overall, and we’ll be happy to help. The Israeli-Jordanian water agreement is an example of a deal where both sides benefit.”

A Palestinian man fills a tank with clean water to be trucked to families who don’t have safe drinking water at their homes in Gaza City, in 2010 (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Beyond Jordan, though, has the fear of drought-stoked conflict disappeared? Israel, Syria and Lebanon have long contested water rights, and intermittently accused each other of abuses. Gaza faces acute water shortages.

“We know that geostrategic changes in the region can endanger our water sources,” Kushnir allows. “We certainly can’t afford to give up our natural resources.”

Treading delicately, Kushnir notes that, despite the new successes, the Dead Sea, for instance, is “missing billions of cubic meters.” One day, he muses, “Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel could potentially redirect the waters of the Litani River,” in Lebanon, to begin to address that challenge. “Of course, he adds, with magnificent understatement, “we would have to be in a situation of constructive dialogue.”

For all that Israel’s new water health is legitimately hailed as a remarkable achievement, that utopian vision — of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel engaged in “constructive dialogue” — would seem beyond the foreseeable ambitions of even the most skilled and optimistic of rainmakers.

From Limmud to Lapid

From Limmud to Lapid 

(Jerusalem Post)
Posted By Daniel Gordis

If Limmud is so fascinating, why do I usually find myself leaving it with such mixed emotions? What is it about this multi-denominational, volunteer-led, creative out-of- the-box experience that renders me so conflicted, whether I attend it in Nottingham or New York, Los Angeles or (later this year) Australia? The answer actually has nothing to do with Limmud, and everything to do with the country to which I return when I depart it.

Limmud is one of those places where the silos come tumbling down, where the whole point is to encounter Jews who are very much unlike us, and with that encounter, to accept and even embrace the discomfort that such encounters often evoke. Limmud forces us to acknowledge that people whose Jewish lives look very different from ours are not necessarily less passionate or committed, not less open or more fundamentalist, but rather that their experiences, intellectual dispositions, spiritual needs and search for meaning sometimes just took them to places that are different from where we ended up.

At Limmud, one almost cannot but recognize that the danger lies not with those whose teaching and learning we might disagree with, but with those who do not attend, who have no interest, who don’t want to be part of the Jewish conversation. The religious and the secular, the passionate Zionists and the Israel-questioners, the Reform and the Orthodox, the deeply respectful and the unabashedly irreverent at Limmud all have much more in common with each other than they do with those who just don’t care at all. It is always, for me, a powerful dose of optimism in a Jewish world that desperately needs it, a reminder of what we could be if only we weren’t what we are.

SO WHY does Limmud usually leave me so conflicted? Because I’m invariably headed back to Israel, where the silos stand tall, where more often than not, we manage not to meet people who construct meaningful Jewish lives differently than we do, where policy is made top-down and not bottom-up, where authority is derived from politics and not from knowledge, creativity and the passion of one’s convictions.
Yet this year, somehow, as Limmud NY wound down, I had a vague but irrepressible hope that the departure might feel different. Not because Limmud has changed, but because, though we have a long way to go, the Israeli sands are shifting. The signs are everywhere. MK Moshe Feiglin, not exactly known as a voice of political or religious moderation, has informed us that he has decided it’s not impermissible to shake hands with a woman. And he did so in the Knesset, after his inaugural Knesset speech. Could a newly pluralistic Knesset be working its magic?

Then there was the performance of 17-year-old Ofir Ben-Shitrit, a religious young woman who appeared on the reality show The Voice, with a voice so beautiful and a soul so pure that no one who heard her was unaffected. The secular judges were no less moved when she sang an Andalusian religious song than when she sang a modern Israeli love song. And the reactions? The crowd loved her, but her school suspended her for singing in front of men.

What that did, of course, was make Ben-Shitrit an even greater sensation. Power, the school officials learned the hard way, comes in many forms. And it’s not always top-down.

And bigger than even Feiglin and Ben-Shitrit is the impact thatYair Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, is having on Israeli discourse, even before a government has been formed. Lapid, the secular Jew not disconnected from Jewish life, who’s found meaning in a Reform shul, has a haredi rabbi (Dov Lipman) as part of his team in the Knesset.

The very same Lapid gave a lecture to haredi students at Kiryat Ono College, telling them, “You won.” Because they are so numerous, such an economic power, so significant in Israeli politics, Lapid told them, they no longer have the luxury of thinking of themselves as marginalized. But with the end of marginalization, he challenged them, should come the end of fear.

“I understand that you don’t want your children to play with my children on the playground,” he said, “and I try hard not to be insulted by that. But can we not find a way to at least be able to live next door to each other?” And should he and his children defend the state, when they and their children don’t, he wanted to know .

Watch the YouTube video and look at the audience. They were listening. They were uncomfortable, but not angry. They were challenged. At long last, Israel is having a conversation. It may be slow, but the silos are cracking.

AND THEN there was the inaugural Knesset speech by Ruth Calderon, also from Lapid’s party, who had the audacity to teach a Talmudic text. It’s her right, of course. She’s got a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University. But she’s not part of the religious camp.

Yet, she says instructively, it’s her book, too. It’s her tradition. It’s her music. It’s her voice. And she’s not about to relinquish it to anyone else.

So with class and with grace, this non-religious woman taught a Talmudic text to the Knesset, which includes many men who have studied Talmud for years but had never heard a woman teach a single line of it. That YouTube video, as of this writing, has 150,000 views. Watch it. See the men listening, and some of them squirming uncomfortably in their seats. Witness a new conversation emerging.

And don’t miss Calderon’s line about equal sharing of the burden applying not only to military service, but to the study of Torah as well. Her point, even if unspoken? If Israel is going to survive, it needs a strong military. The haredim can’t leave the defense of the state to secular Jews just because they don’t feel like serving. But if Israel is going to be a Jewish state, then it can’t be only the religious who know something about Judaism, whose conversations are framed by encounters with the Jewish canon. If the draft needs to be universal, so does the study of Jewish tradition. So she opened a Talmud and began to teach.

Unlike in the case of Ben-Shitrit’s school, no one can suspend Calderon. But that didn’t stop certain elements from trying. The haredi publication Kikar Hashabbat (Shabbat Square), which published its editorial about Calderon under a URL containing the words “the generation of the smartphone” (whatever that was supposed to mean), understood the threat.

“They do not want to erase the Torah of Israel,” the article stated. “They do not want us to be a nation like all the other nations…. They want Talmud for everyone, and therein lies the danger.” Suddenly the enemy is the one who doesn’t hate the Jewish tradition, but loves it.

They’re right to be worried. As are the principals of Ben-Shitrit’s school, and all those others who prefer life in silos. For with any luck, all of this is no mere blip on the screen. With any luck, the winds of change are finally beginning to blow.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Praying for My Patients

Praying for My Patients 

As a doctor, I know there’s a power higher than me. That’s why I pray every day for the people I’m treating.

By Marjorie Ordene|

Fifteen years ago, my husband came home from the daf yomi Talmud lecture he attended every day and proclaimed: “All good doctors go to hell.”

As a holistic doctor —and, I thought, a good one—I was taken aback. “Why would good doctors go to hell?” I asked. Brought up in a secular Jewish home, I had always believed in a rational, scientific world where doctors were treated with a certain respect or even awe. I had only become observant a few months before my marriage to Ethan, who’d been raised in a religious home. I wondered if this belief about doctors was common wisdom among observant Jews.

Seeming to relish my surprise, Ethan eagerly explained, “The good doctors go to hell because they don’t pray for their patients. They believe they’re doing the healing.” He waited for his words to sink in before asking, “And what about you?”

The question has stayed with me ever since. I took his point to heart and decided, after some reflection, to try bringing prayer into my medical practice. It didn’t come naturally. At first, the idea of praying for anyone reminded me of my religious Christian friends, who were always offering to pray for me—which I found vaguely annoying. But then my aunt became ill and slipped into a coma. I remembered seeing my mother-in-law praying for people by name when she lit her Shabbos candles, so I decided to give it a whirl. After six weeks, my aunt recovered.

That convinced me. Ever since, I’ve prayed for my patients every day.

Growing up as a secular Jew, I had never put much stock in the power of spirituality until I took a trip to England in 1989 and stayed with my brother’s wife’s cousin, Aubrey Rose, who introduced me to a family secret: Aubrey and his wife claimed to have communicated repeatedly and reliably with their dead son David through a medium. I was so impressed with this new insight that I vowed to explore the hidden spiritual side of things—in general, and in a Jewish context. I started attending a Conservative egalitarian synagogue and, when that didn’t satisfy (religion ended at the shul door), moved on to an Orthodox one.

Around the same time, my professional life as an M.D. was also shaken up. I was working at a small, not-for-profit clinic that offered alternative services like acupuncture and biofeedback. To fulfill my continuing medical education requirement, I attended a seminar in nutritional medicine at The Omega Center, a former Yiddish summer camp in Rhinebeck, New York, now serving as a retreat for holistic studies. But before settling into my assigned course, I first sat in on classes on qi gong, yoga, and mindfulness. When I returned to the clinic, I began to put my new spiritually informed medical training into practice, eventually leaving that office to open one of my own.

It was also around this time that I, a newly observant Jew, was introduced to and married Ethan.

When Ethan later made his big pronouncement about “good doctors,” I had already been praying for five or six years and practicing holistic medicine for nine or 10—but I hadn’t thought about how the two might fit together. Mixing prayer with medicine can be awkward. It’s one thing to daven privately, but to introduce prayer into the doctor-patient relationship crosses a line, almost like breaching the separation of church and state. What right do I have to speak to a patient about God? What if he is an atheist?

I had read of studies showing that prayer promotes healing, but it wasn’t until my aunt’s miraculous recovery that I began to consider prayer on a more personal level. Something shifted inside me. I had moved from being someone who felt uncomfortable praying for anyone to someone who felt a desire, even an obligation, to put in a good word for those who suffered. As I sat at my kitchen table each morning, I would add the names of ailing people to my prayers. I started with my parents and elderly relatives, then added the names of people I’d heard about in the community, and finally, tacked on “and all my patients,” at the end of the list. I was determined not to be one of those “good doctors” who didn’t pray for her patients.

The first time I prayed for a specific patient was when a woman with ovarian cancer gave me her Hebrew name and asked me to pray for her. I added her name to my list. Later, when another Jewish patient was diagnosed with uterine cancer, it seemed appropriate that I inquire after her Hebrew name. Although not religious, she readily told me her name, Nechama, but she had to email me later with her mother’s name, which she gave as Laura. In both these cases, I was not actively treating the patients for their life-threatening condition; as a holistic physician, the conditions my patients see me to treat are rarely life-threatening.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that praying draws me closer to God, and it also brings me closer to my patients. If I prayed for a patient in the morning and she walks in during the afternoon, I feel a special connection, like seeing a long lost friend. I think this works both ways, like the patient who regularly calls me and begins by saying, “Hey, Doc, it’s me, Miriam bas Esther.” She knows I’m praying for her.

There was one patient, though, I couldn’t help. She was suffering from terrible anxiety—so much so that she was too anxious to try any of my treatments. This patient I prayed for. I never told her, just added her name to my list. Sadly, the one treatment she wanted was estrogen, and when she later developed breast cancer, she became convinced that it was the estrogen I prescribed that caused her cancer. She decided to sue me.

Now I faced a conundrum: Should I still pray for her or drop her from my prayers like a hot potato? I decided to wait for Shabbos and ask my brother-in-law, who is a rabbi. Upon hearing my story, his answer came swiftly: “You can tell her to go to Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire! Do not pray for her; and if she ever wants to come back, do not see her!” I dropped the potato. If the Almighty wants to heal her, I figured, he will—with or without my prayers.


I’d love to report all my successes with prayer, but unfortunately I’m not aware of any. Some patients—including the woman with ovarian cancer, an elderly gentleman with urinary retention, and an octogenarian with Alzheimer’s—are doing reasonably well, but I can’t say it’s because of my prayers. The patient with uterine cancer passed away. But in fact, it’s the very nature of prayer that we don’t always get what we ask for. That doesn’t mean our prayers aren’t answered; they are, just not in the way we expect. Still, no matter what the outcome, I know patients take comfort in having someone pray for them.

Offering to pray for a patient can feel like an admission of powerlessness. After all, patients come to doctors for answers. A physician is an authority figure. To turn around and say I need to speak to a higher authority could be seen as a sign of weakness, ignorance, or at the very least, lack of confidence. But that strikes at the heart of the Gemara—“Tov she’berofim leGehinnom— the best of doctors are destined to go to Gehinnom [hell].” I’ve researched this Gemara and discovered its real meaning. It’s not as I originally thought, that doctors who don’t pray for their patients go to Gehinnom. Rather, it’s doctors who don’t feel a need to askanyone else, neither other doctors nor the Creator, so confident are they in their own abilities—they are the ones who go to hell. Some commentators say that these “good” doctors either omit the refa’einu blessing—the prayer for healing—in the Shemoneh Esrei or else say it without intent.

I will never have that kind of confidence. I enjoy consulting with other doctors and attend medical conferences to keep up-to-date. There I listen to the authorities, leaders in my field. Attendees sit in rows with their laptops open, taking notes. After each series of lectures, there is an “ask the experts” session with the presenters. No one talks about God, no one mentions prayer. But I for one am thinking of him. I bet some of these other doctors, these experts, are doing the same—and I bet some of them also pray for their patients.

Every morning, when I daven, I come back to the refa’einu blessing. I recite my list: Miriam bas Esther, another few patients, a sick relative, a few friends, and then “all my patients.” In praying for my patients, I’m speaking directly to the Creator, making him a partner in my medical practice. It’s not that I don’t trust my skills as a doctor; I do, but I also know that there’s a power higher than me. I’m not one of those “good” doctors who know it all. I really need his help, and that’s why I pray.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

People of the Book

People of the book


Authors come out of their "shelves" for the Jerusalem International Book Fair.
Antonio Munoz Molina Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Hpschaefer

Reports of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated, and you can see literature thriving at the 26th Jerusalem International Book Fair, which will take place from February 10-15 at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem.

The fair, which is held every other year, will feature readings and appearances from a host of writers from all over the world. In all, more than 600 authors and publishers from 30 countries will attend, and over 100,000 books will be on display – most of them for sale. There will be panels, seminars and a “literary café” where writers will meet their readers. Best of all, the entire event is open to the public free of charge, although some events require advance registration.

The prestigious Jerusalem Prize will be awarded to acclaimed Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina.

The prize is given to an author whose work best expresses and promotes the idea of the “freedom of the individual in society.” Past winners have included Ian McEwan (at the last fair, in 2011), Haruki Murakami, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, Graham Greene, Eugene Ionesco, Jorge Luis Borges and Bertrand Russell.

Molina will accept his prize in a special ceremony.

He will also appear at the Literary Café, a setting in which authors speak on a particular topic but also have more informal meetings with book-fair attendees.

Molina will discuss his life, his work and his affinity for Judaism at the café on Monday, February 11, at 8 p.m. The café features discussions and meetings with authors from morning till night, Monday – Thursday.

This year’s guest list for the festival includes American author Nathan Englander, who has written quite a bit about the ultra-Orthodox community, in such shortstory collections as For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. His latest book, a collection of short stories called What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank has just been translated into Hebrew. The Hebrew edition will be published by Keter and will be in stores soon.

It’s a very literary season in Jerusalem. The book fair will follow the Kissufim Conference for Jewish Authors and Poets, which also features international and Israeli authors.

International authors attending the fair include Roy Jacobsen of Norway; Italian authors Cristina Comencini, Bruno Arpaia, Marco Ansaldo and Alessandro Baricco; French authors Philippe Labro, Tobie Nathan, Amelie Northomb, and Emmanuel Carrere; Judie Oron of Canada; Gyorgy Spiro, Gyorgy Dragoman, Gabor Schein and Geza Rohrig of Hungary; Varujan Vosganian and Vasile Ernu of Romania; and many others.

There will be a number of seminars on topics of literary interest. Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic will take part in the seminar “Books and Other Adult Pleasures – Literary Criticism Today.” He will be joined by Gregor Dotzauer of Der Tagesspiegel and Florence Noiville of Le Monde. Professor Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi of Israeli will moderate the panel.

There will also be a bloggers’ panel on this topic, called “literary,” which will feature several bloggers from around the world, including Maud Newton and Mark Sarvas of the US, Naomi Alderman of the UK and Boaz Cohen of Israel.

Another seminar sure to be well-attended is “Selling Books in a Digital Age,” which will take place on February 12 at 10 a.m. The session will be in memory of Zev Birger, who was the director of the book fair for 30 years. Among the participants will be Anne Sternweiss of Random House/Germany and Jane Freidman of Open Roads Media in the US.

At the “Lost and Found in Translation” seminar, Israeli writers Zeruya Shalev and Etgar Keret will discuss their experiences with translators and publishers.

The festival is truly international, and many of the events, especially those sponsored by exhibitors, are not in English or Hebrew – but Russian- and Hungarian- speakers ought to be pleased at this year’s offerings.

But there are many events in English and Hebrew, of course.

On Monday night at 7 p.m., there will be a reading from Love in Israel, an anthology of 65 stories in English by Israeli writers, published by Ang-Lit. Press. It will be followed by a discussion on writing English fiction in Israel.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of England will appear on a panel on Tuesday at 8 p.m. on the topic, “The Leader, the Rabbi & the Professor: Varieties of Jewish Leadership.”

Among the English/Hebrew events is a discussion on “Books about the Israeli Secret Service,” which should be of interest to anyone who has seen the documentary The Gatekeepers, which is nominated for an Oscar (on Tuesday at 7 p.m.).

There has been an Editorial Fellowship Program at the fair in which editors from all over the world attend the festival, and now a parallel program has been added for agents. The participants meet authors, publishers and editors at the book fair. The Editorial Fellowship Program was founded in 1985.