A National Geographic photography exhibition, “Water: Our Thirsty World,” on display at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City through June 13, gives an overview of the world’s water usage, but the portion focused on the Middle East, and specifically Israel, caught the attention of Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Jacob Dayan, who objected to what he saw as a deliberately negative view of his country, ignoring Israel’s role in pioneering water technology and advancing water management in the world.
The portion of the six-part exhibition that explores Israel’s water usage focuses on the conflicts created by the scarcity of water in the Middle East and, according to a letter Dayan wrote to the Annenberg Foundation on May 5, “manufactures an outrageous fiction wherein Israel is depicted as stealing and hoarding water while her neighbors suffer from drought. This is not only false, but the exact opposite is true.” The exhibit, which opened March 27, was brought to Dayan’s attention by Museum of Tolerance director Liebe Geft last week and has generated dozens of phone calls and e-mails from upset members of the community.
“Israel recycles 75 percent of its water; Los Angeles recycles 1 percent,” Dayan said in an interview. The exhibition does not mention Israel’s world-leading water recycling rate, or its desalination plant — the world’s largest — or its cutting-edge drip irrigation technology.
In a March press release announcing the show, which coincides with National Geographic’s water-themed April 2010 issue, the Annenberg Foundation describes “Water” as an examination of the “local and global challenges of our planet’s dwindling fresh-water resources.” The release summarizes the Israel segment, titled “Parting the Waters,” as “showing how countries are working together to adapt to the drastic reduction in water levels in the Jordan River basin.”
Ten photographs by Italian photographer Paolo Pellegrin (who was not available for comment as of press time), illustrate the Middle East section, an excerpt of a larger group printed in the magazine. The show’s images do not depict any joint ventures or advances made in addressing the water crisis. Dayan called the selections on view “blatantly political and unquestionably anti-Israel.”
One photo caption reads, “At a water park in Tiberias, Israelis bask in the resource’s relative abundance. A 2009 World Bank report said Israelis use four times as much water per capita as Palestinians. Israel has disputed this, saying its citizens use only twice as much.”
Another caption reads, “A source of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, water is emblematic of their unequal relationship. During dry summers, West Bank Palestinians (restricted to shallow wells by Israel’s occupation) have to buy groundwater tapped from beneath them.”
When the exhibition was brought by the consulate to the attention of Congressman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a strong supporter of Israel, he responded in a written statement: “Of all the countries mentioned in the exhibit, Israel is singled out as the sole source of water-related conflict, while the vast contributions it has made in the Middle East and around the world are ignored.”
Liza deVilla Ameen, communications officer at the Annenberg Foundation, said that, in response to the complaints, editors at National Geographic this week took a second look at the show.
On May 10, the Annenberg Space for Photography and National Geographic released a joint statement saying that the exhibition is meant to “stimulate thought and conversation” and that the content was not intended to make any political statements. National Geographic editorial staff “have done their best to be fair and balanced in their treatment of the subject, and the magazine stands by the reporting in the article, including the caption information provided to accompany the photography in the exhibit.”
Beth Foster, vice president of communications for National Geographic Society, said the photo selections and captions were derived from the magazine’s feature story and written directly by National Geographic staff, not curators at Annenberg.
The article, “Parting the Waters,” written by Don Belt, explores the issue of water in the Middle East as it relates to the Jordan River and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Belt writes about the river’s precarious state as a result of drought, pollution and overuse, but hints that the fight to save it may forge a path toward peace between the countries that rely on it for survival — Israel, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories.
He highlights the ground-breaking research and collaborative efforts conducted by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian scientists at Friends of the Earth Middle East, a regional NGO promoting peace through environmental stewardship. He touches upon some of the armed confrontations between Israel and its neighbors over water rights but also refers to the subsequent dialogue these conflicts have inspired.
“In the 1970s, for example, Jordan and Israel agreed on how to divvy up water even when the countries were officially at war,” Belt writes. “And cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians over water has continued even as other tracks of the peace process hit a wall.”
How water is allocated has been the center of previous disputes: In October 2009, Amnesty International published a scathing 12-page report titled “Thirsting for Justice,” accusing Israel of “discriminatory policies” regarding Palestinian access to water. Alon Tal, a researcher at the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the editor of “Water Wisdom, A New Menu for Palestinian and
Israeli Cooperation in Water Management,” wrote a response to Amnesty’s report titled “Thirsting for Pragmatism” — completed this week and set to be published in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs in the coming weeks.
In the 16-page rebuttal, the environmental expert cites Israel’s enormous advances in water conservation, reclamation and management and how the Palestinian water reality has actually improved, “indeed dramatically,” as a result.
“Conducting a discourse over patent inaccuracies and falsehoods is a waste of time and resources, distracting the sides and the international community from constructive and meaningful efforts in areas where progress is both needed and possible,” Tal writes.
Shoham Nicolet, executive director of the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC) in Los Angeles, said the negatively skewed photography exhibit at the Annenberg Space has the same detrimental effect.
“Instead of highlighting the incredible progress that Israel is making, the technology it’s pioneering and sharing with the world, and the collaborations it is forging with its neighbors — even in times of conflict — the exhibit fosters hostility and perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.
“Our community can’t just sit back and whine about this latest injustice,” Nicolet said. “We need to come together to find an effective way to educate the American public about Israel’s water reality.”
To that end, on May 10, the ILC launched a Facebook fan page, “Teaching the National Geographic and Annenberg Space About Israel and Water.”
View more photos at the Annenberg Space for Photography exhibit.