If all follows plan, an Israeli space project will land in early April on the moon’s Mare Serenitatis, the Sea of Serenity. Somewhere here there is an unintended comment on the distance needed to travel for Middle East peace. The Beresheet lander may achieve escape velocity from earth orbit, but it will not escape Middle East politics.
SpaceIL, the project sponsor, has spent over $100 million to shoot to the moon an object akin to a tallish kitchen table, one that will function for an estimated two days before dying of heat exhaustion. Then it becomes another bit of human trash littering the lunar surface.
This is very low-budget as space exploration goes. The moon shot prices out at only a couple million dollars more than the cost of a 5th-generation F-35 fighter for the IDF or about the value of 7-8 villas in Caesarea. A metsyse (good deal!), nu?
Still, there are some awkward political – always politics! – and cultural questions to ask. I am an English professor, so cultural questions first. Always. In the end, it is all politics anyway.
First, the matter of the curious name change. From the project’s inception in 2011 until two months ago, the project name was Sparrow. That’s a nice poetic name. It conjures up an image of a small brave bird winging its way upwards through dark skies, alone and unafraid.
Then as matters came towards imminent launch, suddenly there was a new name: Beresheet. This is the famous opening phrase of the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. It is a ponderous, theologically resonant name. Gone is that tiny adventurous bird. Now comes the Hand of God forming an inchoate universe. The image switched to manifest Awe, of divine power beyond comprehension exhibiting itself, of human insignificance.
Was this name change maybe part of a deal for the Rabbinate’s blessings? Probably not. Somehow it came out sounding like a religiously-inflected abbreviation of Neil Armstrong’s sexist “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Netanyahu sounded like Armstrong’s parrot when he proclaimed after the launch “A great step for Israel, and a huge step for Israeli technology.”
Whatever its explanation, the new name was clearly a play for support among an Israeli Jewish public that orbits ever more tightly around national-religious symbolism in its educational and civic practices.
Next, there is the matter of a time capsule that Beresheet is transporting to the moon. The capsule carries “electronic files including the Bible, children’s drawings, memories of a Holocaust survivor, Israel’s national anthem, the country’s national flag and a copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence”.
Is that all? Nearly a fifth of the nation is Muslim, but no digitized Qur’ān? If the capsule contains anything of Arab culture, it goes unmentioned. The capsule’s listed Israel-related contents represent a monocultural nationalism, a notion that the nation dispatching this message constitutes a uniform culture. A complete copy of the English-language Wikipedia is in the time capsule, so if you have ever edited a Wikipedia page then you may be better-represented than Israel’s Arab-language cultures.
MP3 files of Israeli music are in the capsule too, but we do not know which musicians made it to the moon. Puzzled aliens will need a playlist, no? Zehava Ben probably made the cut despite her cross-cultural Arabism and leftist tendencies. Did Zohar Argov, the drug-addicted rapist? Tamer Nafar comes from Lod, just on the other side of the airport from mission control in Yehud, but somehow we can doubt that Nafar and DAM got included in the compilation.
The quartz discs bearing all this cultural information are part of the Arch Mission Foundation’s eschatological data archiving, a project to create and send into space archives that will outlast humanity. There is a strong flavour of apocalypse here. Should humanity disappear after a nuclear conflagration sparked in the Middle East, it is comforting to know that there will a good library of kumzitz music safe on the moon.
There are serious political questions about this private quasi-philanthropic technology project, one with support from Israel’s government, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and other companies in the local military-industrial complex, and several universities. Over a quarter of Israel’s population resides beneath the poverty line, one in every three children lives in poverty, and the country’s Gini index marks economic inequality exceeded only by the United States. How does one justify developing a space program when poverty remains so pervasive?
This moonshot seeks to spark space-oriented business development in Israel and encourage students to study STEM subjects in order to advance a high-tech economy. High-tech employment covers only about eight per cent of Israel’s labour force, a percentage that has not grown for nearly a decade despite government efforts. Massive subsidies provided to companies such as Intel benefit primarily a well-educated sliver of the population. Other sectors, notably Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews, for a variety of reasons – discrimination, poor education, and social or geographic insularity among them — find it difficult or impossible to join the high-tech economy. It is a reasonable guess that the 30 members of the Beresheet team do not include a single Arab engineer.
Beresheet’s educational mission to inspire students, a leading feature of its public image, serves a narrow labour force policy that targets a narrow sliver of Israel’s people. It faces structural barriers such as racism and fundamentalist religious limitations far beyond its symbolism as Israel’s new Sputnik.
A reported $43 million of the Beresheet endeavour came from billionaire Morris Kahn, who made his fortune by founding Amdocs, an international customer-relationship and billing company. Amdocs has fought bitterly against unionization in recent years, in Israel, where the Histadrut union organizers were successful, and in the United States. The largest funders of US reactionary politics, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, pitched in unspecified millions. Their newspaper, Israel Hayom, implied that the Adelsons actually were the leading funders.
Whatever the credit squabbling between billionaires, much of the moonshot funding originates in the labour of ill-paid Amdocs employees filtered through the pocketbook of their boss. This project is a recycling of venture capital profits using technological idealism fused with nationalism and volunteer spirit. SpaceIL, a non-profit, functions as a means of opening future profit opportunities. Privatization, a leading feature of neoliberal economic thought and practice, is driving Israel’s moonshot.
Finally, what does this project say to the Palestinians who are the majority population between the Jordan and Mediterranean? It restates Israel’s technological superiority in forceful terms. It firmly underlines Palestinian exclusion from this high-tech economy and lack of opportunity. Most of all, it amplifies through symbolism Israel’s capacity to yoke state violence to technology. The country that can send landers to the moon can assert what it wants in the occupied territories – or so it believes.
The Palestinian villages in the hills that overlook mission control in Yehud are engaged in daily anti-colonial struggle against the occupation. They could not give a damn how many moon landers wealthy Israelis send flying off a Florida launch-pad. High-tech intimidation will not work here.
Photograph courtesy of Joseph Stuefer. Published under a Creative Commons license.