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Wake-Up Call: Global Warming and Deforestation Threaten Wildlife

A New TAU Study Shows that Global Warming and Deforestation Could Cause Mass Animal Extinctions.

A joint study by TAU and the University of Colorado (CU) states that the combination of global warming and extreme heat events, alongside the continued expansion of deforestation in the world, may be devastating for many species of animals, especially those that know how to climb trees. As part of the study, the researchers focused on lizards and showed that following the effects of climate change, they will seek refuge from the hot ground by spending a lot of time on trees. However, due to human-related activities, such as deforestation, urbanization and the expansion of agricultural lands at the expense of natural lands, the availability of trees in the areas where the lizards live will decrease, and this may lead to the collapse of many populations.

The research was conducted under the leadership of doctoral student Omer Zlotnick from the laboratory of Dr. Ofir Levy at the School of Zoology, the Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at TAU and in collaboration with Dr. Keith Musselman from CU. The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. 

Climate Crisis: Animals Seeking Comfort in Trees

The researchers explain that the climate crisis and global warming force animals to search for more comfortable places to stay to escape the extreme heat, just as we look for a shady area on a hot day. For climbing animals, trees can serve as a comfortable and pleasant refuge. One of the reasons for this is that the farther you get from the ground, the lower the air temperature gets, and the stronger the wind becomes. Therefore, on hot days, for example, animals can climb up trees to escape from the hot ground.

The importance of trees, then, is expected to increase as the climate warms. The problem is that in many places in the world, the density of trees is decreasing, mainly due to phenomena such as deforestation and the expansion of the use of trees for various purposes such as construction, etc. This phenomenon creates a situation where, on the one hand, due to climate change, animals will depend more on trees for their survival, while on the other hand, the destruction of habitats will lead to a decrease in the availability of trees.

Lizards’ Habitat Loss

Doctoral student Omer Zlotnik: “As part of the research, we wanted to examine how the combined effect of these two processes would be on animals. Specifically, we focused on lizards because they are very dependent on their environment to maintain a normal body temperature, and a lack of comfortable places to stay can affect them dramatically. In the study, we used a computer simulation to simulate where the lizard should be, in the sun, in the shade, or on the tree, every minute for 20 years, under the climate conditions that existed in the past and under those expected in the future. Using the simulation, we examined how populations of lizards would be affected by climate change when trees are available and how their situation would change following the felling of trees in their habitat”.

Left to right – Dr. Ofir Levy & Omer Zlotnick

The results showed that, in general terms, climate change is going to benefit many lizard populations. In most places, the expected warming will allow lizards to be active longer throughout the day and the year, as there will be fewer times when it is too cold to come out of their burrows. However, when climate change occurs at the same time as the felling of trees, the trend is likely to reverse, so that many lizard populations may collapse. In areas with a warm climate, climate change, even if no trees are cut down, is expected to harm lizard populations, and cutting down trees will make the situation even worse.

“What’s really interesting about lizards is that they just need to be able to move a short distance around the tree trunk to get to a very different climate and habitat environment”, said Keith Musselman, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and CU Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. 

Musselman: “These microhabitats are particularly important when we think about how we modify our natural environment and make conservation decisions”.

Dr. Ofir Levy concludes: “Our research focused on lizards, but it actually demonstrates a broader problem that is relevant to many species of animals. Our results demonstrate that trees are crucially important to the ability of animals to cope with climate change, and in many cases, their availability can be, for the animals, the difference between crawling and collapsing. Our research proves how important it is to preserve forested areas and trees in general, especially in light of the changing climate. As part of the research, we also provide more practical tools for decision-makers, such as the height or density of trees required in different areas. We hope that this research will be used to build more effective programs for the conservation and restoration of natural areas so that we can provide the animals with what they need to survive”.

Will Existing Drugs Stop Cancer’s Bone Spread?

Existing Meds May Prevent Bone Spread in Breast Cancer Patients

Researchers at TAU developed a new therapeutic strategy based on existing medications to inhibit bone metastasis in breast cancer patients. Using both an animal model and tissue samples from patients in Israel and the US, they demonstrated that a combination of drugs already available on the market can hinder bone metastasis and improve survival. Based on their findings, the researchers predict that in the future, the treatment can apply to human patients with breast cancer, as well as other types of cancer.

The groundbreaking study was led by Prof. Neta Erez and Dr. Lea Monteran at Prof. Erez’s Laboratory for Tumor Biology at the Pathology Department, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, Tel Aviv University. The paper was published in Cancer Discovery. The researchers explain that over 75% of patients with metastatic breast cancer suffer from bone metastases, which destroy bone tissues, causing fractures and a great deal of pain. Moreover, with today’s technologies such as MRI or CT imaging, diagnosis of bone metastasis occurs, in most cases, when the disease cannot be cured.  In this study, the researchers looked for a novel way to inhibit the progression of bone metastasis. 

Cancer Cell Sabotage

Prof. Erez: “A tumor is more than a collection of cancer cells. Just like healthy tissues, a tumor is a whole ecosystem consisting of reciprocal interactions between different cell types, including cells of the immune system, connective tissues, blood vessels, etc. Moreover, cancer cells often ‘corrupt’ normal cells, causing them to ‘collaborate’ with the tumor and support the growth of cancer cells. Blocking the communication channels between cancer cells and healthy cells at an early stage can hinder the growth of cancer cells in the bones. To achieve this, the early stages of the process must be investigated”. To understand processes of bone metastasis the researchers compared three types of bones from model mice:  healthy, early-stage metastasis, and advanced metastasis. They found that when bone metastasis begins, T cells from the immune system arrive on the scene and penetrate the metastases but are unable to destroy them. 

Prof. Neta Erez

Next, the researchers discovered that the killing activity of T cells is inhibited by another type of immune cells and identified the proteins responsible for this effect. To neutralize these inhibitory proteins and reactivate the T-cells, they created a novel therapeutic combination that has never been tried before a drug that counters the activity of the immune-inhibiting cells, along with an antibody that activates T cells. This combination was administered to model mice, and the results were encouraging: the bone metastases were reduced, and survival was significantly improved compared to untreated model mice. 

At the final stage of the study, the TAU research team collaborated with the Sheba and Ichilov (Tel Aviv) Medical Centers and the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. They examined tissue samples from bone metastases taken from patients with breast cancer, as well as other types of cancer, and found that the immune cells inhibiting T cells express the same proteins as those found in the animal model. Prof. Erez: “Our findings suggest that the combined treatment – attacking the cells that inhibit T cells while activating the T cells – can be effective for treating bone metastasis resulting from breast cancer as well as other types of cancer. The great advantage of our strategy is that both drugs are already available on the market and consequently, the process of obtaining permits to use them against bone metastasis in humans can be relatively short. At the same time, clinical trials need to verify the effectiveness of the new therapeutic strategy”.

The study was funded by the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), Worldwide Cancer Research (WWCR), and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

How Do Lightning Storms Affect North Pole Sea Ice?

TAU Research Shows that Lightning Storms are Causing Sea Ice to Melt Faster at the North Pole

A new international study with the participation of researchers from Tel Aviv University found that alongside the general warming of the globe, lightning storms have been directly hastening the ongoing process of sea ice retreat covering the Arctic Ocean. According to the researchers: “Until recently, lightning as a phenomenon was extremely rare in the Arctic region of the North Pole, due to the intense cold. However, due to the warming of the Earth, lightning storms have become more common there in the summers, and these storms further increase the melting process of the ice sheets – in a feedback loop”.

Prof. Colin Price and MSc student Tair Plotnik from the Department of Geophysics at TAU’s Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences participated in the study, alongside Dr. Anirban Guha and Dr. Joydeb Saha from Tripura University in India. The article was published in the journal Atmospheric Research.

Arctic’s Cold Reality: Understanding Rapid Ice Loss

Prof. Price explains: “The Arctic region is defined as the region located north of the 66.5° latitude. In the heart of this region, around the North Pole, there is no land, and due to the extreme cold conditions, the sea is covered with a thick layer of sea ice, which currently extends over about 8 million square kilometers. The white ice reflects the sun’s rays and thus contributes to the cooling of the Earth. But in recent decades, with the warming of the Earth, the ice cover has retreated at a rate of about 70,000 square kilometers per year, or 6.5% per decade (In this context, it is important to note that the temperature at the North Pole has been rising at an accelerating pace – about 4° until today, in contrast to about 1° on Earth as a whole).

Prof. Colin Price

The retreat of the ice increases the warming even further, because the dark areas of the ocean under the ice, which are getting bigger and bigger, absorb the sun’s rays that would normally be reflected in space. This is how a feedback loop is created: the retreat of the ice increases the warming, which in turn increases the melting of the ice, and the cycle repeats”.

Lightning’s Role in Polar Ice Melt

According to the researchers, the phenomenon of melting ice sheets at both poles is firstly attributed to the result of human activity due to the increase in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, creating a kind of ‘blanket’ that preserves the heat and does not allow it to disperse into space. However, studies have not found a direct match between the greenhouse gas changes, which increase at a more or less constant rate every year, and the rate of sea ice melting, which varies immensely from year to year. This study sought to examine the possible effect of another factor – lightning storms – on the melting of the sea ice in the Arctic region.

The researchers explain that lightning, as a phenomenon, was extremely rare in the Arctic region until recently, due to the intense cold that prevails there. But in recent decades, apparently, due to global warming, lightning storms have been observed there in the summertime, when the sun does not set at all, heating the surface (Lightning storms form when the surface of the ground heats up, and pockets of air rise in the atmosphere, where they cool, condense, and become clouds that sometimes develop into thunderstorms).

To test their hypothesis that lightning storms contribute to the melting of the ice around the North Pole, the researchers compared two sets of data: images from NASA satellites that have been documenting the retreat of the ice in the Arctic Sea for more than 40 years, and lightning data collected by the global network WWLLN (wwlln.net) – which includes around 70 lightning detection stations, deployed in research institutions all over the world – one of which stands on the roof of the Faculty of Exact Sciences building at TAU. Prof. Price explains: “Lightning is the result of a massive electric field that is discharged at once and transmits radio waves that can be received even thousands of kilometers away from the lightning. The global network’s sensors detect and map thunderstorms anywhere on the planet, in real-time and non-stop. Cross-referencing the information from the various stations allows for an accurate determination of the location and time of each lightning strike detected, and thus, a global map of lightning over time is obtained. For this study, we collected data on lightning in the Arctic region during the summer months of June, July and August every year since 2010″.

Lightning Storms: Catalysts for Polar Ice Melt

A statistical analysis of the ice sheet retreat crossed with the number of lightning storms revealed a correlation: as the number of storms increased in a certain year, so did the melting of the sea ice increase that year. The researchers explain this by comparing thunderstorms to a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking water vapor up from the surface layer to the upper atmosphere (5-10km altitude), where it accumulates and acts like an additional blanket, trapping the surface heat from leaving, and increasing the surface temperature – just like man-made greenhouse gases. Another possibility observed in a previous study is that these same lightning storms lead to an increase in the formation of high cirrus clouds in the upper layers of the atmosphere – which also form a similar ‘blanket’.

Prof. Price concludes: “In our research, we found a clear statistical relationship between the number of lightning storms in the Arctic region in a certain year and the rate of sea ice melting that year. This means that the storms are another factor that increases the melting of the polar ice, producing a feedback loop: the initial melting of the ice increases the dark surface areas of the sea, which absorb more of the sun’s rays, warming up the waters, causing more melting, accelerating the rate of warming, which in turn increases the number of lightning storms, and the cycle repeats itself. As a result of this, and of the warming of the Earth in general, we expect that the frequency of lightning storms in the Arctic region will increase in the coming years, and with it, the rate of sea ice retreat in the Arctic Sea will accelerate”.

TAU Trip to the Gaza Envelope: Solemn, Yet Essential Experience

Lowy International graduate students witness firsthand the aftermath of October 7th.

In early May, Conflict Resolution & Mediation and Security & Diplomacy MA students embarked on a visit to the Gaza Envelope, including the Nova festival site and the now-infamous “car cemetery,” to witness firsthand the aftermath of October 7th. 

For Dalia Gabay, who is studying Conflict Resolution & Mediation, it was a solemn yet essential experience that brought the reality of this conflict to light. Gabay has shared her account of the trip:

However close or involved one has felt to that day’s horrific events and ensuing war by merely being in Israel or through media coverage and seminars, this trip offered a stark reminder of the profound devastation and ongoing heartbreak experienced by Israel’s southern communities and families. 

“Our tour guide, Colonel Grisha Yakubovich, who served in the IDF, concluding his military service in 2016 as the head of C.O.G.A.T. (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories), met us at the Yad Mordechai intersection. He continues to facilitate cooperative enterprises between Israelis and Palestinians and his wealth of knowledge, expertise and personal anecdotes, offered us a realistic insight into the complexities of life and relations across the region for both communities.

Colonel Grisha Yakubovich, the tour guide

Yair, born and raised at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai (aptly named after Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising) and now a father of four, showed us around Moshav Netiv HaAsara, just 400 meters away from the Gaza Strip.

Yair talking about Moshav Netiv HaAsara

Inevitably, the moshav was severely hit on October 7, with some 24 residents massacred. The moshav has been deserted but the bullet-ridden walls, trees and disheveled remnants of the attack were enough to communicate the sheer terror of that fateful day; the fear was palpable.

Yair shared tales of unimaginable tragedy and bravery from these close-knit communities, including his own. His kibbutz had prepared for such an event and quickly mobilized as soon as the red alert sirens sounded at around 6:30 AM. “It felt different that day,” he recounted.

While he sat armed in his living room, ready to defend his family locked in the adjoining safe room, the kibbutz security team repelled the terrorist attack at the gate and successfully chased the perpetrators away. 

At Netiv HaAsara, he showed us the shelter where a father sacrificed his own life to shield his two sons from the impact of a hand grenade. The boys narrowly escaped being kidnapped and survived the harrowing ordeal.

This is the stuff of legends: October 7th bestowed heroism upon individuals who will forever remain ingrained in Israel’s collective memory. 

Yair’s poignant account of life for Israeli residents in the Gazan Envelope, where enduring PTSD from relentless rocket attacks over 16 years is commonplace, will stay with me forever. Their remarkable resilience shines through, yet it’s disheartening to hear how these communities have endured such extreme and volatile conditions for so long, while the government and wider Israeli society appear to observe with almost complacent indifference.

I sincerely hope that the end of this war will bring them much needed solace and pave the way for a return to the peaceful, idyllic life that Yair fondly remembers from his childhood in the region.

Israel’s own “ground zero” where Sderot’s police station once stood, was completely destroyed in the aftermath of Hamas’ invasion and murderous rampage.

Sderot’s police station

Plans are underway for a memorial to honor the lives lost and serve as a lasting reminder of October 7th. 

A playground in Sderot

In Sderot, we also visited a children’s playground that’s been adapted to train, and protect youngsters from barrages of rocket attacks. This is the sad reality of Israel’s southern citizens. 

A shelter in Sderot

A nearby shelter ended up the final resting place of fleeing Nova festival goers, including Shani Gabay, who happens to share my surname. May her memory forever be a blessing.

The car cemetery

 The scene at the “car cemetery,” where burnt and damaged vehicles lay, many with occupants inside, was haunting.

The images captured the terror inflicted upon innocent civilians during this unprecedented attack.

Our journey concluded at Re’im, the Nova festival site, where makeshift memorials were tended to by grieving parents and friends.

Memorials at the Nova festival site

It left many of us in tears as we headed home, somberly reflecting on all that we had witnessed throughout the day.”  

“Personally, I needed to go on this trip. The trip reinforced my commitment to my studies in the hope that I’ll be able to contribute in some way towards a peaceful future for all Israelis and Palestinians in our shared land.”

 Text and pictures by Dalia Gabay

“If Then There Was a Rebuilding of Personal and National Lives, So Shall It Happen Again”

Professor Dina Porat’s Remarks at the Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony at TAU

The Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, honoring the survivors of the Holocaust and commemorating its victims, took place on the Tel Aviv University campus, attended by a large audience of students, faculty, administrative staff, and other guests. The sentiment was that this year, more than ever, it is crucial to recount and commemorate what happened to our brothers and sisters. Alongside this, to illustrate the extensive number of those abducted and remaining captive in Gaza, the audience stood up and counted together up to 132. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“We have no right to forget, no authority to forgive, and we are committed to testify and document”

Prof. Eyal Zisser, the University’s Vice Rector, delivered opening remarks: “Every year at this time, and especially this year, once again we find that the modesty of words fail to convey the magnitude of horror and the extent of loss. There are no words capable of explaining and no language capable of containing. It happened! For millions, millions of real people, Jews like you and me, like us, whose only sin was being Jewish. In our distress, we find solace in the elevation of stories of bravery and humanity who were like scattered beacons in the fields of darkness and death. Even today, we continue to draw strength from these stories and learn about the sanctity of life, determination, and resilience – qualities that human beings are capable of even in the face of the most horrific circumstances”.

“This year, an additional dimension of pain is added to this day, under the shadow of the war we have been in since the terror attack on October 7, in which Jews were slaughtered in a manner and scale we had not known since the Holocaust. The call ‘Never again’ reverberates as a cornerstone of our existence here, on this land, uniting us in a shared destiny that will not be erased. Here we are, hurting, sad, longing, but still standing tall and proud, continuing to say ‘Never again.’ However, we cannot define ourselves solely as the Jewish phoenix, rising and falling, rising from the ashes. As we face the challenges at the forefront of Israel’s development, we must continue to build and establish a democratic society and a rich culture here. Thus, we will ensure that here, in the flourishing enterprise in the land of our forefathers, the Jewish people will merit defense and security, and will continue to grow, develop, and be an example for the nations of the world”.

 

פרופ' אייל זיסר ואיריס בן משה

Prof. Eyal Zisser and Iris Ben-Moshe

“In their deaths, they commanded us to have hope”

Danielle Zilber, Chair of the Student Union, urged the student body to remember their role as the future of the State of Israel.

Part of the significance of remembering the fallen is to carry their lost hopes… We must not only remember but remind, remind the world of the horrors that occurred and not let them forget no matter how much time has passed since the Holocaust. In the name of the fallen, we sit here today, with the lost hope of 6 million of our brothers and sisters. In their name we say never again, and in their name, we have to remember.

A Lighthouse in the Darkness of the Holocaust

David Gur, an activist in the underground Zionist movements in Hungary and currently chairman of the Association for the Study of Zionist Youth Movements in Hungary, took the stage with his granddaughter.

.I am 98 years old. During the war, I was 18, younger than all of you. Today, I came to speak about hope and heroism, not about victims, pain, and loss

Thanks to the activity of the underground in which he participated, the lives of thousands of Jews were saved, as they provided documents and ensured food and shelter for many orphaned children. ‘I am grateful that I was part of the unique and immense rescue operation of the Zionist Youth Movement underground in Hungary. The existence of the underground, the bravery of young Jews facing terrifying forces, deserves to be heard and remembered as part of the sources of the Jewish people, and to pass on their story as an example of resistance, a struggle to save Jews, and unity in rescue actions and unity of hope, inspiration, and lessons for generations to come’.

 

דוד גור ונכדתו

David Gur and granddaughter 

The Bigger the Crime, the Deeper the Denial

Professor Dina Porat, the leading historian of ‘Yad Vashem’ and professor emeritus in the Jewish History Department at Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute., shared the personal tragedy that happened to her family residing in communities surrounding Israel and asked three questions about which every one of us will need to think about how to answer.

“This Holocaust Remembrance Day, it seems that all of us feel very differently from the previous ones. The events of October 7th immediately raised a series of associations and memories of realities and testimonies that had long become a collective memory. The word ‘Holocaust’ to describe the murder of Jews by the Nazis and their helpers was not chosen by a committee or an academic institution. Its use arose spontaneously from the public, and not by chance: it is a biblical expression, describing a natural force that suddenly appears, unexpectedly, without prior knowledge, without preparation. Not only did the word ‘Holocaust’ and not only did the associations arise immediately, but also questions that have accompanied us since the Holocaust, and perhaps we can draw on the experience accumulated since then.

“The first question: How did they approach the work of memory and commemoration? How did they collect tens of thousands of testimonies from dozens of countries in different languages, and consolidate them to one place- at Yad Vashem? Now, the sharp question arises, given the vast proliferation of communication and photography tools, documentation, and broadcasting – if an effort is not made to collect at least copies of all the testimonies that are heard and broadcast in the media in Israel and around the world, why what happened on October 7th, in one place, there will not be a complete picture in the future.

“The second question: Since the Holocaust ended, denial began immediately, and in fact, the Germans began to hide evidence while it was happening. The attempt teaches that the size of the crime is indeed the depth of the denial, and so is the immediacy of the denial. Not only the Holocaust but many other crimes were being denied, because denial aids forgetfulness, both stem from the same root, and it helps escape punishment. The first book to deny the Holocaust was published as early as 1945, and after October 7th, we didn’t have time to turn around and already began talking about the fact that there is no evidence and it is not possible.

“The third question: Is it appropriate to celebrate during and after a disaster? In March 1943, 80 years ago, the students at the Hebrew University debated whether to hold the traditional Purim carnival and just a few months after became known that the killing of Jews was systematic. Also, in Dalia Kibbutz, they asked what should happen to the dance festival. Today we also debated what to do on Purim and Passover, and next week on Independence Day. So, both then and today, two parallel paths were created, with anger and sorrow on the side, the ongoing life, and the marking of holidays and festivals, maybe as a matter of fact, especially life.

“Since that terrible day, so many young flowers have been buried, too many young ones, and therefore, with all the sorrow, it was decided to continue forward, to look ahead, to volunteer. Close to two thousand survivors left their homes on October 7th, over five hundred of them from the surrounding area. There is no uniform response among the survivors to the events, each one responds to you in their own way, but some of them say: there is no doubt that it was a terrible day, with severe consequences in every aspect of our lives, but the comparison to the Holocaust is not one to one, and the comparers know this, because with all the pain and the associations, it is clear even to those who use the word Holocaust that this is a completely different event in its scope. And if then there was a renewal of life and a rebuilding of personal and national lives after the Holocaust, there will also be this time. Not tomorrow and not even the day after tomorrow, but there will be.”

Israel at the Movies

Film critic Prof. Shmulik Duvdevani speaks on how Israeli cinema gets to the heart of Jewish history, identity and trauma

To start, can you describe your background and your role at TAU?

 

I teach Israeli cinema and documentary cinema at the TAU Steve Tisch School of Film and Television. I did all three of my degrees here at the University and have been teaching here for 30 years. It’s really been my second home, and I love the fresh perspectives my students bring in all of our discussions. Some have gone on to become film critics like me, and some are now filmmakers including an Ophir Award winner (Erez Tadmor) and an Oscar winner (Guy Nativ)!

 

In my time at TAU I’ve published two books: First Person Camera about personal documentaries between the two intifadas; and very recently The First Modernists about Israeli documentaries of the 1960s-70s. Additionally, I’ve written film reviews for the newspaper YNet for the past 24 years, which I believe makes my column the longest-running film column in Israel.

 

Can you talk a bit about the Israeli film industry?

 

One thing I am very excited about is how many newcomers there are in the industry since the early 2000s. In the last 20 years Israeli cinema has given stronger voices to the many different communities that make up our society. Just in recent years we had Late Marriage that was in Georgian, we had Yana’s Friends in Russian, we had Baba Joon in Persian, and we had Sandstorm in Arabic. There are ultra-Orthodox filmmakers including women like Rama Burshtein and even Palestinian directors such as Taufik Abu Wael (a TAU alum himself).

 

“Since the beginning, our cinema has dealt with what defines Israeli identity, or with the difficulty of defining it.”

 

Since the beginning, our cinema has dealt with what defines Israeli identity, or with the difficulty of defining it. We have so many populations and viewpoints which are foreign or even diametrically opposed to each other, especially in the last year. We cannot even agree on our physical borders. I think Israeli cinema gives form and shape to these myriad stories by exploring the often-conflicting histories and traumas of different Israeli groups.

Dir. Avi Nesher’s “Image of Victory” highlights the opposing narratives inherent to the story of Israel’s beginning. (Screenshot: Amit Yasur)

 

What are some specifics of Israeli trauma in film?

 

One of the biggest themes we grapple with is the line between victim and perpetrator. Jews have been victims for so many years that conceiving of ourselves as aggressors creates cognitive dissonance. One common way we see this is through the Israeli soldier on screen. For example, right around the second Intifada (2000-2005) was the first time Israeli soldiers were being accused of war crimes in real time. In those few years three Lebanon War films were made in which Israeli soldiers are invading another country—but their perspectives remain those of traumatized victims. They can only see part of the reality. These films had widespread impact both in Israel and abroad; two were nominated for Oscars.

 

We also see how each time we experience a collective trauma, it is reflected implicitly in much of our cinema. After the Rabin assassination, there wasn’t a narrative piece about the event for 20 years. But for all of those 20 years, films repeatedly featured themes of missing or dead fathers and the effect of that absence on families. We saw symbolically how Rabin was a father figure for the country and how profoundly we all felt his loss.

“Waltz With Bashir” is one of three films that deal with trauma and guilt from the Lebanon War. (Art: Bridgit Folman Film Gang)

 

What are some films that you feel exemplify the Israeli trauma experience?

 

Take a film like Waltz With Bashir. This is a film that could only be made in Israel. It’s a filmmaker looking back at the trauma of his military service and using his artistic tools to both explore it and go through a therapeutic process while dealing with perspectives that the Israeli film industry is uniquely concerned by: memory, guilt, accountability, national narratives and private narratives.

 

Another is Legend of Destruction about the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jewish People from the Land of Israel. Put into the context of the political turmoil we were experiencing up until October 7th, I think we can see how we are in certain ways right back where we were 2000 years ago. October 7th was something like the destruction of the temple in that it was a disaster that tapped into our most basic collective trauma.

 

Finally, Image of Victory about the War of Independence depicts how the Israeli and Palestinian narratives cannot really be separated. Its message is that you can’t tell one without the other, even though we have tried many times.

The Second Temple burns in Dir. Gidi Dar’s “Legend of Destruction”. (Art: David Polonsky and Michael Faust)

 

Do you expect the current war to be portrayed differently on film from previous wars? Do you think it will affect the way the Israeli experience is shown on film going forward?


Of course I am not a prophet, but yes, I think Israeli cinema is going to change, drastically. This trauma was like nothing we have ever witnessed—we cannot go back to telling the same old stories and dealing with the same old conflicts. I think it will continue to resonate for a long time because it sparks our oldest existential fears as Jews and Israelis. In 50 years, my son is going to tell his grandchildren exactly where he was on October 7th.

 

And since this situation is ongoing, we’re experiencing a national trauma that is perhaps entirely unique to our state—we’re all experiencing the losses from both the attack and the war, we’re all experiencing the helplessness of the hostage situation, and most of us have had to run to shelters in the last months. So Israeli filmmakers will have to completely rethink how they deal with the aesthetics, ethics, and narratives of trauma. I think, unlike with the Rabin assassination, they will have to deal with the event very, very explicitly and directly. I don’t think it will be many years before we start seeing narrative films about it.

Future films may deal with the current violence very explicitly. (Screenshot: “Image of Victory”, Amit Yasur)

 

What are your thoughts on the documentaries being made about the Oct. 7 tragedies?

 

I’ve actually already started teaching one of them in my Current Israeli Documentary class, Nova. That one came out vey quickly, but I know for a fact that there are many, many more on the way.

 

“I believe that whether people want to see it or not, the imagery both in documentaries and narrative cinema is going to be extremely graphic going forward.”

 

What is unique about Nova is the way it actually uses found footage that was shot by survivors and victims—and the terrorists themselves on GoPros attached to their bodies. So in some cases you are “in the body” of a terrorist! In other scenes you are running or huddled in hiding with other people. One striking phenomenon is that even while hiding, people are speaking quietly to their phones as if they understand that they must provide this type of live coverage of their own survival attempt; or as they run they take out their phones and film the carnage around them. As a viewer you start to ask yourself, why do we have the impulse to use technology this way?

 

So I think this type of technology is going to be a major part of the aesthetics of upcoming documentaries. We have so much footage especially from GoPros, I think this new experience of being “attached to a body” will be a main feature of these films. I also believe that whether people want to see it or not, the imagery both in documentaries and narrative cinema is going to be extremely graphic going forward.

For “Nova”, Dir. Dan Pe’er collected chilling first-person and selfie videos recovered from victims, survivors and terrorists at the music festival.

 

Have you changed your film classes to focus more around the war?

 

After October 7th I changed around my whole curriculum to focus on more current Israeli society, and after some debate I decided to begin with this documentary of the events at the Nova music festival. It turned out to spark a very meaningful class discussion. But I did need to consider how my students would react to certain images in ways I haven’t before. There are scenes that wouldn’t have had a negative impact a year ago that are now received very differently.

 

Do you think the drive to create documentaries stems from a desire for the world to see what we went through or from a need to work through it ourselves?

 

The answer is, of course, both. I imagine that people will want to make films about their own experiences. However I also think it is essential that people abroad see these films. Seeing how deeply anti-Zionism and antisemitism have taken root around the world and most strongly at elite academic institutions was a trauma in itself. Every single Harvard student and faculty member who has repeated violent chants and allowed hatred to go unchallenged should have to watch every film that comes out about the atrocities. They need to be shown that there is something rotten in the way they think that caused them to react the way they did. They should have to face head-on exactly what it is they are supporting.

 

“Every single Harvard student and faculty member who has repeated violent chants and allowed hatred to go unchallenged should have to watch every film that comes out about the atrocities. They should have to face head-on exactly what they are supporting.”

 

For us here in Israel, though, we are all traumatized by the attacks. There is no doubt in my mind that the documentaries now and whatever cinema comes out in two or three years will have a profound effect on Israeli viewers and on Jewish viewers the world over.

 

Antisemitism Worldwide Report for 2023

Concern for the Future of Jewish Life in the West

The Annual Antisemitism Worldwide Report, published by Tel Aviv University and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), reveals that 2023 saw an increase of dozens of percentage points in the number of antisemitic incidents in Western countries in comparison to 2022. A particularly steep increase was recorded following the October 7 attacks, but the first nine months of 2023, before the war started, also witnessed a relative increase in the number of incidents in most countries with large Jewish minorities, including the United States, France, the UK, Australia, Italy, Brazil, and Mexico. 

“October 7th helped spread a fire that was already out of control,” states the Report.

Link to the full report

Countries recording steep increases

According to the Report, in New York, the city with the largest Jewish population in the world, NYPD recorded 325 anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2023 in comparison to the 261 it recorded in 2022, LAPD recorded 165 in comparison to 86, and CPD 50 in comparison to 39. The ADL recorded 7,523 incidents in 2023 compared to 3,697 in 2022 (and according to a broader definition applied, it recorded 8,873); the number of assaults increased from 111 in 2022 to 161 in 2023 and of vandalism from 1,288 to 2,106. 

Other countries also saw dramatic increases in the number of antisemitic attacks, according to data collected by the Report from governmental agencies, law enforcement authorities, Jewish organizations, media, and fieldwork. 

In France, the number of incidents increased from 436 in 2022 to 1,676 in 2023 (the number of physical assaults increased from 43 to 85); in the UK from 1, 662 to 4,103 (physical assaults from 136 to 266); in Argentina from 427 to 598; in Germany from 2,639 to 3,614; in Brazil from 432 to 1,774; in South Africa from 68 to 207; in Mexico from 21 to 78; in the Netherlands from 69 to 154; in Italy from 241 to 454; and in Austria from 719 to 1,147. Australia recorded 622 antisemitic incidents in October and November 2023, in comparison to 79 during the same period in 2022.

 

Antisemitic incidents increased also before October 7th

While the dramatic increases in comparison to 2022 largely followed October 7, the Report emphasizes that most countries with large Jewish minorities saw relative increases also in the first nine months of 2023, before the war started. For example, in the United States, ADL data (based on the narrower definition for antisemitic incidents) point to an increase from 1,000 incidents in October-December 2022 to 3,976 in the same period in 2023, but also to an increase from 2,697 incidents between January-September 2022 to 3,547 in the same period in 2023 (NYPD registered a decrease in that period, while LAPD an increase). 

In France, the number of incidents during January-September 2023 increased to 434 from 329 during the same period in 2022; in Britain – from 1,270 to 1,404. In Australia, 371 incidents were recorded between January and September 2023, compared to 363 in the same period in 2022. On the other hand, Germany and Austria, where national programs for fighting antisemitism are applied, saw decreases.

Prof. Shavit: “Concern that the curtain will descend on Jewish life in the West”

According to Prof. Uriya Shavit, Head of The Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry and the Irwin Cotler Institute, “The year is not 1938, not even 1933. Yet if current trends continue, the curtain will descend on the ability to lead Jewish lives in the West – to wear a Star of David, attend synagogues and community centers, send kids to Jewish schools, frequent a Jewish club on campus, or speak Hebrew”.

Shavit said: “With bomb threats against synagogues becoming a daily occurrence, Jewish existence in the West is forced to fortify itself, and the more it does so, the more the sense of security and normalcy is undermined. What the fight against antisemitism needs now is efforts focused on the hubs of poison, and the presentation of measurable and attainable goals. Foremost, the reality in which big companies make big money by spreading big hate has to end”.

Prof. Shavit added: “The reality is that Israel, as a state, is limited in what it can do for Jewish communities. But even the little that can be done is not done. Israel does not have a meaningful strategic plan for combatting antisemitism that is based on the needs of Jewish communities. The main contributions of the government are pompous statements and sporadic initiatives. Responsibility for combatting antisemitism should be delegated to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose officials are professionals who know the Jewish communities firsthand. The Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and Combatting Antisemitism is redundant. A small example of just how much so: A few months ago, we noted in another report that the link provided on their website in English for reporting antisemitic incidents leads to an empty page. It made headlines in the media. And what happened? Nothing. No one bothered to fix it. It still leads to an empty page. There are no limits to the negligence and lack of professionalism”.

According to Prof. Shavit, “one of the biggest challenges of our time is how to mobilize support for the fight against antisemitism without making it the definer of Jewish identity”. 

 

Prof. Uriya Shavit.

ADL Head Greenblatt: “A Tsunami of Hate”

ADL’s CEO and National Director, Jonathan Greenblatt, said: “The aftermath of Hamas’s horrific attack on Israel on October 7th was followed by a tsunami of hate against Jewish communities worldwide. Unprecedented levels of antisemitism have surged globally in the streets of London, New York, Paris, Santiago, Johannesburg and beyond. This year’s report is incredibly alarming, with documented unprecedented levels of antisemitism, including in the US, where 2023 saw the highest number of antisemitic incidents in the US ever recorded by ADL. We are proud to partner with Tel Aviv University on this important annual report which will be used to inform governments and civil society and help push back against antisemitic trends”.

In a special essay for the Report, Greenblatt wrote: “Antisemitism isn’t just an abstract issue. It is a real-life threat to Jewish life in America and Jews around the world, and our history teaches us that we do not have the luxury to be indifferent when moments like these occur. That means we need to be clear-eyed about the threats we face and have the determination to confront them”.

An Emergency Plan by former Canadian Justice Minister

Former Canadian Justice Minister and Attorney General Irwin Cotler offers in the Report a historical and political analysis of the development of present-day antisemitism and a detailed 11-point plan for globally combatting the phenomenon. Cotler warns that “the explosion of antisemitism is a threat not only to Jews, but is toxic to our democracies, an assault on our common humanity, and a standing threat to human security – in a word, the bloodied canary in the mineshaft of global evil. Jews alone cannot combat it, let alone defeat it. What is required is a constituency of conscience – a whole of government, whole of society commitment and action to fight this oldest and most lethal of hatreds”. 

The 150-page Report includes in-depth essays on different countries, as well as a study on the profiles of the spreaders of antisemitic content on X (formally Twitter). The essays examine, among other issues, the proliferation of antisemitic discourses in the Arab world, Turkey, and Iran following October 7 and trace their roots. The Report argues that “any future diplomatic negotiations must prioritize the uprooting of antisemitism from Arab societies”.

“The fringes encroach on the political center”

The Report notes that hate speech was articulated already before Israel launched its campaign in Gaza, including on leading university campuses, and thus urged against seeing the recent wave of antisemitism as an emotional response to the war. “Some antisemitic attackers emphasize their problem is with Israel, not with Jews, and then attack Jews and Jewish institutions.” 

Dr. Carl Yonker, Senior Researcher and Project Manager at the “Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry,” TAU, who wrote a study for the Report on antisemitism in the United States, said: “Contrary to the conventional wisdom, post-October 7 incidents were also led from the far right in America. Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and others glorified Hamas and used the war to spread antisemitic propaganda along with conspiracy theories, according to which the crisis will advance the replacement of the white majority in the West by migrants from the Middle East. The fringes in the United States are encroaching on the political center from both right and left, making combatting antisemitism much trickier”.

Scapegoating Jews in Russia

The Report notes the impossibility of reliably tracking antisemitic incidents in Russia at the present. An extensive essay in the Report examines the antisemitic rhetoric of the Russian dictator Putin and members of his regime. The Report notes that “At the beginning of 2023, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow in exile, Pinchas Goldschmidt, warned that Jews should leave Russia before they are scapegoated. Sadly, 2023 did not disprove the words of this wise and courageous religious leader.”

On the part of Tel Aviv University, the Report was researched by the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry with the support of The Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation and the Irwin Cotler Institute for Democracy, Human Rights and Justice with the support of Richard and Elaine Dubrovsky and Sara Vered. 

See full Report here

The Center for Russian Studies at Tel Aviv University has begun its work

The “Chubays Project” at TAU turned out to be scientific, it will deal with the history of Russia to study its future

The Center for Russian Studies (CRS) at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tel Aviv University has begun its work. On April 16, there was a presentation of the launch report of the new center – Russian Future Initiative. Contrary to its name, the project appears surprisingly non-political. In order to talk more or less seriously about Russia’s future, CRS intends to deal with the recent history of Russia – economic, political, social, and cultural. The period that interests CRS is from 1991, when the collapse of the USSR occurred and Russia appeared as a separate state, to the present day.

In Russia and Israel, the media has already reported that one of Israel’s universities intends to create a CRS on the funds of Israeli and Russian sponsors-entrepreneurs. Anatoly Chubays, a well-known Russian reformer and former Russian government vice-premier, as previously reported by JP, repatriated to Israel in May 2022. However, the assumptions that a think tank would be created in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Beersheba to prepare scenarios for new reforms in the so-called “post-Putin” period were unfounded. The CSR presentation was purely academic, and Anatoly Chubays is only mentioned as the organizer of the group of sponsors of the new center, whose task is a comprehensive study of Russia’s possible future based on the analysis of the events of its recent past.

Social Sciences Instead of Futurology

In Israeli social science, there are already several centers studying Russia, including on the TAU Faculty of Social Sciences and other faculties. Israeli historians, economists, sociologists, culture experts, and specialists on Jewish community life in Russia and the former USSR are well-known in professional circles and in Russia and the world. Academic science in this sense has no boundaries; Russian Studies have been widespread since the 1950s, the beginning of the “Cold War,” primarily in US and European universities. However, CRS is likely the only Israeli scientific center currently studying the last 30 years of Russian history. As it became clear during the presentation, working on these topics between Russia’s history and the present will be more scholars involved in contemporary research than historians – part of them will work in Tel Aviv, part in Russia and Europe. For example, Victor Vakhshtayn, a sociologist and former dean of the Sociology Faculty at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, will continue his research in the field of social capital studies within the CRS project. Alexander Baunov, a political scientist and author of the popular 2023 book “The End of the Regime: How Three European Dictatorships Ended,” currently working and the Berlin Carnegie Center and as visiting researcher at the Florence University Institute, will continue his research on the structure of Russian elites. Dmitry Butrin, an economist and economic editor of the Moscow “Kommersant,” is an economist in the CRS project. Finally, from Moscow, within the CRS project, cultural studies of Russian culture will be conducted by literary scholar Alexander Arkhangelsky, who continues his work on a series of Russian documentary films.

Over the five years that the CRS initiative is planned, it is assumed that other researchers from Israel, Russia, and other countries will join – the authors of the initial report hint that representatives of other social sciences, such as international relations, may also be involved. The main idea of the research, however, primarily involves working together among CRS staff and working within interdisciplinary research. As the center’s staff explains, which, as it turned out, has been working at TAU’s Faculty of Social Sciences under the leadership of professor Itai Sened since February, the latest Russian history now looks quite unusual in scientific description. There are several “histories of Russia” since 1991, almost none of which are related to each other. One is the history of changes in Russian society at the elementary level. Several others are different parts of the economic histories of the huge populated country, which has appeared as a successfully reforming economy, a backward world gas station, a kingdom of state capitalism, and a battleground for warring oligarchs and siloviki since 1991. Finally, there is the history of the transformation of Russian culture in all its layers – from the return of religion to it to new cults of strength and aggression.

These parts are challenging to reconcile with each other even in publicist descriptions. However, the declared task of CRS is to approach the possibility of “understanding Russia” in its new form in a purely academic sense. In this model, the “cultural” component will not contradict the “political,” and social development will not contradict the economic. CRS assumes that this is the only way to speak reliably about what can and cannot happen to Russia in the foreseeable future because, at least since 2012-2014, forecasts about what would happen in Moscow even next year have usually turned out poorly. And the war with Ukraine, the political protests of 2012, and the current economic upswing have become unexpected for researchers.

However, the same, emphasize the researchers of CRS, can now be said about any other country in the world – quick and bright forecasts, let alone politically engaged ones, attract attention but are just as quickly forgotten. In any case, part of the political sector of neither Israel nor Russia will become the “Chubays Center” in such a composition and with such a research program. However, Tel Aviv University is getting new research team whose answer to the question “What is happening in Russia?” may be more fundamental than before.

How Do We Commemorate the Holocaust in 2024?

A Graduate of the Digital Media Track Created A Video Game Based on His Grandfather’s Survival Story During the Holocaust as A Child.

 

 

Ohad Tadmor, a graduate of the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television and a digital media track alum, created a video game that not only entertains but also educates players about his grandfather’s Holocaust survival. This innovative approach revitalizes the crucial mission of transmitting Holocaust memory to new audiences.

“I wanted to create a game that I would want to play, experience, and be moved by.”

Ohad, tell us about the idea of turning your grandfather’s story into a computer game.

“As a third generation Holocaust survivor, the subject very present in our family. The story of my grandfather, Abraham Hertzock, may he rest in peace, who survived the Holocaust alone as a child in the forests of Czechoslovakia, seemed like a suitable and unique template for a game that combines history, creativity, fear, danger, and courage. It has all the elements of a good story and in my opinion, a good story is one of the most meaningful factors in video games. Despite the sensitivity of the topic, I wanted to use this medium to bridge the gap in Holocaust remembrance among younger generations.”

 

Ohad and his grandfather, Abraham Hertzock, may he rest in peace.

Which tools did your Film and Television degree, especially the Digital Media program, bring to your creative process?

“Throughout my life, I’ve been playing video games, but I never created one. During my studies, I immersed myself in game development software. We learned techniques in areas such as coding, animation, 3D modeling, lighting, and stage design, which helped me independently build the framework for an experience and understand how a general video game system operates.

 

“The narrative aspect was very important to me, and thankfully, during our studies, we also received personal guidance in developing a script for our creations. It was challenging because, unlike in films, a video game is interactive, and I had to think about how to adapt personal narratives into a unique interactive experience.”

Who’s the game’s main audience?

the game is in actuality aimed towards girls and boys aged 12 and up who are into story-driven video games. But I can say that a lot of people with no prior gaming experience got really excited about it.”

Link to the game >>

Do you think children living abroad could also identify with it and enjoy it?

“Of course, many players from around the world have played the game, and the message of resilience and coping resonates universally. Additionally, the game has no text, so it contributes to its accessibility from anywhere and at any age.”

What emotional and gameplay experience awaits players?

“First and foremost, there’s empathy for Emil (our avatar), along with feelings of fear, danger, creativity, resilience, and hope. These are the exact emotions I recall feeling myself when I listened to my grandfather’s testimony, and they’re what inspired me to craft this gaming experience. In terms of gameplay, I aimed to create a challenging and true-to-life experience.”

 

A scene from the game ‘Emil: A Hero’s journey’.

Are there parts of Grandpa’s testimony integrated into the game?

“Of course. The fantastical elements are products of our imagination, but many segments of the game are based on his testimony. One example is the gameplay section where Emil has to hide from soldiers’ flashlights while concealing himself in a wheat field. When the Germans came to take his family to the camps, my grandfather, being the eldest among his siblings, leaped from the house window to the wheat field and hid there until they left. That’s how his father found him, believing he could survive on his own.

“Another example is that since there’s no text in the game, I utilized the environment itself to tell the story (Environmental Storytelling). In the forest Emil traverses, you can see scattered Jewish belongings such as suitcases, carts, and photo albums. On one of the albums displayed prominently, you can see the real photos of my grandfather’s lost family – his father, mother, sister, and little brother.”

 

On the right: The Hertzock family, who perished in the Holocaust (Abraham, the survivor, is the rightmost child). On the left: Abraham Hertzog in his youth.

“I believe my grandfather would have been surprised to see a video game tackling this topic… but I think he would have understood that to reach today’s young audience, adaptations in the medium are necessary.”

Was the animation process of the child mainly technical, or did emotions take over?

“The process was quite complex. Since I wanted Emil’s movements to be authentic and as similar as possible to those of a small, frightened child wandering alone in the forest, we brought an 11-year-old child actor named Yoav to portray Emil. Training Yoav on the character and his story, and on the game itself, wasn’t easy and required a lot of sensitivity, especially when tackling a topic like the Holocaust, and certainly trying to integrate it into an emotional-conscious state that my grandfather experienced. Thankfully, Yoav is a sensitive and talented child, and based on his movements, we created those of Emil’s 3D character.

The music accompanying the game is deeply emotional (string instruments), and actually reminiscent of Holocaust films. How did you caft it? Did you expect it to be Emil’s accompanying sounds?

“The music accompanying the game is something I’m very proud of. I’ve always wanted to be a musician, and I truly believe that music is a significant part of an experience and can convey a lot of emotion. In creating the original soundtrack, I worked with a talented composer named Yotam Aluf, and we discussed the period, the story’s essence, and the important feelings I wanted to emphasize through the melody. Of course, we also referenced a lot of tunes from various genres. Yotam composed and played the soundtrack on the piano, and then we recorded a live cello in the studio to accentuate the string instruments characteristic of Jewish music from that period.

What would your grandfather say if he could see and play the game?

“My grandmother, Devi, my grandfather’s widow, said that Grandpa would have been very proud knowing that his grandson is sharing his story and using it to commemorate the memory of the Holocaust, something he and other children his age endured. Personally, I believe my grandfather would have been surprised to see a video game about this topic, but with a deep and thorough explanation, I think he would understand that to reach today’s young audience, adjustments in the medium are necessary, and as long as it’s done with respect and awareness, it’s a blessing.

Do you have any advice for someone considering enrolling in the Digital Media program?

Since the Digital Media track provides a wide range of tools in a comprehensive way, I would recommend anyone considering enrolling to try and understand what it’s about. Whether they want to specialize or work in it in the future, in combination with cinema studies, this track offers a background and general understanding that can greatly assist in building our world, story, and design of our experience, as well as tools in programming, animation, and creating effects. Moreover, like any degree, I found myself learning and researching many topics independently and not waiting to study them only when required to do so in homework assignments.”

The team that worked with Ohad on this meaningful project:

  • Afik Yairi – Producer
  • Or Hadar – Animation and 3D
  • Nadav Litver – Programming
  • Shachar Amiri – Concept Art
  • Yotam Aluf – Music Composition
  • Naor Hazan – Sound Design

 

Is the Heaviest Black Hole in Our Galaxy Closer Than We Think?

Gaia Spacecraft Reveals Massive Black Hole in Milky Way

An international team of researchers, with the participation of researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) led by Prof. Tsevi Mazeh, discovered a star which orbits a black hole 33 times heavier than the sun’s mass, and lies 1500 light-years away from Earth. The black hole, discovered using data from the European Gaia spacecraft, is more than three times heavier than the other known black holes in our galaxy.

The Gaia spacecraft was launched by the European Space Agency in 2013 and has since then been regularly measuring the position and brightness of over a billion stars in our galaxy – the Milky Way galaxy – with unprecedented precision, equivalent to accurately determining the position of a single grain of sand on the moon to the millimeter.

An organization of hundreds of scientists across Europe processes the data coming in from the spacecraft and makes it accessible to the entire scientific community. The research group was led by Prof. (emeritus) Tsevi Mazeh, from TAU’s Raymond and Beverly Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy, recently awarded the Israel Prize in Physics for the year 2024. Prof. Mazeh participates in the study of binary star systems discovered using spacecraft data. The research was published in the prestigious journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

Cosmic Odyssey: Exploring the Depths of the Universe

The large sample of binary stars should also include systems which include a black hole – one of the rarest celestial objects in the universe. The existence of a black hole is one of the most amazing phenomena in the universe, the existence of which was predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity back in 1939.

According to the accepted theory, when the fuel for the nuclear combustion process that takes place in the core of a star runs out, it collapses in on itself, towards its center. If the star is massive enough, all the remaining matter collapses into a single point of infinite density. It is possible, therefore, to see the black hole as the “corpse” of a star that has ended its life cycle and collapsed in on itself. Astrophysicists are still trying to understand the extreme conditions that lead to the collapse of matter into the central point, and therefore every discovery of a black hole is accompanied by enormous excitement among astronomers.

Into the Abyss of the Black Hole

It is very difficult to discover black holes since light cannot overcome the strong gravitational force in its vicinity. When a black hole is in a binary system with a normal star, the motion of the visible star is used to measure the mass of its invisible partner and thus prove that it is indeed a black hole. Indeed, in a matter of just a few years, the Gaia spacecraft has already discovered two black holes.

With the expectation that the data that continues to be collected by the spacecraft will lead to the discovery of more black holes, Prof. Mazeh together with Prof. Laurent Eyer from the University of Geneva established a small team to find black holes using the spacecraft’s data, including scientists from France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Poland and Switzerland. While examining the new data, the team came across a binary system containing a special black hole, the likes of which has never been found before, with a mass of 33 solar masses, around 1,500 light years away from us.

The new black hole is more than three times heavier than any other known black hole in the Milky Way galaxy. The binary system, named Gaia BH3, contains an ordinary star that seems to have formed more than ten billion years ago when our galaxy was still very young. The star orbits the black hole in an 11-year cycle.

Prof. Tsevi Mazeh – 2024 Israel Prize Winner in Physics

At the suggestion of Prof. Mazeh, it was decided to publish the sensational disclosure right now and not wait until the orderly publication of all the systems that were discovered. The entire spacecraft team, including researchers from TAU – Prof. Shay Zucker, head of the Porter School of Environment and Earth Sciences, Dr. Simchon Faigler, Dr. Sahar Shahaf (now at the Weizmann Institute), Dr. Dolev Bashi (now at the University of Cambridge), Avraham Binnenfeld (research student) and Oded Orenstein (second-year undergraduate student) – are listed as contributors to the scientific article published today which reports on the discovery.

Prof. Tsevi Mazeh: “This is an exciting discovery of the heaviest black hole in a binary system known today in the galaxy. About thirty years passed from the first hypothesis of the existence of a black hole until the discovery of the first black hole, and more than fifty years passed before we were able to discover Gaia BH3 – the binary system with the longest cycle known today. It is amazing how humankind manages to navigate the vast expanses of the universe and discover such mysterious objects. I am convinced that the discovery will lead to a new mode of thinking regarding the presence and prevalence of the black holes that cruise through the expanses of our galaxy.”

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