What the Ukraine Crisis Means for Cyber Warfare

What the Ukraine Crisis Means for Cyber Warfare.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rapidly unfolds, we sat down with Omree Wechsler, a senior researcher in TAU’s Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security, to discuss the cyber security aspects of the conflict in Ukraine.

Omree, Ukraine’s vice prime minister recently said the country had launched an ‘IT army’ to combat Russia in cyberspace. How would you assess Ukraine’s cyber capabilities? 

Several attempts were actually made to assess the national cyber power of states, however, Ukraine was not among them due to the lack of data. While the research community is still in the dark about Ukraine’s cyberspace capabilities, we can assume that due to the fact that Ukraine was targeted by Russian cyberattacks ever since the annexation of Crimea, their cyber defense teams should be highly experienced.

The Ukrainian government has called upon the country’s hacking community to help protect their infrastructure, conduct espionage and disruptive activities against Russian forces. In addition, certain international hacking collectives (such as Anonymous) declared that they would act against Russian targets.

Screenshot from a popular St. Petersburg news outlet (https://www.fontanka.ru/): On February 28, several Russian news sites were attacked, warning readers not to "send their sons and husbands to certain death.” Anonymous claimed responsibility

 

Screenshot from a popular St. Petersburg news outlet (https://www.fontanka.ru/): On February 28, several Russian news sites were attacked, warning readers against “sending their sons and husbands to certain death.” Anonymous claimed responsibility

The official website of the Kremlin, the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin, kremlin.ru, crashed a few days ago (it is still down at the time of writing). Who is behind this attack?

The kind of attack we see on Russian official websites is called a ‘Denial of Service’ cyberattack (or DDoS). It’s a relatively easy task, and does not require sophisticated cyber expertise. Looking at past cyberattacks that were attributed to Western governments, mostly the U.S. Cyber Command, it does not seem that this is an instance of Western retaliation (Western cyberattacks would in theory look more like disabling military systems and so on), but rather the work of “hacktivists” – hackers who employ their capabilities as part of their social/political agenda. It could also be the work of Ukrainian hackers who took advantage of the opportunity to hit some symbolic target.

The power is no longer reserved for the state, then?

That’s correct. There are many other actors with access to cyber capabilities of varying complexity. However, advanced capabilities require means, such as money and expertise. Therefore, the most capable threat actor in this regard remains the state. It is also important to mention that cyber capabilities render factors such as population and geographic size, that are essential for conventional military might, obsolete.

I think that in the current conflict, international hackers or hacktivists could mostly embarrass the Russian government and cause some disruptions. One way that international hackers could cause damage to Russian targets is by ransomware attacks that encrypt data thus making it unreadable to the systems that use it. Another may include leaking highly sensitive or classified data that will be used by more sophisticated groups for more sophisticated attacks. However, the damage they can cause is usually limited compared to the capabilities of Western governments. 

 

The Russian invasion disrupted Ukraine’s internet connectivity, but the country has successfully mobilized public opinion with the help of social networks, and its Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov asked billionaire Elon Musk through Twitter to make available his company’s Starlink satellite broadband service in Ukraine. Musk delivered.

What type of cyber operations have been employed in this conflict? 

Before the military attacks, the Russians also used DDoS attacks and flooded Ukrainian government and banking websites. Other attacks employed so-called ‘wipers’, a malware that deletes data and renders computers unusable. There are plenty of tools in the cyber toolbox.

What were the Russian objectives of the cyberattacks? 

In January, some experts argued that the attacks’ objective was to steal information relevant to an upcoming invasion. DDoS attacks may have been used for diversion, while the wiper attacks prevented the Ukrainian government from quickly recovering by deleting data and preventing machines from booting.

The Russians also did their best to wreak fear and doubt among Ukrainian citizens and to embarrass the Ukrainian government. These attacks were accompanied with a constant disinformation campaign including reports on Ukrainian aggression in Eastern Ukraine.

Did it work?

There is no evidence that the attacks destabilized the public support for the Ukrainian government, inside Ukraine or abroad. It may seem that some of the Russian disinformation was also directed at local Russian citizens in order to increase support for the attack. There is still no indication that it worked, as reports on Russian soldiers that have been compelled to invade Ukraine are coming in.

 

Omree Wechsler

Should we expect more cyberattacks from Russia? 

I believe Russian aggression in cyberspace will continue, in order to support its military operations. Cyberattacks that cripple the electric grid, water systems and other critical infrastructure are even more possible, given the fact that many critical systems in Ukraine use Russian technologies and software. A prime example, is Ukraine’s electrical grid which was built during Soviet times. It is very likely that many more malware infections are lying dormant in Ukrainian systems, ready to be deployed.

Russian threat actors will likely direct their cyber efforts against NATO and EU member states as well, in retaliation for supporting Ukraine and announcing sanctions. In fact, banks, critical infrastructure operators, government and public administration agencies in Europe and in the U.S. have been on alert for a while. Earlier this month, oil and fuel supply companies in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium were hit by ransomware and forced to work in limited capacity. These attacks were attributed to a Russian-speaking group named ‘BlackCat,’ and, given that all these countries have in common that they are NATO member states that agreed to send troops and aircraft to countries surrounding Ukraine, it is difficult to decouple the attacks from the crisis in Ukraine.

Will the West remain idle? 

Apart from sanctions, it is possible that the West will employ cyberattacks. According to reports, U.S. President Joe Biden was presented with various options to carry out cyberattacks aimed at disrupting the Russian invasion. The UK Defense Secretary, Ben Wallace, stated that the UK may launch cyberattacks on Russia if it targets the UK networks. However, given their sensitive position, Western responses in cyberspace are likely to be limited and reactive. It really depends on the purposes and gains they wish to achieve.

Theoreticians have long tried to define how cyberattack operations can be utilized amid political and military conflicts, and whether they stand on their own or support conventional military operations. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the months preceding, therefore, are bound to be investigated as case studies necessary to understand the nature of cyberwarfare operations.

And Let There Be Light

Efforts by TAU’s Clinical Law Program will help keep electricity running for those who are struggling to pay utility bills.

The recent drop in temperature in Israel has led to a significant increase in electricity consumption. But what about those who simply cannot afford basic necessities?

A petition jointly filed by Tel Aviv University’s Human Rights Clinic at The Buchmann Faculty of Law will help keep the electricity on for some of Israel’s most underprivileged populations. In response to the appeal, Israel’s High Court ruled that electricity must not be cut off for citizens who prove a difficult economic or medical condition, effective immediately. We spoke with attorney Adi Nir Binyamini from TAU’s Human Rights Clinic, one of the lawyers who handled the case. 

Electricity – A Fundamental Right?

In a precedent-setting decision, the High Court ruled on January 20 that access to electricity should be considered a fundamental right and that the Electricity Authority must, within six months, amend the criteria for power outages as a means of collecting debt. Meanwhile, the new ruling assists electricity consumers who find themselves in serious economic or medical distress, and ensure that they will not be left in the dark or the cold and without other basic needs.

The ruling came in response to a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) in collaboration with the Human Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University, Physicians for Human Rights and the Israel Union of Social Workers against the Electricity Authority, the Israel Electric Corp. and Energy Minister. It was filed on behalf of several poor families whose electricity had been cut off for non-payment.

The High Court of Justice ruled that, until the Electricity Authority establishes appropriate criteria and procedures (within six months from the time of the ruling), it must enable consumers facing power cuts from lack of payment to demonstrate whether they are suffering financial or health problems that justify their continued access to electric power. The court said the Electricity Authority must conduct a hearing prior to cutting a customer’s power. It gave the national electricity provider six months to revise its procedures and ordered it to pay the petitioners 40,000 NIS ($12,800) in expenses, to be divided among them. “This is a dramatic change from the previous situation, when it was possible to cut off people’s electricity access due to the accumulation of debt, except for very few exceptions,” explains Att. Nir Binyamini.

 

From the second hearing in Higher Court, on October 28, 2021 (from left to right): Gil Gan Mor (ACRI), Hicham Chabaita and Att. Adi Nir Binyamini from TAU’s Human Rights Clinic and Att. Mascit Bendel (ACRI) 

The Beginning of a New Era

Binyamini, who has dealt with electricity litigation for several years now, says, “I feel personal and professional satisfaction that on the coldest day of the year, when people were left without heating, the High Court accepted our position and ruled not to cut off people’s electricity due to poverty and that debt must instead be collected by more moderate means.”


 When asked how the Clinic got involved with the project, Binyamini explains that TAU’s Humans Rights Clinic was previously part of a legal battle over water disconnections for consumers unable to pay their water bill. “After that was successfully completed, we took on the subject of electricity and have been working on it continuously for the past eight years. The Clinic represented and handled the two petitions that were submitted to the Israeli High Court, and over the years we have dealt with hundreds of individual cases of people being cut off from electricity. We have also been guiding and assisting social workers with individual cases.”

She adds that a large number of students from the Clinic have worked on the case over the years, and stresses that such practical experience is an extremely valuable component of legal education.

Upon the court’s ruling, Binyamini along with Att. Maskit Bendel of the ACRI issued a statement, saying: “We hope that the ruling, which opened with the words ‘and let there be light,’ heralds the beginning of new era when it comes to protecting weak populations from having their electricity cut off.” 

 

Attorney-at-law Adi Nir Binyamini from Tel Aviv University’s Human Rights Clinic (photo: Tomer Jacobson) 

Reading Tea Leaves

What is the origin of tea, and does the climate crisis threaten its production?

Tea – the ancient beverage comes in different flavors and colors. The Queen of England will never go without her afternoon tea, in India it’s enjoyed with milk and spices and we all like to pour ourselves an occasional cup of Earl Grey, especially when winter comes knocking. But have you ever wondered whether the saying “all the tea in China” really does indicate where tea drinking started? Or if the soothing drink may be affected by the climate crisis? Should we, in fact, be drinking it? We have, and our researchers explained, surprised us and busted some myths in the process.

When the Chinese Mystics Met the Tea Plant

We’re not going to keep you in suspense: It turns out that the coveted drink was sipped by the Indian Buddhist monks two thousand years ago – long before it became an integral part of Chinese culture and a long, long time before it became popular in Western cultures.

“The tea plant was known in China as early as the first centuries BCE, but recent studies show that the custom of drinking tea was brought to China from India,” explains Prof. Meir Shahar from The Department of East Asian Studies of The Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, who researches, among other things, the influence of Indian culture on Chinese religion and literature.

“In the first centuries CE Buddhism came to China from India and the Buddhist monks, who wanted to stay awake during the meditation, used to drink tea. The Chinese monks would observe this, and went on to adopt the custom as well, which then continued to spread to the rest of the Chinese population.”

While tea originates from India, the origin of the word ‘tea’ in most of the world’s languages, however, is Chinese. “In northern China it is called cha, hence the Russian chai, and in southern China it is pronounced as tcha, which is the origin of the English word tea,” reveals Prof. Shahar.

Buddhist monks on their tea break

What’s in Your Cuppa?

Buddhist monks realized long ago that tea keeps them awake and today, thanks to science, we are able to explain how the active ingredients of the plant affect us.

“Contrary to many people’s beliefs, all types of tea are produced from the same plant, namely the leaves and buds of the Camellia Sinensis plant. While there are several varieties of the plant, the types of tea that we are familiar with – white, green, oolong and black – differ according to the part of the plant from which they are produced and the way they’re processed. Green tea, for example, contains less caffeine than black tea. The leaves used to produce green tea undergo a minimal drying process while the leaves intended for black tea undergo drying and fermentation,” explains Guy Shalmon, a sports nutritionist and exercise physiologist at the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute.

“Tea leaves contain substances known as flavonoids. Their composition, however, varies from one tea to another. For example, green tea has a higher concentration of a substance called epigallocatechin 3-gallate, known for short as ‘EGCG’, than black tea which undergoes a prolonged processing process. It has antioxidant activity and is attributed various health effects,” says Guy.

“Having said that, tea may reduce the absorption of iron-derived iron minerals. The polyphenols (compounds with antioxidant properties), which exist in tea leaves, may bind inorganic iron mineral before it is excreted in the feces. In order to prevent this, one does not need to give up drinking tea, but instead make sure not to drink it while consuming iron-rich plant foods,” he advises.

Will Tea Survive the Climate Crisis?

The climate crisis brings with it many changes and different regions of the world are experiencing major climate fluctuations, ranging from heat and droughts to floods, storms and extreme cold. This could threaten the continued survival of agricultural crops. Some plants have crossed oceans and been absorbed by other continents, but what about those that require special conditions to thrive? Will the tea plant survive the changing conditions?

“A plant can adapt to new conditions up to a certain limit,” says Prof. Shaul Yalovsky of the School of Plant Sciences and Food Security at The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, who studies plant development mechanisms and their response to environmental stresses. His lab has succeeded in developing tomato varieties that consume less water and still deliver the same amounts of fruit while maintaining its quality.

“Tea is a crop that grows in very rainy areas. Therefore, it is not cultivated in an area like Israel, for example. Tea plantations are usually located on hills, where the weather is humid and cool to the appropriate extent and the soil is deep enough.”

The tea fields stretching over hills and mountains. Tea harvest in action


Disguised as Tea

Did you know that red “tea” (also known as “red bush tea”) is actually an infusion from the Rooibos plant that grows in South Africa? Because it is processed in the same way as the tea plant, it is commonly referred to as “red tea”, while in reality it is not a tea, but an herbal infusion. It is naturally caffeine-free.


Just like many other plants, tea requires specific conditions to grow: deep and airy soil rich in minerals, and an optimal temperature range between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius. “Tea is sensitive to cold, dryness, humidity and lighting conditions. For example, high humidity impairs the quality of the tea while periods of dryness increase its quality, and growing at high altitudes increases the quality of the tea but lowers the amount of crop,” explains Prof. Yalovsky.

The tea is grown in Asia, Africa and South America. The six largest tea producers in the world are China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Turkey. So what happens if growing conditions in East and Southeast Asia change? Prof. Yalovsky explains that it is necessary to adapt the types of tea plants according to their growing areas. “What works at one location does not necessarily work elsewhere: what grows well in East and Southeast Asia will not necessarily grow well in Kenya or Turkey, for example. Even if we should manage to copy a crop from one place to another, we may not succeed in maintaining its qualities and taste.”

When we drink Earl Grey tea we expect a very specific taste, and if the same tree were to be grown elsewhere – where the temperature may be the same as the original habitat but the soil is not – we would likely notice a change in the taste of the product. This is possibly one of the reasons why drinking Japanese green tea differs in taste from Chinese green tea.

With regard to the future of the in-demand beverage, Prof. Yalovsky says: “Even if the regions of the cultivated areas should experience floods – the tea plantations are positioned on the slopes of hills and mountains so it should not become an issue.” Another good news is that unlike many crops that depend on pollination to develop fruit – the tea plant is less reliant on this. “In the production of tea, we use its leaves and not its flowers or fruits and so it can be propagated by pruning (cutting a branch from a mature plant, a so-called ‘mother plant’, and creating a new plant through rooting). This method also ensures the genetic uniformity of the ‘daughter plants’, with everything that implies,” he concludes.

We made sure to ask Guy Shalmon which type of tea (if any) he recommends that our students drink during the exam period, to which he replied: “Actually, I wouldn’t say there’s any unique advantage or need to drink tea during an exam period. I’d say drink the kind of tea that you fancy and, ideally, try to rotate different types of tea. If the need for caffeine is the main consideration, black tea is the best choice, as it has the highest caffeine concentration. Black tea contains approx. 60-40 mg of caffeine per cup, while green tea contains only 20-15 mg.”

Well, who needs the exams as an excuse, anyway? If you’re like us, we suggest you pour yourself a cuppa on any day of the week – no special occasion required – and enjoy a peaceful break from everything and everyone.

Revisiting the Tel Aviv Zoo

Two TAU students developed an app that recreates the mythological zoo in the heart of the city.

For many years, there was a zoo right in the center of Tel Aviv. Residents of nearby streets used to wake up to roars of tigers and monkeys’ chatter. In 1980, the zoo and its residents were relocated to a large complex in neighboring Ramat Gan, but seasoned Tel Avivians still think of it fondly. Maya Shekel and Yuval Kela, two talented students in the digital media track at The Steve Tisch School of Film and Television, wanted to see it with their own eyes, and developed the TAZOO app that enables this.

Throughout the four years of their studies, they designed and created the unique widget, based on stories and memories of the local community. The animals were created by help of augmented reality technology, and in order to experience the project in full, all you need to do is to download the app on your phone, make your way to Tel Aviv’s City Garden and look for the orange signs that are scattered in the garden.

This new attraction, which will soon be launched in a festive ceremony, has already warmed the hearts of several Tel Aviv residents who inspired the creation of the project and the stories, as well as Tel Aviv Mayor, Mr. Ron Huldai, who still recalls the exact wording on the garden signs.

The Next-door Neighbor

What brings two students, both born long after the zoo was closed, to recreate Tel Aviv’s animalistic past? “I’ve been living on Tel Aviv’s Hadassah Street all my life, right opposite where the zoo used to be,” says Maya Shekel. “Whenever people hear where I live, they ask me, ‘Did you know that there used to be a zoo there?’,” Therefore, after hearing the recurring questions for years, she decided to investigate the subject further together with Yuval Kela, who is also her life partner.

“After some online research, we discovered amazing photos of elephants and lions in the middle of Tel Aviv. We realized that the place used to be a cultural center for the residents of the city. We decided to start a Facebook group which we called ‘Tel Aviv Zoo Community’. Gradually, people would join the group and share photos, memories and stories about the zoo. This way, we got confirmation that there was a nostalgic need to revive the lost zoo, and to share its story with those who visit the place today, unaware of its history.”

 

“An elephant is about to join us,” Maya Shekel demonstrates to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai how the TAZOO app works

Reviving Animals in Augmented Reality

Unlike many apps that allow you to sit in your living room and feel like you’re somewhere else, Maya and Yuval chose to encourage their users to venture to the real site where the zoo was once located. “It was important for us to create an experience where people actually had to physically experience the sights and the feelings, while reviving the lost place,” explains Yuval.

Their main challenge was to adapt the app for two different target audiences: the older residents, who wish to reminisce, and to the younger target audience (such as the elderly residents’ children and grandchildren). “We overcame this hurdle by adding layers to the app, like short films about the zoo staff and additional information where you can choose to delve deeper and read more about each station. We also added some games that are more suitable for children,” he adds.  

For big and for small. The virtual zoo in the Hadassah Garden

Storytelling and Technology

During their studies, Maya and Yuval learned the importance of storytelling on platforms of this type. They made sure to study the technology thoroughly to get a good grasp of both its advantages and limitations.

Throughout their work on the app, more and more ideas for future projects were born. “We’re constantly thinking of how we can take the idea and expand on it to include more destinations in the city, in Israel and in the world. There’s no shortage on ‘lost’ places that have left memories and history that can be revived by help of technology, allowing for people to experience and learn about them,” says Maya.

“The technology is constantly evolving. We hope to continue to create significant impact by combining storytelling and innovative technology. Our dream is to constantly create mainly projects that are accessible to the general public,” she concludes. On the question of which animal she would not want us to miss on the TAZOO app, she says “We would not want you to miss out on our hippos, Paula and Jacob! They jump into the water and really blend in with the physical space.”

 

Paula and Jacob with friends

The project was supported by the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality, which cooperated and placed the signs throughout the park, as well as The New Fund for Cinema and TV, which supported and assisted with funding.

Download the app on iOS- https://apps.apple.com/ch/app/tazoo/id1548925102

Download the app on Android- https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.tazoo.tazoo

*Maya and Yuval hope to create an English version of the app in the very near future, as part of the existing one.

Raising the Bar in Film

TAU student Bar Cohen is bringing Israeli spirit and transgender representation to the big screen.

“I like to explore myself through film, as a woman and a transgender woman; filmmaking is always personal,” says Bar Cohen, a student at Tel Aviv University’s Steve Tisch School of Film and Television.

Cohen wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical film Her Dance, which in June won two awards at the Palm Springs International ShortFest—Best Student International Short and the Audience Award for Best Student Short.

Her Dance along with her upcoming release, Bug, are fictional short films inspired by her experiences as a transgender woman whose family has roots in the Orthodox Jewish community. The intimacy and pain expressed by Cohen’s work are hitting a nerve with audiences, and successfully bringing representation from the lesser-known transgender community in Israel to the local and world stage.

A Rising Auteur  

Cohen, 26, realized at an early age that filmmaking was her calling.

“I’ve had a camera in my hand since I was eight years old,” she says. Cohen studied in a cinema track in high school and began her journey at TAU following her IDF service and after transitioning from the male gender assigned to her at birth to identifying as a woman.

Cohen, who recently completed her final year of undergraduate studies, is a scholarship recipient of both the Blavatnik Student Film Production Fund at TAU and Israeli transgender rights organization Ma’avarim (transitions).

Bar Cohen at Tel Aviv University

“The most amazing thing here at Tel Aviv University is the diversity of voices among the teachers,” she says. That range, she adds, provides a broad pool of mentors who can help students craft their own artistic expression. Cohen credits her academic mentor, Maya Dreifus, for providing invaluable guidance and inspiration.

“The best advice she gave me was to believe in myself and not worry about the opinions of others, because there will always be critics,” explains Cohen, who took that advice and ran with it.

Inspiration from the Heart

Cohen explains that lean budgets require Israeli filmmakers to rely on creativity and strong plotlines, rather than blockbuster action and overblown special effects.

“Israeli film brings heart,” she says. “Our main strength is telling meaningful stories.”

Cohen’s work is extremely close to her heart; she draws inspiration from the most vulnerable and authentic of sources—her own life.

A scene from Bar Cohen’s award-winning short film Her Dance

“It can be frightening to display elements of your real life on the big screen, but it’s the only way to create something of consequence,” she says.

A Journey of Self-Discovery

Originally from Bnei Barak, Cohen’s parents separated when she was three. Afterward, she lived with her mother in a secular home while her father remained Orthodox. At age five, Cohen told her mother that she didn’t feel like a boy, but rather a girl.

“My mom didn’t really understand it and thought it was just a phase,” explains Cohen.

“For a good part of my life, I was playing a role that wasn’t the real me. I was acting,” she says. That experience, she adds, contributed to her desire to study film.

Following a post-army trip to India, Cohen urgently felt the need to live her truth and told her parents that she had decided to transition to live as a woman.

“My parents lost a son, but gained a daughter,” she muses, noting that she made Her Dance to convey the complexities of that reality.

On the World Stage

Her Dance follows Aya, a secular transgender woman who arrives uninvited to her estranged, Orthodox family’s house during celebrations for her sister’s wedding. The heartrending 22-minute film debuted at the 2020 Tel Aviv Student Film Festival before premiering internationally.

WATCH: The trailer for TAU student Bar Cohen’s film Her Dance:

 

“It was the first time I saw my film in-person on the big screen since festivals went virtual due to COVID-19,” she explains shortly after returning from the Palm Springs ShortFest. “The audience was so receptive. After the screening, they had tears in their eyes and even gave me a standing ovation!”

In addition to Her Dance, the festival selected three other films by students of TAU’s Tisch School among the showcase of over 300 works from around the world: Borekas by Saleh Saadi, Neurim by Shaylee Atary, and Complicated by Isak Kohaly.

Her Dance was also among the competitions at the Aspen ShortFest, the BAFTA Student Film Awards, and the Indy Shorts International Film Festival.

Boosting Transgender Representation

For her next production, Cohen will soon shoot her graduation film about two friends navigating life and love after transitioning. It will feature a reprisal of the character Aya from Her Dance.

Following graduation, Cohen aims to create a TV series expanding upon the universe of her existing works.

While Cohen plans to initially establish her career in Israel, she notes that it is difficult to find local transgender actors and actresses.

“It’s important for me to bring real representation from the community,” she says. “It’s important for trans directors, actors and writers to take a part in our own stories.”

While transgender representation has made some significant steps in recent years with shows like Netflix’s Pose and the HBO adaption of Israeli drama Euphoria, Cohen acknowledges that there is still a long way to go.

And she believes she is well-position to help bring about that change.

Featured image: Bar Cohen accepts two awards at the Palm Springs International ShortFest (Photo: Nathan Cox, Palm Springs International ShortFest)

This Exhibition Will Make You Sweat

New exhibition on climate crisis gives us tools to save the planet.

Recent news has covered extreme events all over the world: floods in Germany, Belgium and central China, huge wildfires raging in California, consuming thousands of acres of land and extreme temperatures in Canada, Iraq and the United States. Scientists no longer doubt that all this and more is taking place due to global warming, and what is commonly referred to as the “climate crisis”

Seeking to educate the Israeli public on the science behind the concepts that we keep hearing, such as the greenhouse effect, global warming and carbon footprint, the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History has set up the exhibition “Global Warning: The Climate, the Crisis and Us”, which encourages the public to learn more about the subject and become ambassadors who will lead the long-awaited change. We checked, and can share with you that it is impossible to remain indifferent after visiting the exhibition.

How Many Trees Are Working Just for You?

The exhibition, which the museum has been working on for over a year, guides the visitors to the sea, land, glaciers and forests, in the past, present and future. It presents current scientific findings and basic concepts in the field in simple terms and through interactive means, such as videos, thermal cameras that expose thermal gases that surround us, and more.

It uncovers the dire consequences of the climate crisis here in Israel and worldwide, and illustrates the impact of our daily choices as individuals. Everything is not lost; the exhibition illuminates how we can counteract the changes that are causing the crisis and reduce the harm caused to us and the environment.

The various stations of the exhibition show how popular tourist spots may look like in 20 years from now, what the atmospheric composition was thousands of years ago, and what it may be in a few decades from now. The connection between allergies and global warming is explained, as well as what it will be like when sea level reaches our shoulders. You can even check what your personal carbon footprint is, by the help of an online calculator which was developed especially for the exhibition and is the first of its kind in Israel.

 

What do greenhouse gases look like? Judi Lax explains big concepts in simple language.

Fostering Change Agents

The new exhibition does not, however, intend to scare us into passivity: “We wish to increase the awareness surrounding our daily choices, such as what to eat, how to travel, what to buy and what not to buy. These things have implications and a price beyond the cost of the purchase itself. Oftentimes, people hear about the climate crisis and say, “Ok, but how does this relate to me?” We wish to impart that, although a lot [of damage] has accumulated, it is not all lost. We also have a hand in the matter, and can undo some of the damage,” explains Hadas Zemer Ben-Ari, the exhibition’s curator and designer. “Along with the experience of visiting the exhibition, we strive to make our visitors agents of change, who will spread the message outside the walls of the museum and inspire many others to work for the change that we so desperately need,” says Prof. Tamar Dayan, Museum Chair at the Steinhardt Museum of Nature.

The Museum joins some of the worlds’ largest museums in the common mission to carry out their social role in educating the wider audience on the topic of the climate crisis and the discussion of the biodiversity crisis and its impacts. Museum Director Alon Sapan explains that museums are capable of illustrating and simulating a complex reality and the processes that led to it, along with predictions for the future, while ensuring the visitors’ experience and encouraging their curiosity. “I hope that the exhibition will inspire questions, and also enlighten individuals on how they contribute to positive change by adjusting their personal habits,” concludes Sapan.

 

An invitation to change a habit (or three!) at the “Global Warning” exhibition.

Featured image: The exhibition “Global Warning: The Climate, the Crisis and Us” (Photo: Dor Kimchi)

Read more and purchase tickets here >> 

He’s Bringing Plastic Back

TAU alumnus Tal Cohen and his company “Plastic Back” converts plastic waste back to its original form.

We use plastic in almost every aspect of our lives. It is cheap in production, durable and can be reused multiple times. The problem is, though, that 350M tons of plastic waste is produced annually, out of which only 8% is recycled. To counter the environmental hazard, laws and regulations, are implemented towards reducing landfill and increasing recycling. The EU has pledged to reduce landfilling to 10% of its current capacity by 2030. We spoke with Tal Cohen, a TAU alumnus with an MBA from the Coller School of Management and founder of a startup company called “Plastic Back”, who may have found the perfect solution.

The Big Savior Becomes the Big Offender

When plastic was originally introduced, 70 years ago, it was commonly believed that it would contribute to save the environment. “When plastic was first introduced, it was actually thought to be the big savior of the future environment, replacing the use of ivory, tortoise shell and corals. While petroleum came to the relief of the whale, plastic has given the elephant, the tortoise and the coral a respite in their native haunts,” says Tal. With time, however, it went from being the big savior to instead becoming recognized as a major environmental hazard,” Tal muses. Over the past 70 years since its invention, 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste has been accumulated worldwide.

And how is plastic produced? “After developing over millions of years underground, crude oil is drilled out and extracted. It is then sent to be refined by the petrochemical industry, after which it can be used for various purposes, such as fuel for cars and… plastic production,” explains Tal. Plastic is, in other words, produced from oil, a non-renewable source of energy.  

Tal is well acquainted with plastic. After earning his B.Sc. in Marine Sciences and Environment at the Ruppin Academic Center, Tal Cohen worked as a marine biologist. Three kilometers offshore, surrounded by fish and – you guessed it – plastic, he would research, work in the lab and dive. After a few years, he went on to study for an MBA at Tel Aviv University: “I wanted to learn how to develop technologies and businesses that are focused on ecological solutions. While studying ‘Entrepreneurship and Innovation Technology Management’ at TAU, I was also working at a venture capital fund, handling portfolios of ten renewable energy companies. It taught me a lot about the needs of startups in the renewables field.”

 

Plastic Back’s technology offers waste handlers to help treat their waste streams and create profit, as an alternative to landfill

Bring it Back: A Chemical Solution

Tal Cohen and his Israeli based startup company “Plastic Back” offers an interesting solution: “By way of ‘reverse engineering’, we are able to convert plastic waste back to its original, valuable form of oils, waxes and other valuable chemicals. With unique chemicals, ratios and timing, our technology breaks down the carbon-to-carbon bonds of the plastic polymer to liquid fractions that can be (re)used by the petrochemical industry.” Brilliant, isn’t it?

“While transforming plastic back to oil through burning is already done, that requires very high temperatures, between 600-1000 degrees Celsius, which constitutes an environmental and financial burden. The real innovation here, is that we manage to convert the plastic to oil by chemical means only, and at room temperature. So there’s an environmental advantage which is expressed financially, and it is also advantageous energy-wise. The goal is to offer an alternative to the traditional drilling for additional non-renewable oil.”

The idea, Tal got while he was working with one of the aforementioned portfolio companies: “Once I felt like I had learnt enough about the startup world and what setting up a startup entailed, I went on a mission to find technologies. At The Hebrew University, they had a technology in place from 2016-17. It spoke to me, as it was related to plastic, which I was intimately familiar with from my time working underwater as a marine biologist, and I also knew that the renewables field is evolving.”

“The technology was in place, and so I decided to find out if there was any business interest for it. In 2019, I attended Shell’s competition in Holland, which is the largest energy competition in the EU, where more than 250 companies competed during 10 days of business and technological validation. We ended up in 2nd place. We knew then that there was demand for the crude oil which we were able to convert the plastic back to. Shell was willing to invest and to pay some money up front, so we had some starting capital. I went ahead and founded the company. We have since found an angel investor who invested a certain amount, have received recognition from the European Commission and are taking part in the EU accelerator program.”

Making Waste Vanish and Renewing Non-renewables

Who are the winners with this initiative? “Plastic Back enables a shift from a linear to a circular economy, by closing the loop between the petrochemical industry (including companies such as Shell), which is currently dependent of crude oil drilling and operating under increasingly heavy regulation and pressure, and the waste handlers who receive millions of tons of plastic waste from waste manufacturers, such as agriculture, factories and hospitals and medical devices, most of which goes to landfill. The waste handlers are seeking alternatives, especially as there’s been a fivefold increase in landfill price since 2019. The waste manufacturers, on their side, would gain the ability to treat their waste on site/close by, save expenses on removal and treatment fee and even create profits from their plastic waste.”

Tal is not planning to rest in the coming years, “The research and development phase of our project is completed for the most part. Last year, we successfully proved that there is demand for what we are offering. We have received a grant from the Ministry of Energy to set up our first pilot facility together with an industrial partner in the South of Israel in 2022. A year and a half after that, we would like to set up our first facilities. In five years from now, we should have two or three active facilities, hopefully one of them here in Israel and the rest in Europe.”

 

Tal Cohen presenting his startup at TAU’s Coller $100,000 Startup Competition in July 2021

Featured image: By way of ‘reverse engineering’, Tal’s team is able to convert plastic waste back to its original form.

See You at Naftali

Prof. Itai Sened explains how TAU students will tackle global warming from what will become the greenest building on campus.

The Naftali building, which houses the Gershon H. Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences and was built in the 1960s, is one of the most iconic buildings on campus. And now, Prof. Itai Sened the Dean of the Faculty is planning to turn the building into a green island, attracting students from all faculties.

Imagine walls covered with photovoltaic cells (solar cells that convert solar energy to produce electricity), an open research lab on a roof top, and a green wall in the garden… The physical makeover of the building is only the tip of the iceberg: “This is the infrastructure of the program, and will serve as a focal point for research and development on the topic of climate change for the entire university, quietly contributing ideas and environmental solutions touching on all faculties,” says Prof. Sened.

A Lab that is not a Lab

What will it look like? The walls of the Matanel Garden on the ground floor are already covered with tropical vegetation that gives a sense of freedom and nature. In the garden, it will be possible to hold academic meetings on any subject, and there will be indoors work spaces with screens on the walls, displaying data on how much alternative energy the university produces on all roofs at any given moment. There will be a facility for landless agriculture, where the products will be monitored and tested by research teams. It will also provide raw materials for the cafeteria, which will make a comeback. The cafeteria will be operated by youth at risk, closely accompanied by students of social work and psychology.

The green wall and the agricultural garden will be irrigated with water extracted from the Tel Aviv air, which has been proven suitable for drinking, operated from the roof. An extension of the project, on the roof of the nearby Social Sciences Library, will include gray water purification laboratories, wind energy facilities and more. Solar panels will also cover the southern wall of the building.

The real focal point, however, is the lab. The ‘Laboratory without a laboratory’, as Prof. Sened calls it, will be run by Prof. Hadas Mamane, head of the Environmental Engineering Program at The Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering, and Dr. Vered Blass from The Department of Environmental Studies, who specializes in circular economy. And where will it be? “The laboratory is located in the minds of students and researchers,” explains Prof. Sened. “The spaces must be open; we cannot continue working with closed laboratories. We are building a unique program here that will take on anything that can be changed. Our goal is to train future leaders to deal with climate and water crises, to create a sustainable future.”

The future Naftali building, complete with vertical gardens, biodomes, solar panels, a shaded lab area, grey water tank and algae ponds.

Flow of Thought

The students in the novel program entailing a “lab-less lab” are master students, Israeli and international. “With us, they learn how to do special things in the most remote places in the world, but they need freedom. It’s a new era. These are young people who grew up in a world without limits. There is no Faculty of Engineering, no Faculty of Law. There are young people who hang out, they are here and there and they keep returning, ” Prof. Sened shares his reasons for setting up the special venture.

“Here you will see graduates of selected academic units who travel to the most remote villages in the world, together with someone from the Faculty of Life Sciences, someone from the School of Computer Science, students from the Faculty of Social Sciences – from Economics, Public Policy, Psychology and Anthropology. They go to those villages because that is what they enjoy doing and exploring. They will not sit here and write a doctorate for five years – that would be torture for them, as it does not suit them anymore. However, if we put them in this new type of lab, they will get a doctorate after they do much more. That is the guiding principle. “

An Entire Generation Looking for Purpose

Prof. Sened explains that while the whole thing  may give off an “engineering and life sciences” vibe, most of the projects that are undertaken there are actually related to the social sciences. “One of our most talented doctoral students is about to start working at the State Comptroller’s Office as a real estate expert. Individuals like her wish to succeed and to change the legislation on all aspects of renewable energy. “

He explains that it is important for their students to know, right from the start, where they will be able to integrate when they complete their degree. “In these projects, they often integrate in the process. A student who goes to Kenya to purify water, install solar panels, or to study a worm that is making its name known in corn crops – may be noticed and ‘snatched” – and will already be on his way to another project. That’s how it works.”

“The infrastructure of what we are building here is 20% of the matter, and it is what is visible to the eye. However, the most interesting part is the remaining 80%, the minds involved. And they are not limited by space (…) We needed something visible, and so we built the green Naftali. Now they will finally be visible, ” concludes Prof. Sened.

Students hanging out in the Naftali garden surrounded by its green walls

A New Tool for Combating Discrimination

After decade long study, the Kantor Center has published a special book edition on legislation against discrimination and racism around the globe.

The Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry recently completed writing four extensive volumes of legislation covering existing anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of racism, religion and ethnicity in all 195 countries of the world. Entitled “Legislating for Equality – a Multinational Collection of Non-Discrimination Norms.” It is the first time that researchers have mapped, examined and compared policies aimed at eradicating discrimination in each country.

The comprehensive initiative, led by Adv. Talia Naamat, legal researcher at the Kantor Center, involved in-depth examination of the countries’ constitutions, as well as international conventions and agreements. Universities and researchers from around the world contributed. Recognizing the value this work brings to the global stage, former Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova wrote the introduction to the volumes published by Brill, one of the world’s leading law book publisher.

From Antisemitic Laws to Racist Laws

“The study was born out of a practical need to combat antisemitism,” says Naamat, the editor-in-chief of the volumes. “We started working on it in 2011, when researchers approached us with questions about antisemitic legislation following a seminar on the subject. We’d receive questions such as where Holocaust denial was allowed and where it was forbidden.” Prof. Dina Porat, Head of the Kantor Center, recalls “One of the researchers mentioned the law in his country, when another researcher jumped in and pointed out that in his country the situation was different.”

The research quickly expanded, “We realized that we needed to review the information in a broader manner, looking at the general prohibition of discrimination and the combatting of all types of racism. Thus we began compiling the relevant constitutional clauses, parts of penal codes as well as the language of specific laws,” explains Naamat.   

In the volumes, the authors sorted the countries according to continents. Obtaining the information was more straightforward for some continents than others. The highly organized and digitized nature of the information gathered from European countries made the research easier, while for continents like Africa and Asia they had to win collaborations with universities and other bodies in order to obtain the necessary data, translate the information to English and obtain the required translation certificates. Many of the laws had never before been published in English.

Israel and the World

Legislation, of course, does not necessarily reflect the actual situation on ground. The researchers consulted with annual reports from the U.S. State Department, among others, to assess the situation in each country. “We addressed such discrepancies in the footnotes. For example, if the constitution in a particular country stipulates that every citizen has the right to political organization, but we know the actual situation on ground is catastrophic and that there’s currently a civil war taking place there, then we’d address this in the comments,” notes Naamat.

And what is the current situation here in Israel? “We like to compare ourselves to Europe, and we do operate with a high standard for freedom of expression in Israel. The enforcement, however, is more severe in Europe, and the whole discourse is conducted differently here,” says Naamat. Porat adds, “While calling another person a ‘Nazi’ in Europe is an offence which may lead to punishment, here in Israel a person can use the word [unpunished] from morning to evening. We have this absurd situation whereby we [Israelis] demand that Europeans enforce it, while we do not have a single law on the subject ourselves.” 

The Israeli discourse is more open than in Europe – for better or worse

Human Rights Violations Against Witches and Persons with Albinism

Our research showed that culture, form of government and attitudes towards religion greatly influenced legislation. “We were surprised to see that there are countries with harsh realities on ground, but with good constitutions. The constitutions of Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran, for instance, appear very enlightened. If you had read the constitutions of any of these countries without preexisting knowledge about the country, you could mistake it for being all about equality and solidarity”, says Porat.

The degree of separation between state and religion was also a significant factor. “For example, in Iran where the Sharia law, a religious law, has been incorporated into the country’s otherwise secular laws. Other religious principles can be found, such as permitting the murder of a person who has raped or harmed another person,” notes Porat.

The volume about African countries shows how religion and culture influence legislation, for example through the persecution of witches and albino hunting. “We may expect legislation to be something that represents net justice, while in practice it is a product of what you and I believe and believe in. For example, there are religious principles that contradict human rights and the freedom of religion and worship. We have seen laws prohibiting the persecution of witches and albinos (there are places where being in the possession of an albino person’s limbs is considered a blessing), and the fundamental question arose as to when religious worship should be allowed and when religion violates human rights,” Naamat and Porat explain.

 

Leave them alone. An albino child anno 2021.

Legislation is Dynamic

The good news is that in most countries of the world laws are constantly being renewed and updated. The circumstances for enacting new laws vary. In 2008, the EU announced that all member states must align and enact anti-discrimination laws, which led to widespread legislation across the continent.

Porat and Naamat point to growing global immigration over the last decade as one of the main influences on changes in legislation: “We observed this in the early 1990s, when a big wave of immigration began. The USSR disintegrated, Germany united, waves of immigrants changed their direction and, and new questions emerged: Who is an immigrant? Who is a refugee? Who is a foreign worker? Who deserves what? The legislation was expanded and many new laws were introduced.”

“As immigration grew, so did racism, discrimination, and harsh expressions. The mass immigration to Germany led to the rise of neo-Nazism and the extreme right, which is actually a counter-reaction of those who ask ‘What about us? You care about the immigrants but what will happen with us?’” says Naamat.

Where Are We Headed?

The situation on ground may not look particularly bright in many places. However, these new books make the information accessible for all, openly presenting what is happening all over the world. The anthology could serve as a source of hope and pave the way for revolutions. “We are offering a tool that allows countries to compare their laws with those of other countries, and improve them. Such activity started as soon as the books were published. The secretary of the Jewish community in Greece received a copy and went on to check the existing laws in Europe against Holocaust denial. He told us that the information helped him promote an amended law in his country. And this will happen in other places,” predicts Porat.

 

Israel’s Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut receives the four volumes.

 

Porat presented the four volumes to Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut during a special visit to the country’s highest judicial officer. Chief Justice Hayut congratulated Prof. Porat on the academic achievement, noting that it adds an important dimension to the war on racism and discrimination against various peoples and groups in the world.

The meeting was also attended by former president of Tel Aviv University Professor Emeritus Yoram Dinstein who chaired the scientific committee that accompanied the work; former Deputy President of the Supreme Court Justice Prof. Elyakim Rubinstein and Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez who were members of the accompanying committee; Adv. Talia Naamat and Celia and Jack Michonik who generously supported the work.

“Thank you, Your Excellency, on behalf of everyone present, for the time you have devoted to us and for the interest which you have shown our work. We hope that these volumes will contribute, albeit modestly, to the fight against racism-based discrimination in the world – an evil which is present in many countries and societies. And that’s consistent with the spirit of the values that our Supreme Court, of which we are proud, leads in your leadership,” said Prof. Porat excitedly. 

Featured image: Prof. Dina Porat with the four volumes

TAU Medical Student to Swim for Israel at Summer Olympics

Andi Murez enhances her athletic performance at the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute.

“Most people tell me I’m crazy to be a professional swimmer and medical student, but I couldn’t give either up, so I tried to do both, not knowing whether I would succeed at either,” says Andrea “Andi” Murez during a break between training sessions at the University’s Sylvan Adams Sports Institute and the neighboring Sports Center. “I’m proud that I’ve given it a shot and prevailed.”

A Balancing Act

In 2017, California native Murez enrolled at TAU in the Sackler School of Medicine New York State/American Program. She has since completed her first two years in the MD Program that offers English courses for students from North America. 

This will be 29-year-old Murez’s second Olympics; she previously represented Israel in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. With the Games in sight, the Israeli national record-holder in the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle has taken a temporary break from her studies to focus on her Olympic aspirations. Following Tokyo, she will return to medical training and begin two years of clinical rotations at TAU-affiliated hospitals.

Training at TAU

Murez’s grueling routine in the final stretch to Tokyo consists of regular sessions at TAU facilities, including performance analyses at the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute, alongside teammates from Israel’s Olympic delegation and its national swim team.

Established in 2018, the Institute focuses on improving athletic capabilities in endurance sports: swimming, running, cycling, and triathlon. The Institute houses a state-of-the-art flume (counter-current) pool that helps swimmers improve their craft by testing factors such as limb function, movement symmetry and muscle fatigue.

 

Murez trains at the flume pool at TAU's Sylvan Adams Sports Center (Photo: Moshe Bedarshi)

Murez trains at the flume pool at TAU’s Sylvan Adams Sports Center (Photo: Moshe Bedarshi)

“Having Andi and other members of the Olympic team at the Institute is a realization of the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute’s mission, which is to enhance the abilities of Israel’s top athletes and nurture Olympic-level champions,” says the Institute’s Director, Prof. Chaim Pick of TAU’s Department of Anatomy & Anthropology, Sackler Faculty of Medicine.

“In a sport where every hundredth of a second matters, training sessions such as those performed at the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute—which could not have been done elsewhere in Israel—are vital for high-level swimmers such as Andi to evaluate and fine-tune their technique,” he adds.

WATCH: Murez trains at the flume pool at TAU’s Sylvan Adams Sports Center

 

For her part, Murez appreciates the variety of performance building options available at TAU. “Some people perform better in the flume pool, some in the open pool,” she says. “It’s great to have both for a holistic approach.”

Diving into Israel

In addition to her Olympic aims, Murez hopes to inspire other women along with potential olim to realize their dreams in Israel, particularly when it comes to athletics and higher education. 

“Growing up, I never thought I’d swim for Israel—but it’s been great,“ says Murez.

 

Murez will swim for Israel at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan (Photo: Moshe Bedarshi)

Andi Murez is making waves in the pool and the classroom (Photo: Moshe Bedarshi)

The 17-time Maccabiah Games medalist credits formative experiences at the so-called “Jewish Olympics” for connecting her to Israel. Murez decided to make aliya following the 2013 Maccabiah, where a local counterpart drove home the exciting potential of living and swimming in Israel. 

After undergraduate studies at Stanford University, she accepted a spot on the Israeli National Swimming Team and made aliya in 2014. Murez encourages others to follow similar paths. “It was a very welcoming experience,” she enthuses.” I love it here.”

She views swimming and medicine not as disparate endeavors, but as parallel tracks with many similarities. “The medical path is a long and rigorous journey, which takes patience and delayed gratification—two things I have experienced as a swimmer. When I was stressed in the classroom, I had swimming to fall back on,” she says. “When I’m stressed by swimming, I can focus on school to help me feel better.”

“The TAU faulty supported my passion for swimming and allowed me to take two years off of school to train for the Tokyo Olympics,” she notes. “I feel very fortunate that I found a great medical program to continue my studies.” Murez also nods to her classmates for their support. “In our program, I often studied in groups with classmates. If I fell behind on the material because of trainings, they would help me catch up,” she recounts. “They even came to a few swim meets to cheer me on!”

Following the 2021 Olympics, Murez plans to stay in Israel and pursue her professional swimming career alongside working as a physician. We wish Andi good luck and will continue to root for her in all her endeavors!

 

Murez will swim for Israel at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan (Photo: Moshe Bedarshi)

Murez will swim for Israel at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan (Photo: Moshe Bedarshi)

Featured image: TAU medical student and Olympic contender Andi Murez poolside at the University’s Sports Center (Photo: Moshe Bedarshi)

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