Haifa: Where Old Meets New

Alexander (Sasha) Chuchin, SDM Contributor

Haifa, much like the rest of Israel, is built on a paradox. It’s the curious meddling of the biblical with the futuristic, the oldest with the newest.

Take the modernized railway line from the centre of Tel Aviv, bypass the University of Tel Aviv’s main campus across the Yarkon River and within the hour you’ll reach northern Haifa and the ancient fishing ports dating from the 14th century BC.

In centuries past, Haifa was sacked by the Crusaders and its battlements virtually razed to the ground by Napoleon. It simply wouldn’t be in its future to become as devout as Jerusalem or as populous as Tel Aviv. Instead, Haifa’s destiny was set through discoveries and creations of futuristic products. It’s here that Israel’s first and oldest university, the Israeli Institute of Technology, the world-renowned Technion, thrives and lives.

The first time I came to Technion, I walked in lockstep with my cousin, Genya. If you enter slowly, and pay attention to where you’re walking, you’ll notice you’re quite literally standing on the heads of giants. Presuming, of course, that people don’t urge you to hurry because you’re lingering too long through the halls. Genya needed to work on his Master’s in physics and mathematics; I still played make-belief, not sure where to go. People often say that you learn nothing in high school. That’s not true at all. In biology, I learnt I’m not going to med school. Now he was trying to nudge me to find my own way in a place dominated by acclaimed research in protein synthesis, quantum teleportation and quasicrystals.

We made a deal: he would leave me alone in the small physics library tucked away from the rest of the campus as long as I didn’t say a word to my babushka (grandmother). The first book I picked up was written in German –  a memento to a time before the war when there was still a German colony in Haifa. The second was about thermodynamics and it might as well have been in German. Lastly, the third was more legible – inside the cover, the title spat out Gödel, Escher, Bach. Today, there’s now a copy of it on my bookshelf. It’s possible that Haifa’s technology is inseparable from its history, bound to repeat something that happened only at first glance out of mere coincidence. Because, as Hemingway wrote, isn’t it pretty to think so?

If there ever exists an inherent contradiction between the past and present, it is within the borders of Haifa. History flat-out refuses to wither away. The slopes of Mount Carmel are tended by religious refugees from Iran’s fundamentalist and militant regime. They are expected to bloom each spring in the Bahá’í Gardens and never quite fade away, even during the winter months. When I went there last summer, my cousin told me that, in order to tell the history of the Technion, it’s imperative to recite the history of Haifa; which is very different to other historical sites. It’s more akin to a love story than a tech story, where Albert Einstein was Romeo and discovery was Juliet.

It’s no surprise that it was in Haifa that Einstein became the first Nobel Laureate to plant a palm tree sapling at the Technion almost a century ago. The trees have grown and Israeli ingenuity with it. You can see the fragments of this original love wherever you glance: inside every Xbox Kinect, etched into every Intel processing chip, found by the barrel inside the App Store. Einstein’s gift was less of a Pandora’s Box, more like Pandora’s promise.

Most of Israel tells the same story. Stand by the Temple Mount facing the Western Wall and you’ll stand on four millennia of human history from before the time of the Pharaohs to the time of the iPhone. Israel has more start-ups than Cuba, Canada and China – and those are just nations starting with the letter C. In fact, the nation of barely eight million is only bested by the United States in the absolute number of start-ups, and that’s mostly due to Silicon Valley.

If it’s true that Israelites built Jerusalem chip-by-chip, it’s clear that modern day Israelis continue the same tradition.

The land of milk and honey, according to travel brochures, has two official languages – Hebrew and Arabic with English almost universally spoken. I’m increasingly convinced that’s a lie by omission. On billboards, in front of government buildings and on plaques beside public museums, the language of mathematics might need to brave the currents and etch itself in from left-to-right. On the floors of the Technion, a corridor away from its main library, it already started.

About Sasha

Sasha Chuchin

As a Russian Jew born in Israel and proudly living in Canada, I wear my heritage like a comfy toque. Good thing too – studying public policy at Carleton taught me that Ottawa is either experiencing winter or construction-winter. When I’m not talking about science, I’m usually found holed up indoors kvetching about the weather. With SDM, I’m excited to share Israel beyond the cliché of holy water and desert sand.