Vita-commemoration July 4th 2009
I knew Vita for 55 years, she was my only sister, younger by 5 years.
We became very close when I was 20 and she was 15, just after our arrival to Israel from Poland in 1968.
She was a very gifted child. She started to study chemistry in the Hebrew University when she was 17 years old and finished her PhD by 30 with 16 articles. Benny Gerber was her supervisor then, and he remained her scientific collaborator and her friend until her final days.
She continued her academic career in Theoretical Chemistry in the United States, where she lived for 8 years with Ron Elber, her erstwhile husband and Dassi`s father.
She returned to Israel in 1993 and received an academic position in the Hebrew University. With time she became a full professor. She died at the peak of her career. She ran fundamental studies on ice and the properties of molecules that absorb on ice surface, which were published in many scientific journals. She organized many conferences and she is a co-organizer of a prestigious Gordon Conference, which will be held next summer. Her collaborator in organizing this conference, Pavel Jungwirth, will have to open the conference alone. This conference will open with a keynote lecture by Michelle Parrinello in her memory. During the last 5 months of her life she wrote a review of the scientific area to which she contributed a lot, together with her scientific collaborator of 20 years, Paul Devlin. . This review is expected to be published as a “Perspective” in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics within a few months. Her most recent scientific article appeared on the internet eleven days before she died, while other papers are being completed by her post-doctoral students.
I did not participate in her scientific career and hardly understood her research in Theoretical Chemistry. However, she had an excellent understanding of the biological areas in which I was involved.
Another project in which we were both involved - and in which we fully understood each other - was fighting the Israeli occupation of Palestinians.
We entered this political field together in 1996. She used to say that I was her leader, that I had the insight to bring her to the Occupied Territories, as well as to many other places in the world. It is true that I was the initiator, but she was the one who was able to study deeply the places to which I brought her. In 1996, together with many friends who are here today, we initiated an Enrichment Program in a Palestinian School in Al Khader. Two years later we transferred this project to a refugee camp in Deheyshe, which we ran until the commencement of the second Intifada. We attempted to share with Palestinian children and youth our knowledge in different fields. More than we taught them, they taught us about Palestinian society and life under the occupation. Entering the Occupied Territories on a weekly basis provided us with the opportunity to learn the mechanisms of the occupation.
An entire world opened before us, a complex system of oppression. Already in the early days of our activity in the Al Khader school we saw a demolished house that used to be the abode of a family with 11 children. This was not the house of a terrorist, but simply a house that was too near the road to the Jewish settlement Tekoa. I think this experience led Vita to her activity against house demolitions, together with Jeff Halper and Meir Margalit.
The occupation created such strict limitations on Palestinians lives, such misery and such humiliation. People needed help and asked for it from us, the privileged class, those who belong to `a chosen people`. I placed strict limits on the time I was ready to invest in occupation related issues; Vita immersed herself without boundaries. She was a very sensitive, spontaneous person, who could not stand human misery. She transported ill Palestinians to hospitals. She defended houses which were under the threat of demolition and were usually finally demolished. She tried to help Palestinians who were arrested, with the assistance of Lea Tzemel. A doctor from Shaarey Tzedek, Varda Gross, to whom Vita brought many children, said to me during the `shiva`: “I thought, at first, that she was retired, with plenty of free time to take care of other people’s problems. But she devoted herself to scientific research as if this were her only commitment, and she struggled with the occupation as if she did not need to teach courses, write grant proposals and articles and participate in many other academic activities.
Following the outbreak of the second intifada, the Oslo hopes for ending the occupation were shattered, causing Vita great emotional suffering. She needed to find an outlet for this suffering. She began to print political stickers from her own personal finances. One of them, which I have kept, states: `Our strong leader gives your money to Yeshiva and settlements`. She used to go out late at night, sometimes with Barbara Shmutzler, to paste her short political statements all over Jerusalem. She used to say that in Rehavia her stickers lasted for one day and a half, while in Kiryat Menahem they survived for only half a day.
Observing her suffering and those futile efforts to express her rage, one day, in autumn 2004, I told her: “if you want to protest against what is going on, it will be much more efficient to spread your message through a website.” In October 2004, she launched The Occupation Magazine. Quite a lot of friends, who are here today, joined her in this project.
The Occupation Magazine was her baby. Two weeks before she died, on Saturday, June 6th, she uploaded this website for the last time.
Before concluding, I want to tell you about two articles that she published in 2002, in the most prestigious scientific journal Nature. One was scientific, and the other was entitled `Israeli concern about Palestinian suffering`. The scientists among us can particularly appreciate the second one. My sister, like every other ambitious scientist, needed funding to sustain her scientific career, as well as invitations to talk at prestigious conferences, and benevolent editors to publish her scientific articles. In the middle of the intifada, at a time when the Israeli public fully backed up Sharon`s devastating policies in the occupied territories, and the Bush administration provided Israel with all possible support, Vita published this second article in Nature. There were very few Israeli scientists who had the courage to do the same.
I want to ask Dassi, Vita`s daughter to read this short article.
Department of good acts
By: Asher Kesher
26 June 2009
Translated from Hebrew by George Malent
“I have an old aunt in Lithuania. During her lifetime she has lived under four regimes, and has seen it all. She is a fountain of wisdom. Once I asked her: Why did the Russians wage war on Chechnya? They let go of much richer republics – Ukraine, Georgia. What is so important about Chechnya? The usual answer which you get from citizens of the former USSR is a speech on the ‘strategic importance’ of the Caucasian mountains. But not from my aunt. She said ‘Vitochka, haven’t you read Tolstoy? Fighting Chechens is a long-standing Russian tradition!’ Recently, and for similar reasons, my country Israel chose to forgo a historic opportunity for peace with the Palestinians.”
“So what’s all this for?” asked Victoria Buch, professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University, and a steadfast and energetic peace activist, who died at the beginning of the week after a hard struggle with cancer, in an article she wrote three years ago. Buch chose to resist the tradition of intractable conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, instead of accepting it as a fact of life.
“She was larger than life,” wrote the journalist Gideon Spiro this week about Victoria, adding that she embodied “a rare combination of academic excellence and commitment to human rights. She leaves a legacy of good deeds that will be related and discussed for a long time to come. She founded Occupation Magazine, one of the most important Internet websites in the struggle for a democratic and just society that seeks peace and equality. She leaves behind her many sad people on both sides of the apartheid wall. She was a bridge of understanding, affection and friendship in a place where walls of hostility and arbitrariness are being built.”
A piece of paper, affixed to the glass door at the entrance to the building in which Buch lived in Beit Hakerem and bearing her name directs the many visitors who come to console the only living relatives of Victoria Buch who live in Israel: her sister, professor of biochemistry Nina Mayorek, and her daughter, Dassie Alber. They both refused to collaborate in the writing of this article on the grounds that Prof. Buch was a private person.
“I don’t want to live in fear”
Victoria Buch was born in Poland in 1954. Her family stayed there even after the Holocaust, in which her grandmother and aunt were murdered at the Treblinka death-camp. In 1968, after a wave of anti-Semitism in Poland that cost her parents their academic jobs after the Six-Day War, she immigrated to Israel. “She was a prodigy,” says Prof. Roi Baer, director of the Fritz Haber Chemistry Institute at the Hebrew University. “She began to study for her B.Sc. in chemistry even before she enlisted in the army.”
After she completed her B.Sc. she joined the army and served as a communications officer. After her demobilization she went on to get her master’s degree and her Ph.D. with Professor Benny Gerber at the Hebrew University. Buch did her post-doctorate at Harvard in the early 1980s together with her then-husband, whom she had met in Jerusalem, Professor Ron Alber. In 1984 their daughter Dassie was born, now 25 years old, who three years ago published “Playing with the Light of the Prism” [Hebrew: lesaheq be-or ha-minsara], the first Hebrew gamebook.
After her divorce from Alber, who now teaches in the United States, Buch went to work and teach in Chicago and returned to Jerusalem in the mid-1990s. “Her expertise is ice,” says Prof. Baer. “Her research deals with the molecular structure of ice. We know what happens physically to ice, but we do not completely understand all of its properties, which are of great importance for atmospherical research.”
Prof. Buch refused to stay in the ivory tower, and in addition to her academic research she focused her energies against the Occupation. “I do not want to live in fear”, she said in an interview with the BBC a few years ago. “If I beat you up now, you are going to become dangerous to me. But if we talk to each other on civil terms, that is the only safety from you that I can have.”
“I met her for the first time 15 years ago, shortly after she returned to Israel”, says
Hava Halevy of Jerusalem, an activist in Mahsom Watch. “We met for the first time in an Arabic course at Beit Shmuel. I saw her go there with her sister. Victoria was then still in the mainstream politically, like everybody who believes what they read in the newspapers. It amused me to see those two Polish women speaking Arabic, but eventually she spoke not badly, she had conversations with Palestinians, and she managed fairly well even though her accent continued to be terrible. After that we met at a demonstration against the construction of Har Homa. She invited me to join an enterprise in which a group of Israelis taught drawing, Hebrew and English at a school in al-Khader, called “Children of Hope”. Later we also taught together at the Deheisheh refugee camp. By then Victoria had become quite involved it and gave herself over to it completely.”
“It took me years to understand what is going on here”, wrote Prof. Buch, “in fact I understood only after I saw with my own eyes the demolished Palestinian homes, the uprooted trees and the sleek settlements that are sprouting up all over.”
“It burned in her, and she did wonderful things,” says Halevy. “At the university she met a young Palestinian from Husan village, who was working there as a waiter. He told her that he had had a new daughter with certain defects in her head and neck, and her toes were attached to each other. Victoria took that on as a life project. She raised money and established contact with a senior surgeon at the Schneider Hospital, who volunteered to operate on the girl. Victoria would drive the girl and her mother through the checkpoints all the way from Husan to Petah Tikvah nearly every week, even though she was very busy with her work. Sometimes she also took all the children of the family on expeditions that I too participated in. Shortly before her death she went with the girl to the Schneider Hospital again, to make sure that the treatment would continue as needed.”
In the land of the checkpoints
“About ten years ago, during the Second Intifada, Victoria coined the name ‘the Department of Good Acts’, relates Prof. Matania Ben-Artzi of the Hebrew University Mathematics Department at Hebrew University, a friend of Buch. “From friends and colleagues she collected equipment that they did not need, like computers, and travelled in her beat-up old car to Abu-Dis, to Katana and other places. She was the living symbol of the Department of Good Deeds. In the context of her activism at the checkpoints she would drive children to hospitals, because only they were given permits to enter Israel, not their parents.”
“We try to be activist on the issue of human rights,” wrote Buch in 2007, “but it is problematical activism, because the entire checkpoints policy is itself a violation of human rights, and we are faced with soldiers who have been given clear orders to carry out that policy. Nevertheless, from time to time we succeed in ameliorating the situation by acting as intermediaries between the Palestinians and the soldiers and by summoning help in particularly difficult situations. I once asked a soldier, `What do you care? Why won`t you let an Arab to go from one Arab place to another?` The soldier answered with the full strength of his 19-year-old conviction: `Don`t you understand? I am protecting the state of Israel! I am protecting you!` The Chief-of-Staff of the IDF does not seem to have the same conviction. Recently, he managed to mumble that perhaps the policy of closure promotes anger and violence and thus endangers the security of the State, rather than enhancing it.”
“We would meet on the grounds of Giv’at Ram [a campus of Hebrew University in West Jerusalem – trans.], and discuss the Palestinian problem”, says Prof. Ben-Artzi, a brother-in-law of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “There has been a great deal of political activism on the campus over the years. It is a phenomenon that is known all over the world: people in the Academy raise their voices for the sake of peace activism. Clearly, people go to the Academy in order to think, and they like to think, and they feel more free to express their opinions.”
“For some reason there was a very big political polarization at the Chemistry Institute at Giv’at Ram, of all places,” says Prof. Baer. “There were people on the Left, like Victoria, and there was of course the right-wing group, that called itself ‘Professors for Political Strength’, which included Professors Joseph Rabani and Asa Lipschitz”.
“She was considered a very good scientist,” says her colleague and political adversary, Prof. Lipschitz. “Scientists from abroad would often go to work with her in the laboratory. We would often talk, but we didn’t make waves. I do not argue with people on the Left, because it is pointless. But I definitely appreciated her scientific competence even though we were on opposite ends of the political spectrum”.
“Victoria also was not a particularly social person,” adds Prof. Baer. “She kept to herself and jealously guarded her privacy. In the Department she was thought of as an excellent lecturer and did not mix politics with her work.”
War over the website
In 2004 Buch founded Occupation Magazine, an Israeli Internet website that is updated every day and publishes news and commentary in Hebrew and English about what is going on in the Territories. “When I retired in 2005,” relates her friend Roni Hammerman, “Victoria suggested that we work together on Occupation Magazine, because I would have more time to work on it. She supervised me up to two weeks ago in the most democratic way. Every day of the week there is one editor in Hebrew and one in English, with full freedom to include in the magazine whatever material they want. She did not interfere with the contents and had complete faith in us. She was very generous, modest, and never came across as a manager, even though she was the founder. She had no interest in imposing any specific tone or line as long as we dealt with the subject.”
“Occupation Magazine was very important to her”, says Hava Halevy, “she did not let anyone go without talking to them about it and trying to persuade them to contribute articles and translations. She acted tirelessly to raise money and succeeded in that too, because there was something very naïve about her that convinced people that they had to do something.”
Buch’s activism aroused opposition among extreme right-wing circles, which was manifested in the sabotaging of the Occupation Magazine website in March 2007. “They sabotaged our website,” said then Buch to the media, “yesterday 63 articles that had been uploaded on Saturday, Sunday and Monday were suddenly erased. Today the whole website was taken down. It became completely impossible to upload to the English page, and the Hebrew page was replaced by an Israeli flag and threats and demands that we leave the country. Apparently our struggle against the brutality of the Occupation is bothering those people. We intend to repair the website and to continue to bother them still more.”
“I met her as a student at Giv’at Ram,” says one of the young editors of the website, Ofer Neiman. “I also saw her at demonstrations that I participated in. She asked me to join and help the magazine and I was happy to agree, because she was genuine in her struggle, and not full of bullshit like others who just talked. She would get up in the morning and go with us to sleep in houses in East Jerusalem that were slated for demolition, which we tried to prevent. She was an incredible combination of an excellent academic and an impressive human rights activist.”
“I met her often only after she got sick about a year and a half ago”, says the writer and translator Ilana Hammerman, “before that I only knew her writing and I very much appreciated it. At the hospital I learned that we both had adopted families from Husan village and that we had the shared fate of dealing with that terrible disease,” relates Hammermann, whose spouse, the professor of literature J�rgen Nieraad, himself died of cancer about nine years ago. About the disease and dealing with it the couple wrote the moving book “The Sign of Cancer, a Journey of No Return” [Hebrew: “mazal sartan: masa’ li-vli shuv”], which was published after Nieraad’s death.
“Even though her background was in chemistry and mine was literature we did not only talk about politics. She loved art and history and music very much. Her modesty was astonishing. I knew that she was brilliant in her profession, but for all that she did not come across as a professor and that touched my heart very much.”
“She very much loved to travel in all kinds of strange and crazy places,” relates Hava Halevy. “She loved to listen to opera and very much loved to eat good food. It devastated me to see how a wonderful woman like that, who used to eat with such relish, was barely able to eat soft cheese with a spoon in the last days.”
“Even though she was sick for quite a long time, nothing changed at the magazine”, says Ofer Neiman. “It amazed me that despite her grave condition, two weeks ago she still sent an article to the website. We were all amazed and happy when her material arrived in the mail. All her activism came from simple humanity. She hated the Occupation and understood what a terrible thing it is for us and for the Palestinians, and we intend to continue on her path.”