From Alexandria to Bikini Islands and the Dead Sea

A tribute to one of Israel’s greatest scientists.

August 28, 2019 17:07
3 minute read.
From Alexandria to Bikini Islands and the Dead Sea

ONE OF the central projects Dr. Yitzhak Levy spearheaded and managed was the Dead Sea Research, which includes the Dead Sea Canal options.. (photo credit: COURTESY GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF ISRAEL)

In 1957, when 21-year-old Yitzhak Levy from Alexandria, Egypt, was expelled with 23,000 of his fellow Egyptian Jews by president Gamal Abdel Nasser and arrived to the Land of Israel, no one dreamed that 61 years later he would receive an official invitation from President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Dr. Levy’s journey has been fascinating, and only a few people back in 1957 would have been able to predict that this young man would become a role model for some of Israel’s leading scientists. He would eventually receive the high honor award for his doctorate in the presence of prime minister Golda Meir, and become one of the towering figures of Israel’s geochemistry scientists, receiving praise from president Shimon Peres for his work with the Dead Sea.

Dr. Levy served the newly formed State of Israel as a scientist, educator, innovator and the head of several mega scientific projects. Through the years, he served as a scientist at the Israeli Geological Survey, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot. In the early 1970s, Dr. Levy discovered a substantial part of Israel’s crucial phosphates.

As head of the Dead Sea research, he led more than 200 scientists in their research on the Dead Sea, and his leadership supported future generations of leaders in science in the United States, Europe and Israel. Over time, this had fostered greater collaboration between Israel’s scientific research centers through his vast experience at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Weizmann Institute. Levy’s refusal to surrender to conventional wisdom and his innovative mind produced research projects that saved the State of Israel tens of millions of dollars through the years. Dr. Levy’s innovative research for the US Nuclear Commission in the Bikini Islands in the 1970s included the implications of nuclear testing on the Bikini Atoll, which was bombarded with a series of 23 nuclear weapons detonated by the United States between 1946 and 1958 at seven test sites on the reef itself – in the sea, in the air and underwater.

Over the years, Dr. Levy also used his mother tongue of Arabic in his work with IDF intelligence, serving as a geologist on various military operations. He was able to assist in terrain evaluation and cross-country movement.

Dr. Raanan Gissin served as a senior adviser to prime minister Ariel Sharon and spokesman for the Israeli government on major media networks such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. As a student of Dr. Levy, Gissin remembers him as an honored and admired educator that influenced the life of many.

The director of the Israeli Geological Survey Prof. Joseph Yechieli also memorialized the late Dr. Levy, saying, “The contribution of Dr. Yitzhak Levy through his research at the Geological Survey of Israel and the Weizmann Institute of Science, especially on the Dead Sea, was crucial. I very much enjoyed learning from his great experience with the Dead Sea environment, which was very new to me and helped me dive into this complex system.”

Fellow scientist and long-time friend Prof. Abraham Starinsky, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Earth Sciences Institute, said, “One of the central projects Dr. Levy spearheaded and managed was the Dead Sea Research, which includes the Dead Sea Canal options. The project Dr. Levy managed, coordinated and collaborated on was with leading scientists and researchers from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University [of the Negev], Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute. More important than his amazing scientific accomplishments through innovation was his integrity and his love for what he did both in his scientific life and for his family. He will be missed dearly by his family and his friends.”

With his passing, Dr. Levy’s family has received numerous letters of condolence and well-wishes from Egyptian officials for a man who had been forced out long ago. Dr. Levy’s service in the state’s early days was a great example to many scientists of how to make hard choices in a climate of uncertainty and distress, using imagination and unpredicted innovation to achieve so much. In doing so, he not only charted a better path forward for his beloved country, but provided wisdom for younger generations who became the country’s future leaders.

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