This past week, I attended a talk held by the American Zionist Movement which addressed the issue of Zionism and environmental concerns in Israel. More specifically, they invited Dr. Alon Tal, a leading Israeli environmentalist and co-founder of the Arava Institute, to speak about the nexus between these topics. He told a very interesting and compelling story in this talk, one of rapid development overwhelming Zionism in its most normative form, which obliges us to nurture the physical land. He appealed to us as Jews to stand up for sustainable development as per Zionism’s dictate because of our sense of place as a local, indigenous community in Israel.
Unfortunately, Israel so far, both as a government and as a civil society, has failed to steward the land as Zionism compels us. Indeed, he gave a mixed prognosis of the level of environmental degradation and efforts at sustainable development in Israel.
While he reported that the Green Zionist Alliance passed four resolutions at the World Zionist Congress which aim to “greenify” various government operations, Israel has mostly developed at the expense of its natural environment. He talked first about the issues surrounding water. He reports that coastal groundwater has been overpumped, and salt water and sometimes even waste water and sewage flood into these groundwater deposits. Israel’s development thus far has also led to the depletion of water in the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the Gulf of Eilat. Israel has created a national water carrier from the salty Kinneret to the South, which has caused the salinization of the soil there. While the Zionist strategy was to give farmers in the southern part of the country subsidized water as an incentive to settle there, the process of transfer will eventually render the soil infertile. Israel has attempted to overcome this by charging farmer’s according to a national price index, hoping that this will at least force farmers to avoid wasting any water. Alon called upon the Israeli government to return to Zionism’s environmental axiom and adjust regulations for waste water management; to better recycle sewage; and to initiate desalinization processes.
He then moved on to talking about demographic issues in Israel. The environmental perspective on this topic is very different from that of the peacebuilding perspective, emphasizing the carrying capacity (with regard to Israel’s resources) of the country. He focused specifically on the topic of Aliyah, noting that Israel needs to rethink its historical model of preaching to Diaspora Jews to move to Israel in order to enjoy a “real” Jewish life. He suggested that the policy of promoting Aliyah should be eased, that Israel should not patronize other communities so that Jews feel obliged to move to Israel. While he believes that Israel should still grant the Right of Return to any Jew who desires to live there, he wants the Israeli government to realize that it cannot sustain massive migration to Israel in the near future.
This point struck me as both provocative and somewhat puzzling. He proposes a radical shift in a policy fundamental to Israel’s being. His assertion suggests that Zionism may not definitely value Aliyah as strongly as it is understood currently. He argues that Zionism also values stewardship of the physical land of Israel out of the Jewish people’s sense of place, which suggests that Israel will have to confront a number of competing aspects of its identity as a state in order to move forward with environmental initiatives.
The point was puzzling in that I had been under the impression that Israel has not faced a large wave of immigrants since the collapse of the Soviet Union over ten years ago; people do not seem to be flooding in as they once used to (correct me if I am wrong). Indeed, the American Jewish community perceives my generation’s connection to Israel as dangerously weak, and has used programs such as Birthright to “sell” Israel to us as an integral and positive part of our Jewish identities. As American Jewish connections to Israel seem to wane, I wonder about the urgency of his point. Needless to say, I know little about the current patterns of Aliyah outside of North America. However, it seems to me that the issue of carrying capacity may be tied more to the religious Jewish communities in Israel, who tend to multiply rapidly and who also seem to have little regard for sustainable living.
Overall, I was impressed by his talk. I would have loved to hear him talk about some of the environmental issues as related to the peace process, but I also appreciate that this would have not been appropriate. Yet most importantly, I found him insightful, courageous, and generally optimistic about the future.