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How many Zionists does it take to change a light bulb?

Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees, is the right time for some ‘sole-searching’ – taking stock of the size of our Zionist carbon footprint and what each of us might be doing to reduce it.

Beit Keshet
Photo by: Nadav Rotem/KKL
How many Zionists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: 784. Three to come up with the idea, another 749 to vote in favor of it, and 32 to make it happen. Right now, we’re waiting on stage three.

Explanation: In June, the 36th Zionist Congress convened in Jerusalem, comprised of 752 delegates. Almost exclusively, they represented well-established bodies affiliated with Israel’s political parties, the three major streams of Judaism and an array of international Zionist organizations. There was, however, one grassroots start-up that managed to organize itself sufficiently to crash the party. The Green Zionist Alliance, fusing Zionist zeal with environmentalist enthusiasm, succeeded in taking on the Zionist establishment in America and wrested away three of its 145 elected delegates.

They didn’t make the effort just to come along for the ride; they came to make a difference. To that end, they entered into an alignment with MERCAZ, the Zionist arm of the Conservative/Masorti movement with its own commitment to environmental issues rooted in Jewish tradition, and put forward a slew of resolutions relating to climate control, alternative fuel sources, sustainable development, carbon mitigation, recycling and energy conservation. One of them was about changing light bulbs. More specifically, it called upon the WZO to transition to compact fluorescent and LED lighting in all its buildings and offices.

With Tu Bishvat – the New Year of the Trees – and the annual spike of interest in matters of ecology that accompanies it, it’s time for some “sole-searching” – taking stock of the size of our Zionist carbon footprint and what we are doing to reduce it.

THE NATURAL place to start is with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, the Jewish National Fund founded by the World Zionist Organization in 1901 and still going strong. As the Zionist movement’s official arm for land purchase, land reclamation, reforestation and maximizing water sources, its 110-year record is unassailable. No less impressive is the way it has consciously reinvented itself over the past few years so as to be at the forefront of a new movement of Green Zionism. In this role, it has also demonstrated a highly developed social consciousness that is not only commendable, but inspiring.

A case in point is the effort already under way to rehabilitate the Carmel forests destroyed in the conflagration of several weeks ago. Dr. Omri Bonneh, JNF northern region director, speaks enthusiastically not only about biodiversity and the subtleties of ensuring regeneration of the forests, but also about another, less-publicized aspect of the reforestation effort of which he is equally mindful. “One of the things we learned after the Second Lebanon War was that rehabilitation isn’t just about nature.” Involving communities in the area, “together we created what we call ‘community-based forests,’ which means that local residents adopt a forest adjacent to their homes and help take care of it,” strengthening their bond to what’s being rehabilitated and providing the opportunity for environmental education.

The same approach to involving local residents has been integral to the JNF effort to develop hundreds of kilometers of bicycle paths that are now enjoyed by an estimated 200,000 mountain-biking enthusiasts. The Alon Hagalil All-Terrain Center that was dedicated just last month is a sterling example of this. Constructed by physical labor alone to minimize negative impact on the environment, much of the work was done by residents in the vicinity, recruits from the nearby army base and Beduin soldier-teachers. Commenting on such efforts at the inauguration at the end of December of another new trail that runs from Moshav Dalton to the Arab village of Jish, Efi Stenzler, world chairman of the JNF, noted that “this country is sacred to all religions and all of humanity. The Coexistence Trail is the path that connects them all.”

At the JNF, this sensitivity to social responsibility extends to the global community. The organization, sometimes in tandem with the Foreign Ministry, has run hundreds of programs over the years through which it shares its expertise with other nations in such fields as desertification and forestation. Reflecting this commitment to international cooperation, the JNF just participated in the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, creating a pavilion there that clearly served multiple purposes. Delegation head Dr. Orr Karassin reported on fascinating, unanticipated visits from representatives of bodies as diverse as the Iraqi Ministry for Protection of the Environment and Venezuela’s Green Party.

Among the areas such groups are interested in learning about from the JNF is overcoming water scarcity.

The expertise comes from decades of the JNF being involved in finding creative and innovative ways to alleviate the water crisis, building more than 220 reservoirs in the process, including 21 during 2010. Now it has also turned its efforts to tapping new aquifers, and is poised to open a first-of-its-kind bio-filter plant on the outskirts of Kfar Saba that will collect and purify – through layers of plants, bacteria and soil – some of the 200 million cubic meters of water that currently pass through the sewage systems of our coastal cities and are lost as they run off into the sea.

Russell Robinson, CEO of JNF America, speaks animatedly about his organization’s latest contribution to the field – the construction of a cutting-edge, energy-efficient wetlands water treatment system at the Ramon air force base that will save 80 million gallons of fresh water a year and serve as a model for water treatment and reuse at remote communities throughout the country.

ALL OF this is in addition to the hundreds of tree-planting ceremonies that the JNF planned for this Tu Bishvat in the greatest single effort ever orchestrated to connect Israel’s youth to its roots in the most literal way.

If all this reads like a celebration of the JNF, that’s because it is. Once in a while, we should be allowed to rejoice in our accomplishments, and Tu Bishvat is the appropriate time for doing that when we’re talking environmentalism.

But with all the justifiable pride that the WZO can take in the accomplishments of the JNF, it need take a closer look at its own record of action (or inaction), particularly in regard to the implementation of resolutions adopted by the Zionist Congress.

Not that we’re ignoring them entirely. One, for instance, called upon the WZO “to only purchase new vehicles that are alternative-fuel models or that meet high fuel-efficiency standards.” Well, I’ve done my part.

Feeling a bit out of shape and terribly self-righteous when the decision was made, I went out and bought a bicycle – and actually ride it to work some three times a week. I mention this spirited instance of personal example only half-facetiously. While it is still up to the Zionist Executive – the 32 who have to implement the decision of the 749 inspired by the three – it is the responsibility of everyone else to make any small contribution they can to saving our planet.

Accordingly, there’s no reason for the question of how many Zionists it takes to change a light bulb to remain a joke. The real answer need not be 784, but one. Just be sure to buy a good helmet along with your new two-wheeled, alternative-fuel-efficient vehicle.

Happy New Year of the Trees. And happy trails.

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The views presented here are his own.


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