The urgent environmental agenda for the Jewish people

'Sustainability is a Jewish value.'

January 28, 2018 00:05
The HAIFA Chemicals’ ammonia tank

The HAIFA Chemicals’ ammonia tank. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

When God created Adam, He led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden and told him, “See how beautiful and praiseworthy all of my works are. Everything I have created has been created for your sake. Think of this and do not corrupt the world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you” (Ecclesiastes Raba 7:13).

The Jewish people talk a really good environmental game.

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But the truth – are you ready for it? – is that we suck at it.

With Tu Bishvat, the new year for the trees, set to cultivate our green consciousness again at the end of the month, maybe this time we can finally take a harder and more truthful look at our consumption, behaviors, policies and institutions. If we can get our individual and collective environmental acts together, the Jewish people can seed the revolution to save the planet. Indeed, the secret to global environmental survival and rejuvenation is embedded in one of the Ten Commandments.

Consider these dark facts: About 97% of Israel’s electricity is generated from burning fossil fuels – this from a country that can power itself 100% by the sun during the day for less than the cost of the much-hyped yet potentially lethal natural gas. And because of income levels, home ownership, frequent travel and two-car families, American Jews and Jews like them in the West are among the most destructive global citizens. (Yes, even though we recycle.)

We all live the hypocrisy. Chances are that your synagogue’s festive Tu Bishvat Seder, a traditional fruit-filled meal brimming with symbolism and environmental consciousness, will be desecrated with one-time-use plastic dishes, just like our shuls’ Shabbat kiddush cups, bar- and bat-mitzva dishes and more. Diaspora Jews will fulfill the Zionist pilgrimage to Israel and roll up their sleeves and plant a tree in the Holy Land, but generate 1.5 metric tons of CO2 by the round-trip flight – not to mention the disposable in-flight food tray and plastic cups.

They will make notable donations to Jewish, general or even environmental causes from the income they’ve earned from their mutual funds or stocks – many in oil, chemical or other environmentally unfriendly companies. They will check the package of the snack food to make sure it has a kosher certification but gloss over the fact that the palm oil used is one of the leading causes of deforestation of the planet, depriving the earth of one of its lungs.

They will praise God in the synagogue and then get into their combustible engine cars to drive to their air-conditioned or heated homes – actions that many climate scientists say are unleashing deadly forces of massive destruction on the planet our grandchildren will inherit, as they curse our generation’s unrelenting short-sightedness, opulence and greed.

What’s a modern, well-meaning Jew to do?

I WALKED the grounds of the stately Windsor Castle in a colorful Ethiopian tallit in the light drizzle of a cold November day a month before the failed Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009. Honored to be part of the Jewish delegation to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation’s “Many Heavens, One Earth” conference, we were working with the United Nations to rally the world’s religions to develop seven- year climate plans. I was filled with hope that despite the failures of our political leaders, we could marshal the moral authority of religions to save the planet.

Nigel Savage, the visionary of Hazon, and Rabbi Yedidya (Julian) Sinclair, a scholar and energy expert with the Jewish Climate Initiative, ascended the stage in front of a kaleidoscope of religious leaders from every corner of the planet. In what felt like a special moment in history, the duo presented a bold and detailed environmental plan on behalf of, and for, the Jewish people to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II. A thunderous applause greeted them – as well as each imam, priest, minister and other religious leaders who captured the environmental aspirations of their faith on the recycled paper. The energy, scope and unity of the gathering were magical and miraculous. Yet as the shiny suits of armor guarding the dark, cold brick walls didn’t move, neither have the Jewish people in the eight years since.

MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union), with whom I served on the Israeli negotiating team at the Paris Climate Conference, has the distinction of being the first Green Party MK in Israel’s history and was a long-time environmental activist with Green Course and the Israel Energy Forum.

“There are many environmental issues now, but the main issue for Israel is air pollution – mostly from cars, polluting power plants and from industry,” Paran says. “Some of Israel’s cities are among the most polluted cities in the Western world.”

In fact, according to the World Health Organization, each year in Israel about 2,500 people die from air pollution, which is six times as many as by traffic accidents and, depending on the year, hundreds of times more than those killed by terrorism and war. Each year, more than 200,000 more combustion-engine cars are added to clog the already congested roads and increasingly cancerous air. Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are all in the process of banning heavy diesel vehicles from their cities in an admission of just how dangerous the silent killer called air pollution is.

Air pollution – like the polluted streams and rivers and the prevalence of trash – is just one symptom of a larger issue, the sacred cow of the Zionist narrative: population growth. “In the shadow of the Holocaust, it is still difficult for many Israelis to speak objectively about overpopulation,” says Prof. Alon Tal, author of The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel and the chair of the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University.

“Israel is one of the most crowded countries on earth. As Israel becomes more congested, it will become more disagreeable and harried, burdened by anxiety and alienation. Due to population growth, the streams, groundwater, air, soil, ecosystems and living space are getting worse. At a certain point, the land is unable to sustain a growing population.”

As in many countries, there is an epic battle under way in Israel between narrow business interests and the environment and public health, with government often siding with business for short-term financial and political gain while sacrificing longer-term health and environmental concerns. Since the Israeli voter tends to be security-centric, quality-of-life issues rank a far second and don’t materialize as political forces when the country takes to the polls. This was true for the ammonia plant in Haifa that the Environment Ministry ordered closed, but the prime minister kept open for a while. This is true for the irresponsible shale-oil drilling licenses on the Golan or the proposal to have natural gas rigs dangerously close to the shores of Zichron Ya’acov, with the support of the energy and water minister. Or the Finance Ministry’s very short-term tax benefit for electric cars that will only solidify the reign and monopoly of the two-million-plus polluting cars and their influential importers. Or the Manufacturers’ Association objection to an even minor carbon tax on Israel’s polluting power plants. Political and business interests reinforced the deep-sea national gas monopoly and its high pricing, even though solar energy could bring more jobs, economic development, investment, environmental benefit – all at cheaper pricing to the consumer.

What’s a modern, well-meaning Jewish state to do, especially if it yearns to be the “beginning of the flowering of our redemption”?

THE CONVENIENT truth about the Jewish people is that when we put our minds and capital to work, we can make miracles happen. We demonstrated that clearly with the improbable yet successful return to Zion after 2,000 years, the various rescue operations of Jews in far-flung countries and the creation of one of the most innovative economies in human history. Today, there is no more noble cause for the Jewish people than saving humanity itself, ensuring that God’s covenant not to wipe out the planet with rising waters will be – in some small measure – because of our actions.

It is for this purpose that we have been created, that we have survived and flourished. There is no higher fulfillment of the Jewish mission than to honor and save the majesty of God’s creation and to do so as individuals and as part of a global Jewish collective with Israel as our national platform. World Jewry and Judaism itself cannot afford to let Israel capitulate to its darker political forces and narrow business interests. Israel can and should shine, and this could inspire other countries, particularly in Africa, to go green in their energy, transportation and development.

Of the trillions of cosmic opportunities for life to flourish, this third rock from the sun may be the only experiment of partnership, of covenant, between the Creator and created. Earth may be the only speck in the universe where collective moral choice is possible.

It is time for the Jewish people to “choose life so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

This can be accomplished by several practical steps in each of our individual lives, by community targets and actions, by positive examples from our leaders, by vastly increasing donations for green activists in Israel and investing in sustainability, by bravely phasing down subsidies for large Israeli families and, most importantly, a grand theological awakening. (See box, “Toward a green ‘shmita’ in 2021”)

Population in Israel is not the only sacred cow in Jewish life. Israel is ranked seventh worldwide on per-capita consumption of beef, with the average Israeli wolfing down about 20 kilograms a year. Jews around the world, too, correlated for income levels, are among the highest per capita consumers of beef. The process of raising, feeding, killing and transporting beef is one of the most destructive forces on the planet and demand is only increasing. Your grandma’s brisket and that pastrami on rye collectively contribute as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the world’s cars and trucks.

This reluctant vegetarian has been known to occasionally sneak a satisfying sandwich at the 2nd Avenue Deli or some savory Shabbat dinner. Individual human nature and cravings, with societal sanction, is at the core of the struggle for global survival and is difficult. But this is exactly where the battle has to be fought and won. Meatless Mondays is a good start but needs to include beefless Shabbat and holiday meals.

“Sustainability is a Jewish value,” says Jeremy Kranowitz, managing director for sustainability of Hazon, the leading Jewish environmental group in the United States.

“For the year ahead, the big sustainability theme we all should keep in mind revolves around food. If you care about water, energy, hunger, environmental justice and climate change, you should be mindful of your food choices: the way our food is grown, whether it is organic or with the welfare of the animal in mind; the distance that food must travel to reach us; those that do not have enough to eat in our communities; and the impact of our wasted food in our landfills.”

The Windsor Plan developed by Hazon and the Jewish Climate Initiative in 2009 framed its communal environmental goals as part of the seven-year cycle of shmita, the sabbatical year for the Land of Israel. The next shmita begins on Rosh Hashana, 2021 – meaning that the Jewish people and the State of Israel have nearly four years to successfully pivot away from being some of the worst environmental offenders and to instead demonstrate some moral and green leadership.

The best place to start is by cutting in half our consumption of beef, which would save more than 18,000 tons of CO2 globally, while also improving our health and serving as a model for other people and countries. This would be equivalent to the carbon absorbed by 700,000 trees each year. The Jewish people slaughter about 1.5 million cows a year for our annual beef cravings; let’s get that down to 750,000 or lower. Jerusalem may be Israel’s spiritual and political capital, but Tel Aviv is ranked by The Independent as the “vegan capital of the world.” It is time for carbon labeling and taxes on beef coupled with the social down-grading of beef to the point that no wedding or bat mitzva would want to be tainted by beef consumption by 2021.

If you have ever been to a Shabbat dinner in Israel you instinctively already know that Israel is ranked No. 1 in the world for per capita chicken consumption. Chicken, with a quarter of the carbon footprint of beef, becomes fair game for beef replacement along with fish, as long as our polluted oceans can sustain the fish. Within four shmita cycles, there will be as much plastic in the oceans as fish, which will become increasingly more toxic for human consumption.

Last year I was honored to give a keynote address in Jerusalem to the international convention of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. While they were very gracious and it seemed like my journey from Jewish educator and rebbitz (husband of a rabbi) to global solar entrepreneur and ambassador resonated, I was startled when the audience chuckled at a centerpiece proposal. They thought I was kidding when I said that by 2021, anyone who drives a combustion engine car in the Jewish community will be committing a hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).

This is the problem. Even the most social action-oriented Jewish leaders still don’t connect our daily environmental sins with the death and destruction they cause. Jews, usually early adapters, should phase out combustion engine cars over the next four years, and the Knesset should ban selling them, as China, India, Norway, the UK and other countries have pledged to do. By shmita 2021, I’m counting on the World Union of Jewish Students and Green Course to publish a “shame list” of so-called Jewish leaders in Israel and abroad who continue to drive climate change.

According to the World Health Organization, about six million people die each year from air pollution. Transportation contributes about 14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is accelerating deaths by wildfires, extreme droughts, supercharged storms, civil wars, and soon a jump in sea levels. When the rapidly melting Larsen and Ross ice shelves in Western Antarctica slip into the ocean, sea levels will rise enough to drown Amsterdam, Miami, New York and most island nations, especially in the Pacific. Hundreds of millions of lives will be threatened in the coming four years by the negative effects of climate change. I suggest instead of having the Jewish people help plan and finance a memorial museum to the victims of climate change, we should instead provide leadership and legacy in order to save lives now through our actions. We should be raising a generation of “Righteous Citizens and Consumers,” Jews and gentiles alike.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril is a soft-spoken prophet of the environment living in Jerusalem, where he is often in dialogue with religious leaders of other faith communities about how to be more effective in our generation than Noah was in his.

“A Jewish environmental agenda should address the spiritual roots of the environmental crisis. Some of these roots include arrogance, insecurity, desire for honor, our disconnect from nature and from other people and the need to feel in control.” Neril, who directs the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, says: “To address these root issues, we will need to become net givers, think long-term, cultivate humility and moderate our consumption. Plus we will need to act on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s call from 1981 to switch as soon as possible away from oil and to solar energy.”

Israel’s founding prime minister was also a solar visionary. In 1956, David Ben-Gurion said, “The largest and most impressive source of energy in our world and the source of life for every plant and animal, yet a source so little used by mankind is the sun… solar energy will continue to flow toward us almost indefinitely.”

Through a wonderful accident of history, I was fortunate to advance Ben-Gurion’s vision by launching the solar industry in the State of Israel from Kibbutz Ketura, along with my partners David Rosenblatt and Ed Hofland and with our 120 individual impact investors. When I began, the vision was quite simple: Power the area from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea with 100% solar power during the day by 2020, which would serve as an example to the rest of the country and the world. Every relevant official, politician, and government office was not only against the idea but also said it would be technically impossible for the region to go beyond 20% powered by the sun.

We launched the first solar field in the Middle East in 2011 at Ketura, but Israel today is only powered by about 3% from the sun. However, today the Arava region, including Eilat, is 70% powered during the day by the sun and will reach 100% by 2020. Now that we’ve proven it is possible, Israel should go to 100% solar during the day, with natural gas powering the country at night. Also after a 10-year battle, the government has finally relented to lower the barriers so that citizens can add photovoltaic panels to their roofs. Powering entire countries during the day with the sun is the vision of our impact investment work from Jerusalem in Africa, where we are developing and financing solar and wind installations across the continent.

Nigel Savage of Hazon challenges the Jewish people to become the first carbon-neutral people on the planet. Every synagogue, Jewish community center, Jewish school and institution worldwide has a carbon footprint, meaning that its consumption of electricity or use of gas burners adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. This is also true for every Jewish home. Because the global atmosphere is one ecosystem, actions that offset carbon emissions in Israel can be used to compensate for emissions in another part of the world. So the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, for example, could conduct every Tu Bishvat a green audit of the Jewish community and then plant a forest in Israel or in Africa to offset its carbon footprint. This can also be done with investments from federation and foundation endowments in commercial scale solar installations.

Today there are slightly more than 400 parts per million carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere, forming a heat-trapping wrap around the planet – much like glass in a greenhouse. For the earth to settle back into balance, we need to return to about 350 parts per million. But at the current pace of emissions growth, the world will reach the tipping point on climate change in about four years, around the time of the next shmita year. Then really bad things happen.

Here is where religion, catalyzed by the Jewish people, can save the planet. Because of Shabbat observance in Israel, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by a third – and nearly zero out on Yom Kippur. One of the Ten Commandments and the gift of the Jews is the sanctity of time through a day of rest every week. The philosopher Ahad Ha’am famously taught, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” If every denomination of the Jewish people truly sanctified Shabbat as a non-consumer day of rest and this example was followed by other faith communities, then Shabbat would save the Jewish people along with the entire planet. A real universal day of rest could cut greenhouse gas emissions by one-seventh, allowing our turbulent planet to calm back into balance.

Then the Jewish people could truly become a renewable light unto the nations. Have a life-changing, world-changing Tu Bishvat.\

Winner of Israel’s Green Globe Award in the Knesset, the writer serves as CEO of green energy developer Energiya Global Capital, was named by CNN as one of the world’s top six Green Pioneers, is a member of the Jewish Funders Network and Toniic and served on the Israeli negotiating team to the Paris Climate Conference.

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