Shaping the umbrella group that now houses 130 environmental organizations has involved a journey “unprecedented” in Israeli civil society, the current and former leaders of the Life and Environment movement agreed as they prepared to celebrate the organization’s 40th anniversary.
“Most of the achievements of the environmental movement are thanks to the environmental organizations themselves. It’s very important to understand that,” Naor Yerushalmi, CEO of Life and Environment, told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend.
“However, the ability of the movement and the organizations to establish and keep an umbrella organization, a joint functioning organization, like that for so long, shows first the strength of the organization and the understanding that there’s an importance in working not just by themselves,” he continued. “They understand that the ability to keep such a function working strongly by itself strengthens the whole community and the whole movement.”
Life and Environment celebrates its 40th anniversary on Tuesday, on Knesset Environment Day, during which numerous parliamentary committees will discuss environmental issues and the organization will award its annual Green Globe prizes.
Since its founding in 1975 by the late MK Yosef Tamir, Life and Environment has grown from a fledgling organization to a group that houses most of Israel’s environmental NGOs and which has made green voices instrumental in civil society and governmental decisions. Keeping the organization up and running, coordinating campaigns and coalitions, and working together has been no easy task, and represents one of the movement’s major successes, according to Yerushalmi.
“We as an organization also need to raise funds and need media visibility,” he said. “But we were able to keep our ego low to allow things to keep on working and moving. I don’t think you can say that about other civil society movements in Israel.”
In addition to Life and Environment’s ability to stay unified and coordinated over the past 40 years, another great success of the organization, particularly over the past 20 to 25 years, has been the joint platforms created to serve the entirety of the environmental movement. One such platform will be launched Tuesday – an 18-chapter climate policy paper spearheaded by Life and Environment, but with the participation of a number of environmental NGOs, Yerushalmi said.
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A third major success of Life and Environment over the years has been the environmental movement’s increasing presence “participating in decision- making bodies,” according to Yerushalmi. He credits this largely to Prof. Alon Tal, an expert in environmental policy at Ben-Gurion University, who served as chairman of Life and Environment from 1993-2003.
Through the initiative of Tal and the organization’s CEO Orr Karassin in 2002, then Meretz MK Mossi Raz – the current chairman of Life and Environment – successfully passed a bill that made environmental civil society representatives full voting members of the country’s planning committees.
“Here, by law, we are not invited, we are not observers, we are not guests,” Yerushalmi said. “We are part of the system, we are part of the process.
While of course, this puts enormous workloads and responsibility on our side, on the other hand the level of importance of our side and the influence we have through this is huge.”
Looking back on this particular achievement, Tal acknowledges Life and Environment’s founder, Tamir, with “the initial recognition that embedding public interest environmental groups into official decision-making bodies constitutes ‘win-win’ dynamics.”
As a Knesset member, Tamir did succeed in placing one Life and Environment representative on the National Council for Planning and Building, but as a the number of planning committees grew by the late 1990s, Tal said such a recognition had to be taken “to another level.”
“[Karassin] and I wrote the law, which called for putting an environmental voice in more than a dozen official bodies,” Tal told the Post. “But that was the easy part.”
The “heavy lifting,” Tal continued, was performed in the Knesset by Raz, who “immediately grasped the democratic implications” of the bill and managed to achieve its passage just before the Knesset was disbanding for elections on November 11, 2002.
“This offered Israel’s environmental movement a twopronged strategy on a range of issues. Some of us could sit and rabble rouse, condemn and file High Court petitions from the outside, while others could serve as not-so-secret agents, playing the professional, insider game on these committees,” Tal said. “It also gave Life and Environment a bit more stature and dividends to toss its members.”
Under Tal’s chairmanship, Life and Environment’s umbrella of organizations grew from 24 to 80 in a matter of years – a success he attributes largely to “the intelligence, integrity, environmental literacy and astonishing organizational skills” of Karassin, who was serving as the movement’s CEO at the time.
While Life and Environment’s leadership and its member organizations have successfully overcome many obstacles throughout the years, Tal acknowledged that the movement’s internal politics “have never been easy.”
“You know the line: two Jews; three synagogues; four environmental groups,” he said. “When I was chair, I used to say that the position was like trying to be a shepherd for flies.”
Calling Yerushalmi’s decision to join Life and Environment – initially as its spokesman – as “a bit of a watershed date,” Tal praised the current CEO for his communications expertise and sophistication in unifying the movement.
“Over time, his unique ability to listen, bring people together, speak eloquently to power and keep the organization creative – along with his signature mustache of course – has helped Life and Environment survive all sorts of crises,” Tal said. “He has made a real difference in innumerable campaigns. The Green Globe awards are now an important date on the national green calendar – and they are definitely his Magnum opus.”
As Life and Environment moves forward into its next 40 years, Yerushalmi said one of the key challenges will be boosting the movement’s influence even further in the political sphere and public discourse.
“Environmental issues are still not fully integrated or understood by larger audiences,” he said.
The movement likewise will need to work to ensure that climate issues are at the center of Israeli decision-making, as well as continue to provide support to new emerging groups that are just getting their start in the environmental sector,
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