Is Israel bright enough to become a renewable Light unto the Nations?

Last week, inaugurating Ketura Sun, Israel’s first solar field, Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau praised the visionaries who spent five years making this miracle happen. “You are injecting new and renewable energy into Zionism,” Landau proclaimed. “These projects prove Zionism’s enduring power.” The story of Arava Power, which just planted 18,500 photovoltaic panels into 80 dunams to produce 9 million kilowatts annually, is a marvelous Zionist tale, making the Green Movement blue and white too. But the government – and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – must act wisely so Israel can help free the world of its polluting, corrupting, oil and gas addiction, becoming a renewable light unto the nations as a new, safe, clean, liberating, light shines upon Zion.
Photo from left to right: Head of Municipality Udi Gat; Agriculture Minister Orit Noked; Minister of Infrastructure Uzi Landau, and Head of the Independence Party MK Dr. Einat Wilf
Credit: Ruti Rubenstein
This story suggests that, sometimes, life is a Young Judaea peulah – a Zionist youth movement educational program. In August, 2006, the Jewish journalist and Zionist activist Yosef Abramowitz made Aliyah with his family.  Fighting jet-lag, they made three stops. In Tel Aviv they visited the grave of Ahad Ha’am, the cultural Zionist who articulated the spirituality and people hood values which Yossi (I have known him too long to call him anything else) championed in Boston. Then, driving south, they stopped in Sde Boker, honoring David and Paula Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first couple, who balanced idealism with pragmatism to fulfill the Zionist dream – redeeming millions of individual Jews. Finally, they reached Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert.
Members of Young Judaea, to which Yossi (and I) belonged, founded Ketura in 1973, following Ben-Gurion’s charge to “settle the Negev.”  Mostly children of American Jewish suburbia, they have lived the Zionist cliché, making the desert bloom. These pioneers transformed an overheated, godforsaken brown sandpit into a thriving green oasis with 130 members, 200 children, sharing a communal lifestyle still resisting privatization, enjoying a pluralistic mix harmonizing religious and non-religious Israelis. 
The next morning, waking to the dazzling desert sun, Yossi discovered that despite being in one of the world’s sunniest places, neither the kibbutz nor Israel were harnessing solar energy. Instead of writing the book on people hood he planned, Yossi allied with Ketura and another ex-Judaean, David Rosenblatt, a Wall Street financier, to write a new chapter in the Zionist pursuit of self-determination, seeking energy independence.
Their new company is a model entrepreneurial endeavor – providing a potentially profitable and revolutionary product that has attracted significant investments from the German company Siemens, among others, while securing permits from 24 different, demanding government offices.  Arava Power Inc. is also a values clarification exercise gone wild, the ultimate Good Corporate Citizen, Zionist style, developing Israel’s neglected periphery, incorporating landscape art which will integrate Ben-Gurion’s profile into the solar field – using recycled materials and hosting educational tours of course – while donating the profits from their solar field’s four Biblical “peyot” (corners) to Jewish Heart for Africa, the Bedouin NGO Bustan, the Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center for disabled children, and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, “mixing the universal with the particular,” Yossi notes.
“This is business, but its mission too,” says David Rosenblatt. These entrepreneurs could have prospered elsewhere but their Zionist souls compelled them to make Israel a solar pioneer. Their vision attracted the Jewish National Fund too, swayed by three investment criteria – “rachok, yarok, matok,” meaning far – in Israel’s undeveloped periphery; green – environmentally sound; and sweet – appealing.
Those of us who long yearned for an Israeli Manhattan Project, to find an alternative to oil, which despoils the environment and empowers the Arabs, should be cheering. And the government, which in Decision 4450 in 2009 committed to using renewable sources for 10 percent of Israel’s energy needs by 2020, should be thrilled. Yet, in February, the Treasury Ministry froze the development of all large solar fields and future medium fields, amid Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s silence.  Political uncertainty now risks killing an industry the government should be nurturing -- and championing.
Tragically, the acrid stench of gas-generated special-interests surrounds the move, as Treasury bureaucrats seem to be favoring business cronies peddling Israel’s recent off-shore gas discoveries. Yossi reports that Treasury officials citing cost concerns are now stonewalling solar energy entrepreneurs, ignoring the environmental benefits and mocking any Zionist appeals. “This is Chelm on steroids,” he exclaims.  “Do our leaders really want to stand in the way of billions of dollars invested, thousands of jobs created, clean energy generated, social justice advanced, the periphery developed, with the world itself benefiting? We could be off of oil for energy generation in two years.  We could be the first major economy to go from carbon to solar for its energy.” Three “S”s make Israel ripe for solar revolution – it is small, sunny, and sophisticated. Instead, “We are a Start-Up Nation that can’t get more than the first major solar field built.”
Having spent years fighting for Soviet, Ethiopian, and Yemenite Jews, Yossi views this solar power push as one more crusade against blockheaded, short-term-thinking, obstructionist bureaucrats. “I have been in this movie before,” he says. “The bean counters always say it is a matter of money, when other considerations are at play.”  Brandishing an authoritative audit by Yaron Eliav, the Finance Ministry’s immediate past Director General, who listed nine economic, environmental, and social benefits of lifting the caps to rush toward Israel’s minimalist ten percent goal, Yossi says, “It’s like the Essenes understood in the caves of Qumran, 2000 years ago. The forces of light in the world are poised against the forces of darkness. And the forces of light must win.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always demonstrated a strong sense of history, deep Zionist sensibilities, and geopolitical savvy. By harnessing Israel’s solar power, Israel can win the trifecta, preserving the Land of Israel, empowering the State of Israel, while weakening Israel’s enemies’ power base. Netanyahu should use his power to help the forces of light triumph by green lighting this green, solar-powered Zionist revolution.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” [email protected]