A clean sweep

Alon Tal, winner of this year's Bronfman Prize, calls himself a "2nd generation environmentalist."

alon tal 88 (photo credit: )
alon tal 88
(photo credit: )
Growing up in North Carolina, Albert Rosenthal knew he wouldn't be there for long. "It was clear to me from the age of 12," says Rosenthal, who changed his name to Alon Tal upon making aliya in 1980, "that I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to do it in Israel." Having been active in Young Judaea's local youth movement and raised in a Zionist home, after graduating from the University of North Carolina at only 19, Tal's first move was to make aliya. Now, 25 years later, with a PhD in public policy from Harvard and a law degree from the Hebrew University, Tal is a driving force in the environmental movement in Israel, pioneering reform to preserve the country's natural resources and ecological integrity. Tal calls himself a "second-generation environmentalist," elaborating that his father was a chemist for the US Environmental Protection Agency. "I grew up with strong environmental values," he says. "And when I came to Israel and saw the environment was neglected, I thought it was an area in which I could make a difference." Tal started in 1990 by founding Adam Teva V'din (the Israel Union for Environmental Defense), an advocacy group utilizing legal action to protect Israel's environment and public health from detrimental government policies and corporate practices. No longer active in the organization, explaining that "a chairman has to know when to step down and let other people take over," Tal praises its range of accomplishments and says he is "grateful for having been part of that adventure." Cooperating with similar movements across the country, IUED focuses its efforts on air pollution, drinking-water safety, waste management and accessible open space. It was while serving as chairman of IUED and living in the middle of the desert at Kibbutz Ketura that Tal launched what could be called his most prominent achievement, The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. "I was running Adam Teva V'din and the kibbutz said we needed to diversify our economy. They asked me if I could start a new project," Tal recalls. "I wanted to start a horseback-riding park, but they said no." Tal then suggested setting up a training program for environmentalists in the region, an idea that culminated in the Arava Institute, an educational program that brings together Arabs and Jews to solve the region's environmental challenges. "I got the idea when I went to Tunisia for a regional environmental conference and I met very gifted Arab environmentalists," Tal relates. "We also thought, in terms of the peace process, that it would be a good contribution to make." The Institute accepts Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and overseas students, all of whom study side-by-side in an open atmosphere conducive to dialogue and teamwork. Today, the Institute boasts more than 400 graduates, 80 percent of whom are working in the environment, according to Tal. "Despite the very difficult political climate the intifada created, we still managed to attract brilliant young environmentalists in the Jewish and Arab world to share an ecological vision," says Tal. On January 22, the Institute hosted a day of student presentations based on environmental projects they had researched during the past semester. This year's student projects included an assessment of environmental literacy in 12th graders across the country and a look at a cement plant in Jordan, among other ecological endeavors. Despite being an educational institution and not an advocacy group, the Arava Institute played a large role in ensuring that the placement of a new airport planned for Eilat did not endanger any existing ecosystems. "We were key players - the students and the faculty - in making sure the new airport is not put in Ein Avrona, which is the most important hot spot of environmental diversity in the Arava (the arid region in the south)," asserts Tal. "We had a big rally and it was an important campaign." But mostly, he says, the Institute is known for its ability to transcend political borders and diplomatic tensions. "If you go the party at the end of the year and see the good feeling, you realize how the environment can bring people together," says Tal. "There are Arabs who are potential partners for environmental cooperation in the future." WHEN HE'S not busy teaching at the Institute, Tal devotes his time to working for the Jewish National Fund (JNF), also known as Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael (KKL), an organization he says was once thought of as the enemy of environmental activists. "For too long, for more than 50 years, the environmental community of Israel was at odds with KKL and saw it as an enemy of environmental interests rather than a partner," says Tal. "They considered KKL an insensitive paradigm for development that culminated, in 1998, in Adam Teva V'din suing KKL in the Supreme Court, which ruled that KKL's forestry policies were illegal and forced the organization to change its ways." That's when Tal decided to work with KKL. "I realized the responsible way to make it a sustainable development organization was to get involved and try and make a difference," he explains. Having served on the KKL board of directors for four years now, Tal thinks his work has led to some important accomplishments, but maintains that "until you are chairman, your abilities are limited." If that sounds like a hint, it is. The current chairman, Yehiel Leket, is retiring in June, and the position is up for grabs. "The question is who's going to be the next chairman," says Tal. "Will it be a politician who knows nothing about KKL and the environment, or will it be someone who has made a lifetime commitment to the environment in Israel? "I think it is high time that KKL find leadership that is not associated with a political party," says Tal. "It's time the World Zionist Organization that owns KKL put someone in charge who has a clear vision and a record of commitment to the organization, someone who can inspire people around the world and improve the harmony between KKL and the environment. Do I think I'm qualified to do that? Yes I do." Apparently, Tal isn't the only one who thinks so. On January 10, he was awarded the prestigious Charles Bronfman Prize, an award of $100,000 given to an "individual… whose humanitarian work on behalf of others has contributed significantly to the betterment of the world." "It's a testimony to the maturation of Israel's environmental movement that one of its leaders was recognized," Tal says of receiving the prize, adding that he is "deeply grateful to Bronfman." With the money, Tal says he plans to support grassroots organizations in Israel, "because sometimes a little money can really go a long way." Among the organizations Tal mentions are Sababa, which works for the protection of the Arava and Green Rahat, a Beduin group working to clean up cities. "I know who the players are, the serious ones," he asserts, "and I can make an effective use of the foundation funds." This is a claim he also applies to his ambitions at KKL. "I can see a lot more efficient use of funds, more emphasis on activities and less on the beaurocracy," says Tal, pointing out that having a chairman with a secretary and a driver is unnecessary. "There are a lot of ways you can save money." Tal cites specific changes he thinks must be made. "KKL made a bold and exciting commitment to be the lead agent in river restoration in Israel - this budget allocated NIS 5 million out of NIS 70 million available - that's a disgrace. The rivers of Israel are the orphans in terms of national resources," argues Tal, adding that if he were chairman, he "would double that money." He also says the country could use more summer camps, "like Ramah," and emphasizes the importance that must be placed on Israel's forests. "One of nice things that's happened in the last few years is the opening up of forests to the public, but certain sectors are underrepresented because they can't get there, physically," Tal says. "The Arab community is very isolated from KKL, and we have to work with them because while we're a Jewish organization, we're also a national foresting organization in Israel." Meanwhile, Tal is also serving as the organizing committee chairperson for a UN conference to be held in November on deserts and desertification, working alongside Jordanians and Palestinians. In addition, NATO has chosen the Arava Institute as the site for its Advanced Study Institute (ASI) conference to take place in February, this time focusing on issues related to water resources in the Middle East. "[NATO is] looking for a new identity beyond its role as a security organization," says Tal, who called the conference a great initiative. "Now they see security threats including environmental tensions, and this workshop is looking at water management and how it can be a force in bringing people together." Which is why, he insists, someone with his background should be at the forefront of the battle to protect Israel's resources. "We are in a crucial period of time during which the lines are going to be set for which parts of Israel are going to be preserved for the future; which will be used by humans and how they'll be used by humans," says Tal. "These environmental challenges are too important to leave as a spectator sport. We need participants in and outside of the country with more vision and creativity. I think we're up to the task."