The 'new' face of Zionism

Green Course's is connecting American Jews with Israel by raising awareness of ecological problems.

zionism metro 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
zionism metro 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Zionism has changed over the years to serve Israel's needs, and now - as international attention turns itself to the earth's future - a "Green Jew" is emerging, one who expresses his love for Israel by trying to protect its environment. One group in particular, Green Course, captures the essence of this new Zionism by working to raise awareness of both existing and imminent ecological crises. Known in Hebrew as "Megama Yeruka," the national student-run volunteer organization was founded in 1997 by two students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Green Course now has over 6,000 registered members in 26 academic institutions nationwide. At its inception, Green Course operated as a branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), but by 2001 the group had already garnered enough support to break off and be recognized as its own NGO. But the organization sees itself as more than just an environmental group. "Green Course is connecting young Jews, it's a common cause," says Gidon Melmed, Head of International Relations and Resource Development for Green Course. "This is the future of Zionism: the survival of the Jewish people and the entire region depends on a sustainable environment." Protecting the environment is a cause that crosses religious, political and cultural boundaries. In a country as diverse as Israel, a uniting cause is often hard to come by. Melmed acknowledges this point: "Green Course has a relationship with Knesset members. Those from different parties, who normally would never agree on anything, have together backed Green Course-led initiatives." Nadav Gordon, head of Green Course at Haifa University, doesn't necessarily agree with Melmed that Green Course should be viewed as a Zionist rallying cause, but does say the organization is gaining members due to a new social phenomenon. "There seems to be the growth of the 'Green Jew,'" says Gordon. "Religion may not be important to them, but the land is important to everyone and our future." As its own NGO, Green Course receives funding from about a dozen sources, including a significant amount of money from North America. One such source is the First Narayaver Congregation in Toronto. The Conservative, egalitarian synagogue's social action committee chooses projects to fund each year, and Green Course is a major recipient of its contributions. Rabbi Ed Elkin says the "kesher" (connection) between Narayever and Green Course was first made by congregant Tanhum Yoreh. "He was studying at the Hebrew University and was involved with Green Course there. [He] spoke very enthusiastically about the important work that they do," Elkin told Metro. "We have supported environmental projects in Israel in the past, notably the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. A number of our shul members are involved in environmental work professionally. A cause that expresses our commitment both to Israel and the environment is therefore a natural for us. We are also especially interested in supporting grassroots type of organizations in Israel," continues Elkin, "groups who do good work, where our dollars can really make a difference. Green Course certainly fits the bill." Yoreh, who studied at the Hebrew University as an exchange student from McGill University in Montreal, says his brother and his roommate were both involved with Green Course, so it was natural for him to join. Yoreh worked with Green Course from 2004 to 2005 as the group's director of international relations and development. His job entailed grant writing and travel to the United States and Canada, where he would give presentations - mainly in synagogues and schools - on the state of Israel's environment, connections between Judaism and the environment, and what Green Course does about it all. "This experience was invaluable," says Yoreh. "I was engaged in meaningful work, I got to meet plenty of like-minded young people, I got to interact [with] and express my opinion to community and government leaders, and I still use all of those skills today." Yoreh also notes that in the years since his time with Green Course, he has watched the organization evolve and become more professional. He has also seen many of its members take a lot of what they learned from their experience at Green Course and "go on to make positive environmental change." "Green Course nurtures young leadership, and is truly the gateway for environmental activism in Israel," says Yoreh. While Elkin agrees with Yoreh that environmental activism is an excellent way for young people to express their love for Israel, he doesn't necessarily think that environmentalism is a "new" form of Zionism. "Love of Eretz Yisrael is an old form of Zionism, and in our time we have a new-found awareness of how vulnerable that land is to environmental depredation," says Elkin. "We would like to do our small part from afar to addressing that challenge." Rachel Melzer, Narayaver's social action committee chair, says that Green Course is an especially important organization because it mobilizes youth. "We particularly value opportunities to support the organizations like Green Course, which are creating a new generation of environmental leadership in Israel," says Melzer. "Green Course tackles urgent environmental issues while building environmental awareness and expertise among the future decision makers now studying at Israeli campuses." The Jewish context is an integral element in attracting young Jews from North America, says Melmed. "Even if a group from America is secular, they recognize their work in the environment as [related to] their Jewish identity." People coming to Israel from North America have another major advantage. Green Course member Jenna Kloosterman, who was based at Tel Hai College in Kiryat Shmona, says her English was highly valued. She says young people in general feel very connected to environmental issues - especially students visiting Israel from North America. "In the US, people my age are very worried about the environment. For Jewish youth, it is definitely a cause that unites," she affirms. If Kloosterman has one complaint about how the green movement in Israel is operating, it is that there should be more communication between the North Americans coming over and Israelis their same age. "We did some work in a JNF (Jewish National Fund) forest on our own and a lot of the [teens] were wondering why they were doing it. 'This is an Israeli job,' they would say," recalls Kloosterman. She says it would help if the Israelis made more of an effort to interact. If they did, she says, "There would be more people who would come to Israel… to work together to make Israel better for everyone." Meanwhile, one issue that Green Course is careful to address is the ubiquitous public image of environmental groups as radicals. "It is not in the mentality of Green Course," says Melmed. "Green movements across the globe have a reputation for being hippy tree-huggers, but we are not like that." Melmed stresses that every action Green Course takes is done so within the boundaries of the law. "When we hold protests, we always let the authorities know ahead of time," he says. Melmed says that Green Course has partnerships with important government branches and "would not want to do anything to jeopardize that." When asked by Metro what Green Course would do if one of its members broke the law, Melmed said that such things simply don't happen. There was one incident in which four Green Course members were arrested at the Kinneret, but Melmed says that was very different. "There had been a conference at the Kinneret and these four… went on their own, not as official Green Course members," says Melmed. He explained that despite a law declaring all beaches at the Kinneret public property, some businesses were still erecting fences. The four Green Course activists hopped the fence and were arrested for being on private property, he explains. Melmed adds that they were released the next day, as police realized they had no legal justification for detaining them. He says that the incident proved a "very important point" - that police were blaming the wrong people for breaking the law. Peter Adler of the Pratt Foundation in Israel, an Australian-based philanthropic organization that also donates to Green Course, calls the organization "phenomenal." "They are young and idealistic," he says. "Would I run my campaigns like they do? Probably not, but they are committed and are in a learning curve." Gordon, in Haifa, agrees with Melmed that everything Green Course does is legal, but in his view the organization does wage somewhat radical campaigns. "We are pushing for change and with that, there are run-ins with authorities sometimes, but never in a serious way that breaks the law," says Gordon, who points to a particular campaign three years ago in Tel Aviv called "Sun and Sea." "Complexes were set to be built along the coast, and as part of their protest, Green Course members climbed one of the cranes at night and camped out there for three days," Gordon recalls. "They were well prepared with food supplies and the plan worked - in the end, the project was cancelled."