Can environmental activism unite Israel, Diaspora?

Chairman of ASPNI tells Post raising money for the environment is still an uphill battle.

air pollution 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
air pollution 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Environmental activism could be the "special interest" that unites the Jewish world and reignites Jewish philanthropy, according to an unpublished report commissioned by UJA-NY and the CRB Foundation and obtained by The Jerusalem Post. The CRB Foundation was established by Andrea and Charles Bronfman in Montreal in 1986. Not only could Israel and the Diaspora rally around the environment, but the issue would also help bring in younger Jews who are rapidly becoming more and more disenchanted with affiliated Judaism, according to the report. While a senior development official at the Jewish Agency agreed on the environment's fund-raising potential, that potential has yet to be realized, the American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's co-chairman, Leon Sokol, told the Post on Wednesday. The report, authored by Jewish Council for Public Affairs Senior Associate Executive Director Martin J. Raffel late last year, argued that the environment was becoming an increasingly attractive issue for a variety of reasons. "First, the interest in environmentalism and the challenge of global warming, especially in the wake of [former US vice president] Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, have become public affairs concerns of the first order. Reliance on oil and other fossil fuels causes not only concern about the health of our environment, but also pours huge amounts of money into the coffers of Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, that pose threats to Israeli, US and global security interests," Raffel wrote. Israel's environmental NGOs had also gotten stronger over the last decade and were now ready to face the country's environmental challenges, according to Raffel. Moreover, the local climate had helped give rise to a host of green technologies potentially marketable all over the world, he wrote. To recapture the attention of younger Jews, Raffel argued, you needed to engage them. "Taglit and other programs directed toward the younger generation have resulted in a large new audience potentially hungry for a more substantive engagement with Israel and with Jews in other parts of the world. The environment, not surprisingly because it will be their world to inherit, is one of the areas of high interest to members of this generation," he wrote. Raffel pointed to a convergence of interest among US and Israeli philanthropists, President Shimon Peres, and Israeli and American activists surrounding the environment. According to Raffel, it is both an area where people are beginning to be willing to donate money and where activists "hunger" for contacts with their counterparts across the sea. However, Sokol, who heads SPNI's American development arm, hasn't found it easier to raise money. "There are many worthwhile charitable organizations competing in the US for donations. We have to make the case to the people interested in Israel and interested in the environment," he said during a visit here with the American Society for the Protection of Nature executive board. "We're hoping that as awareness of environmental issues and their global interconnection grows, that will help us," he told the Post. Sokol and the board are here this week to improve coordination with SPNI. "We are learning what the priorities are for SPNI so we can coordinate our fund-raising efforts," he said. "The most serious observation so far is the lack of rain in the Kinneret area and what that is going to mean in terms of a water shortage going into the summer," he said, "I think SPNI can play a major role in water conservation campaigns." "We can help out by taking an inventory of water conservation programs that were successful in the States and fit Israel best, and making that information available in Israel," he added. Jeff Kaye, director-general of the Jewish Agency's Department of Resource Development and Public Affairs, told the Post that the Agency's sole foray into fund-raising for an environment project "was a very good experience." "We developed the solar energy park in Nitzana. There was a very enthusiastic response," he said. Kaye also felt the potential for environmental giving was high. "Donors respond to the urgency of matters first. Emergency situations of basic safety, security, health issues are usually on top. The need to save a life comes before everything else," he said. "Next comes those looking to see long-term impact. For the Jewish Agency, that is often about educational opportunities, closing gaps, for instance on the periphery," he continued. Culture and the arts, and religious-giving rounded out the list, according to Kaye. "So long as globally, the environment was a fringe issue, it was parallel to arts and science. As the planet becomes more affected by lack of attention to the environment and the environment is beginning to affect people's health and impact on people's lives," its attraction as an issue rises, Kaye noted in line with Raffel's conclusions. Michael Jankelowitz, spokesman for the Jewish Agency, said that North American Jewish Federations provided most of the donations to Israel. Total charitable donations to the Israeli public and private sectors from local federations and others abroad totaled almost $2 billion a year, according to Bank of Israel figures, Jankelowitz said. Regarding the environment, he said that small organizations such as SPNI faced an uphill battle obtaining donations overseas. People give to big names and large institutions, he said. The Jewish National Fund had been very successful rebranding itself as not just about planting trees, he added. Sokol explained how his organization raised money for SPNI's projects. "We have about 2,500 active members, and about 6,500 donors, so we have a base of people with whom we communicate on a regular basis. We send out a newsletter four times a year, and we have a Web site. We also run ads in various magazines. "People who visit Israel and learn about SPNI when they visit here then become members when they return," Sokol said. Membership is $54 a year for a family. Some of the donations are earmarked for specific projects. For example, one major donation improved the Jerusalem Bird Observatory situated near the Knesset, to make it more hospitable for migrating birds. ASPNI had also raised money for the Hula Valley birding center, Sokol said.