We have come to our homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted. To strike our roots deep into its life giving substances, and to stretch out our branches in the sustaining and creating air and sunlight of our homeland? We, who have been torn away from nature, who have lost the savor of natural living – if we desire life, we must establish a new relationship with nature.?
What relationship have Israelis established with nature over the past 57 years? Every child has hiked in Ein Gedi, celebrated Lag Ba?omer from the top of a mountain, and taken a class in yedidat ha?aretz – knowledge of the land. Yet the Yarkon River which runs through Tel Aviv is so polluted it killed four Australian athletes at the Maccabbi games in 1997. Ironically, the Dead Sea is dying of thirst at a rate of more than 1 meter (3 feet) per year. A concrete jungle covers most of central Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Ashkelon to Haifa. Is this truly the dream we envisioned?
At its core, the early Zionist dream was a dream of reconnection to the land from which our ancestors were torn almost two thousand years previously. Whether a religious connection to Jerusalem and God?s promise of the land, or cultural nostalgia and connection to an ancestral home, the land of Zion was the key. When the World Zionist Congress debated the Uganda option one fact was unmistakable: a Zionist revolution could not be successful unless it had Zion at its core.
The Jewish people were born of that land. Like salmon migrating from the middle of the ocean to the exact riverhead at which it was born, the Jewish people are called to their ancestral land. The deserts, the hills, the rivers, and the sea call to us from a young age. The intrigue of Abraham?s desert existence, the people crossing the mighty river Jordan (now a trickle), Maccabees fighting the Romans from the caves in the Judean hills, these images are imprinted on the minds of Jewish people worldwide.
This connection runs deeper than can be taught through education. When, at the age of sixteen, I stepped foot in Jerusalem for the first time, I smelled the air, felt the soil and immediately felt at home. It is a feeling that in my whole life, I have only felt in three places: my parent?s home in Vancouver, the hof (beach) at my Habonim Dror Machaneh (camp), and now in Israel, felt strongest in the desert.
?They talk about clean air and natural resources and that’s all very important. But on the other side, there is development. I mean why have we come here anyway? To bring the Jewish people here back to the land of Israel. To do this we need development. Ultimately, in the name of development, I am willing to sacrifice anything.?
–Yitzhak Shamir, Former Prime Minister of Israel
For many years, development was the only answer possible, as our people were threatened and their lives at risk. Israel had to be strong as the last hope for the Jewish people. But the days of perennial threats from Israel?s neighbors are diminishing and with it the responsibilities of Zionism have changed as well. Something has gone terribly wrong. Love of land has been usurped by a need for western standards of living and consumerism. Political stability has overshadowed the need for environmental sustainability and the land of Israel, a land we pray for at every prayer service and meal, has suffered. To ensure its basic survival, Israel must begin to address the multitude of environmental issues that plague its future, and we as Diaspora Zionists have an obligation to take the lead in making this happen.
?We must choose in this the elements that constitute closeness to the soil, hallowing worldliness, and absorption of the Divine in nature; and reject in this tradition the elements that constitute remoteness from the soil, detached rationality, and nature’s banishment from the presence of God.?
Though the agrarian roots of early Zionism have long been replaced by a high tech westernized economy, it is not be too late to salvage the meaning of religious and early Zionist thought. As the entire world awakens to the dangers of environmental destruction, Israel and the Jewish People must act to create a sustainable society.
For thousands of years, our culture, our laws, and our spirituality have centered on protecting and praising the natural world and the land of Israel: the ancient law of Ba?al Tashcit forbids wanton destruction even in a time of war; Sukkot, one week every year when we are commanded to sleep under the stars in temporary harvest dwellings; and of course Tu B?shvat where for the past century we?ve celebrate the lives of trees by planting new ones in the land of Israel.
Many argue that environmental issues still cannot be addressed in Israel with so many security and economic threats looming. However environmental threats are paramount to security and economic threats especially in a country as small as Israel. For example, with water levels dropping annually, increasing demand especially in Palestinian territories and Israelis using up to eight times as much water as the Palestinians, Israel will quickly have to find new conservation methods if they hope to ever reach an equitable and sustainable peace.
Much of Israel?s best agricultural land is quickly being eaten up as urban and suburban sprawl encompasses most of central Israel, and global climate change threatens to turn much of what?s left of Israel?s arable lands into desert. This decrease in agricultural output, combined with continued population growth, is leading to a dependency on foreign imports that no country wants to be in, especially facing as many threats as Israel does.
Only through refocusing Jewish and Zionist ethics to include love of the land and the drive to preserve it can we ensure the future of Israel and the Jewish people. Moreover, by focusing Jewish and Zionist advocacy on the issues facing Israel and the world today, such as water depletion, loss of open space and global climate change, we can add our unique and progressive voice to Israel and the Zionist movement.
In recent years a small but strong environmental movement has formed in Israel. Dedicated individuals are working to change Israeli society through education, advocacy, and law. Organizations such as Adam Teva Va?din, The Israel Union for Environmental Defense (www.iued.org.il), The Heschel Center (www.heschelcenter.org) and The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (www.arava.org), are fighting daily to protect what?s left of Israel?s wild places and train a new generation of Israeli and regional leaders.
In North America educational and activist organizations such as the Teva Learning Center (www.tevacenter.org) and The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (www.coejl.org) are teaching Diaspora Jews to love the land and how to live a more sustainable lifestyle.
In my work at the Teva Learning Center, I have seen thousands of children and adults who have had the same epiphany that I did; the realization that as a Jew and as a human being we must fight for the preservation of the planet and the land of Israel. Many of my colleagues and students have made Aliyah with the goals of pioneering this new understanding, others have formed Diaspora based organizations such as the Green Zionist Alliance (www.greenzionist.org) and the Jewish Global Environmental Network (www.jgenisrael.org).
As for the average concerned Diaspora Jew, we must remember that environmental issues are global issues. Along with fighting to protect wild spaces in Israel, we must change our own actions on this continent, actions that threaten global security as whole. We are connected to the land and all lands are connected to each other. Make a change in your life today to help protect the future of our people and the world.