What work do you do?
I’m the founder and executive director of The Heschel Center, an environmental NGO in Israel. I am also an academic, teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
What does your organization do?
Only in the last decade has environmentalism gotten on the map in Israel. For years, “The Situation” — that is, the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians — dominated political discussion and prevented virtually any other issue from being seriously addressed. But the acute nature of environmental problems, coupled with the birth of an energetic civic society, led to a huge increase in environmental awareness.
The Heschel Center was born during that growth spurt, partially as a result of these processes, but also as a catalyst for them. Our goal was to envision and empower a movement for social change based on ecological health and social equity.
So, what does the organization actually do?
We run high-level leadership training programs for the next generation of environmental leaders — coming from fields as diverse as architecture, journalism, art, law, public health, agriculture, community organizing, education, and of course, environmental and ecological science. We work with journalists to help them reframe environmentalism as a social issue. We work with local municipalities, getting them to draw up plans for a sustainable future through large-scale citizen participation. We work with principals, schools, teachers, and kids, creating models for an ecologically literate education. We run a network of public-health advocates. We work with the national government on implementing a national plan for sustainability. We bring together Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Oriental and European Jews, believing that environmentalism should reflect a larger, inclusive vision for the society.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m on a sabbatical at Brown University for the year (otherwise I wouldn’t have the time to write this!), and I’m taking advantage of my proximity to many potential donors in America to find new resources for our work. I’m also taking advantage of getting away from the day-to-day to think strategically about our next set of projects, and about maintenance and fine-tuning of existing ones.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I grew up in Levittown, Long Island, as a suburban Jewish kid. I knew that I didn’t want that when I grew up. I focused on Jewish studies in New York City and then promptly left to live on a kibbutz for 10 years, working as a farmer and an educator. Being in a beautiful desert landscape had a profound impact on my environmental identity, and although subsequently I have become very critical of romantic environmentalism, everyone should have a moment in their biography where they can notice the radical beauty of the world.
When I left kibbutz for the big city, I knew I wanted to keep connected to the great outdoors, so I decided to go back to school and learn environmental studies. (What I didn’t realize is that this would lead to far too many hours in front of computer screens and far too few hours in beautiful places.) Simultaneously, a friend of mine began an environmental NGO and asked me to chair the board of the fledgling organization. That gave me enough of an understanding of NGOs and of environmental politics in Israel to feel confident in starting my own organization, and to have a clear idea of what I wanted to do and why.
Who is your environmental hero?
I can follow the book trail, all the classics that inspired me: Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold. I’ve also been inspired by Jewish religious thinkers who critiqued contemporary culture and made a place for environmental thinking: Martin Buber, A. J. Heschel, Gershom Scholem, and A. D. Gordon, to name a few.
What is your environmental nightmare?
The blind faith in neoliberal economic capitalism — fundamentalist capitalism — and its prophets.
What’s your environmental vice?
I love (kosher) meat.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Gloom and doom ecology guy.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I learned to love the desert, but this year in New England I’m back in my childhood landscape and remembering how much the fall, winter, spring, and summer cycle is in my bones.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
We still speak too much about protecting the environment instead of talking about protecting people. We need to win the hearts and minds of a majority and then advocate policies that prove to people that this is a better way to live.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Close the city centers to cars; charge cars for entering the city during congested times; subsidize mass transit; have designated bus lanes that are enforced; build bike lanes for commuting and not just recreation; build community gardens and farmers’ markets; have mixed zoning in the cities and mixed communities with affordable housing; advocate for community schools that kids can walk to. To paraphrase Thoreau, “In cities is the salvation of the world.”
What’s your favorite TV show?
On sabbatical, I’ve been watching Seinfeld and Simpsons episodes. In Israel, I watch a weekly political satire show with my kids.
What piece of advice might you give to others?
Slow down. Social-change organizations notoriously exploit their workers. A paradigm shift in attitudes and policies is not going to take place because someone slept four hours instead of eight hours. The immediacy of our pace of communications has a price. I actually think that is what an environmental-cultural critique should be trying to change.
How does the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians affect the work of environmentalists? — Noah Efron, Tel Aviv, Israel
As you must know, coming from the region, the “conflict” has traditionally dwarfed all other agendas. Interestingly, the environment has always been a central piece in efforts to build a dialogue and reconciliation between Israel and its neighbors. (As is often stated, nature knows no boundaries.) Even after the second intifada broke out in 2000 and much of the cooperative work disintegrated, many of the environmental initiatives continued. A number of wonderful NGOs have continued their work in extremely sensitive and politically dangerous times.
The Heschel Center has chosen to focus its work on Israel proper, believing that the Israeli progressive movement has become one-dimensional, allowing the conflict to shape all other agendas. In particular, we have focused on Jewish-Arab relations among Israeli citizens. With so much attention focused outwardly on Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, far too little has been paid to issues of environmental justice within the Israeli Arab community.
I’m a fellow native Long Islander with deep environmental roots and with relatives in the State of Israel. How do the government and the people reconcile the past actions of bulldozing olive groves and citrus orchards that sometimes date back to the days of Abraham, using clean water as a weapon against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and the inordinate consumption per capita of freshwater by Israelis when contrasted to Palestinian villages? — Larry Zuckerman, Salmon, Idaho
I am not a government representative. I am a member of civil society who is working to build a sustainable future in Israel. I have learned, from living in the Middle East, that nothing is as simple as it is reported. There is obviously anger and hatred on both sides that often spills over into cruel and violent acts. Suicide bombings are the most graphic and horrifying of these, although there are activities by Israel which are morally indefensible.
But the more complex issues for Israel, I think, are those that demand balancing the immediate protection of Israeli citizens with a broader view of security and a deep commitment to human rights. This is an equation that American politics and society have become increasingly aware of since 9/11, and the wide spectrum of responses by politicians and citizens in America to that equation is not very different from the spectrum of responses in Israel. And there are no simple answers, although I know that there are wrong ones.
One of the fascinating things about Israel is that worldwide issues get shrunk onto a very small stage. The unequal distribution of water resources and the struggle over water rights is of course a worldwide problem between the First and Third Worlds, but you can see it all the more vividly when one compares neighbors who live within several kilometers of one another, but worlds apart. Ultimately, the solution for Israel and the Palestinians has to be two viable states who share resources together as equals, but until both sides are politically able to make that happen, we will be stuck in the quagmire of occupiers and occupied.
Can you give some examples of how you help reframe environmental problems as social issues when talking with journalists? — Name not provided
Journalists in Israel have traditionally mocked environmentalists for focusing on saving endangered beetles or wildflowers, while Rome burns. We have taken journalists to see abject poverty and health hazards in poor Jewish and Arab communities that neighbor rich ones. We have looked at land-use issues to examine who benefits, and who doesn’t, from present distributions. We also look through case studies at the distribution of power and lecture on global trends, putting the environmental crisis in the context of First World and Third World, of haves and have-nots.
I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis of environmental issues as a public health issue. How does Israeli society react to this analysis? — Janna Cohen-Rosenthal, Jamaica Plain, Mass.
The environmental health agenda is relatively new in Israel, in spite of the fact that some of the major environmental issues over the past decade have had to do with public health: hazardous wastes, toxins in rivers, air pollution, and asbestos dumping, to name a few. Due to the sensational character of terrorist bombings, the public underestimates the risk from other causes — even though, for example, many more people died last year from air-pollution-related illnesses than from terror attacks. But this is changing as community activists, environmental organizations, and public-health professionals begin to understand, document, and organize.
The Bible has been blamed for teaching us that the earth and all the non-human creatures on it are here for us to dominate. Do you think the Bible has had a negative effect on Western civilization, so far as our abuse of the environment goes? Do you have confidence that the Bible has positive lessons to teach on these matters, and that there are religious people prepared to listen and learn? — Mark Stephen Caponigro, New York, N.Y.
One of the big mistakes of early environmentalism was demonizing religion. One can find quotes in religious texts supporting most perspectives, so claiming that Western religion is anti-nature says more about those making such claims than about religion’s inherently antagonistic relationship to the natural world. The great contribution that religion offers environmentalism is a language and literature that can speak of life’s meaning beyond consumer culture and instrumental relationships. We need to teach about the environmental message, but we also can learn from religious perspectives. There is more of a meeting ground than the stereotype would suggest.
Which Jewish authors have inspired you as an environmentalist? — Mark Stephen Caponigro, New York, N.Y.
Early on in high school and college, I was taken with the struggle of Jewish thinkers to make sense of modernity. People like Buber, Scholem, Heschel, Soloveitchik, Gordon, and others all criticized the rootless nature of modern and Jewish life, and searched for the rebuilding of community beyond the instrumental material culture that increasingly dominates our lives. My years on kibbutz were a direct result of those concerns, searching for a way to benefit from the blessings of modernity without its negative derivatives. I like to think that my lifestyle still reflects a concern to build a sense of place and community — to dig in to where I live and take responsibility for it.
What kind of future do you see for Israel regarding the availability of freshwater, and how does that translate to the global picture of freshwater supplies? — Janelle Robbins, Tarrytown, N.Y.
Israel’s freshwater future is similar to that of other places — there isn’t enough water to go around. Already today, the peoples of the world exist on overdraft, utilizing more water than natural systems can regenerate. The strategies are the same in Israel as elsewhere: conservation of freshwater sources and their catchment basins; efficiency in use of freshwater and increased use of gray water; appropriate technologies, including desalination, as supplements and not substitutes for the natural water cycle.
By your statement, “We still speak too much about protecting the environment instead of talking about protecting people,” are you saying that people can’t or won’t appreciate that nature and wilderness have a right to exist regardless of whether humans interact with it? — Carol Norton, Placitas, N.M.
The environment is not something out there. It is part of us, and we are part of it. Evolution teaches us that we are deeply embedded in the world around us, not some foreign creature that was plopped in the middle of an alien landscape. There is no actual dichotomy here: the choice isn’t between humans and nature. It is a choice between an isolated, individualistic, atomized view of what it means to be human, and an interconnected, interdependent, and social one. We need the natural world, because it is the context in which we live our lives as human beings. But we don’t need it just for its materials. We need it for its air and its water and its silence and its majestic beauty, and mostly for its sense of scale. It reminds us that we are part of a much larger whole. I don’t think that is anthropocentric in the instrumental sense; I simply don’t know what a relationship means without two to relate.
I work for the Green Schools Network in Israel, which works closely in joint projects with The Heschel Center. We miss you here! Does the environmental movement in North America have any new insights that could enrich our work in Israel? In our outlying Mediterranean outpost here, we often harbor the feeling that “the really good stuff is happening elsewhere.” — David Dunetz, Rosh Pina, Israel
Hi David! To tell you the truth, I haven’t done a whole lot of systematic looking at environmental education here, but anecdotal evidence suggests that what we are doing [in Israel] is pretty sophisticated. What I’ve seen here is quite impressive with regard to ecological literacy, but relatively weak in terms of understanding the social context of environmental issues and understanding environmental education as a central part of political education in a healthy democracy.
How do you respond to those who claim all of this work toward sustainability is unnecessary because we are naturally progressing toward the proclaimed Armageddon? — Jule Asterisk, Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada
I’m left speechless. Never waste emotional energy on convincing those whose worldview precludes having a reasonable discussion where both sides are open to changing their minds.
What is one thing you feel everyone should be doing to have a smaller ecological footprint? — Genny Bourdages, Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada
Getting involved in politics.
Your thoughts create your future. If you are looking for humanity, the environment, and the earth to continue successfully, make that your reality now. Instead of being a “gloom and doom” guy, maybe something like “Gaia and life” kind of guy. — Kathleen Schleimer, Cranston, R.I.
Touché. I was too glib with my “gloom and doom” line, which actually doesn’t really reflect my personality or views. Still, I would be careful about projecting an unrealistic optimism in the world. Realistic optimism is what we need, to paraphrase Janusz Korczak, and part of that realism is recognizing that there is suffering and injustice and extinctions of species. Mourning for what has been lost, and fear for what is in danger of being lost, is a critical part of any grounded sense of hope.
I spent some of my childhood money planting trees in Israel in memory of friends and loved ones — are they really there? — Larry Zuckerman, Salmon, Idaho
Sure they are — although their history is, like everything in the Middle East, a contentious one. Today those forests represent some of the last great open spaces in Israel, free for public use and visited annually by hundreds of thousands from all corners of multicultural Israel.