As I write this in mid-October, in a Tel Aviv that refuses to cool down despite some early rains, I am struck by two seemingly unrelated phenomena: the fragility of the socio-political fabric of life in Israel, as witnessed by the latest eruption of terrorism here; and the fact that unlike the human species, the rest of nature knows no borders. To witness that, everyday here for the next month and a half or so, one can just look up at the worlds most important celestial migration route, where half a billion birds, almost the entire bird populations of Europe and Asia, fly over and through Israel on their way to winter in Africa.
Israel may seem tiny and semi-arid, but as the land-bridge of three continents and four climatic zones, it is a global biodiversity hotspot, and proud of it. We have a responsibility to provide safe passage for these birds, and we work hard to keep them happy and hydrated; these birds which take their last gulp of water in the Hula or the marshes near Eilat, cross the Sahara Desert, and drink again only at the great lakes and rivers of Africa, thousands of miles away.
Yes, its a fraught and busy time in the streets and skyways of Israel right now, but if the violence is causing you to instinctively disengage at some level due to the sheer complexity and horror of the whole situation, the amazing bird migrations must compel you – as a global citizen concerned about Israel – to do the opposite.
No less than the stormy, hot-and-cold violence and calm which buffet this country, Israels ecology too is locked in a battle which we cannot afford to lose: much of the native flora and fauna are at risk, facing great habitat loss and regional (if not global) extinction. The current government is gutting planning regulations to hasten development at a cost not just to the environment but to the health and well-being of Israels citizens. Our territorial waters in the Mediterranean have been over-fished; the Jordan River is a trickle and the Dead Sea a shadow of itself; our frogs are almost gone and our otters too. As I write this, the Israeli Government, alone among all OECD countries, has not yet agreed upon carbon-emission reduction goals to combat climate change ahead of the crucial UN climate talks in Paris this December.
The current official goals are embarrassingly low and, even more embarrassingly, they will not be reached – Israel is currently producing less than 2% of its energy from renewables. And this from a country with 350 days a year of sun, a country that invented solar power in the 1970s and allowed California to shine bright, a country whose start-ups are now building solar fields in sub-Saharan Africa with Israeli technology supplying clean energy to lift many millions out of poverty.
Yet by no means is the overall picture bleak. The Israeli environmental movement, a true social movement, and the wider environmental policy community have matured to embrace a social-environmental approach to sustainability. They have enjoyed many successes, such as Jerusalems innovative Gazelle Valley Park – a new urban oasis that preserves the habitat of the endangered Israeli gazelle.
Furthermore, in the last decade environmental education, both formal and informal, has been mainstreamed; municipalities have elected green party representatives and signed their own climate-change pacts; consumer culture and veganism became public issues; better public transportation has been invested in; and in a country where over 91% of the population already lives in cities, a new urban ethos of dense sustainable cities – with green high-rise buildings and integrated urban nature – is finally part of the national agenda.
The funding quandary
Should any of this be of special interest to Jews abroad, to supporters of the Jewish state? The answer is yes! These problems cannot wait while others are being solved. A year ago, The Peoplehood Papers of the New York Federation published a special issue on Sustainability and The Jewish People that was distributed at the GA.
At this years GA, one can read the Jewish Funders Networks newly published Funding Environmental Stewardship in Israel. This info-packed, comprehensive brief outlines the issues, the players, and the processes in Israeli environmentalism – and, as importantly, it makes the case of why to support the environmental movement in Israel, and why now. It also explains that, Over the past five years, environmental organizations in Israel have suffered serious setbacks, as several major foundations ceased their funding either in Israel in general or specifically to environmental causes.
Most, though not all Israeli environmental organizations, have traditionally relied heavily on Diaspora Jewish funding. The rapid decline of these philanthropic funds in recent years has left at least two of the central players in the movement in disarray, and several smaller organizations scrambling to survive. Fortunately, my organization, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, is different. As a respected, veteran grassroots NGO, for now we are able to rely on the Israeli public for more than two-thirds of our annual income. In return, they know they can rely on us to fight for the well-being of their communities.
The real risk, of course is not the potential contraction of the movement, but the cumulative and sometimes irreversible effects of environmental degradation, and the lost opportunities to mitigate the damage. In our small and centralized country, even a modest investment – philanthropic or otherwise – can have a large nationwide impact. Creating a partnership with The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, or one of the dozens of NGOs active in the field, can truly make this country a better place to live.
Environmental issues may not be more important than peace. But if these issues form an accessible and crucial platform for Israel-Diaspora interaction, how much more crucial and urgent it is as a platform for Israel to engage with its regional neighbors! In each country, it is the environmentalists who find themselves in the unique position of working for the public good, and in this role, they work exceptionally well, like the nature they protect across borders.
A gridlocked, polluted Holy Land is no beacon to anyone. But a clean-tech superpower, respectful of human health and dignity, with open spaces for enjoyment and nature woven into its urban fabric? That is an Israel to engage with; indeed, to help create this vision is the reason to engage. It is not the raptors, songbirds and waterfowl to which we look skyward, that we are protecting – its the people. As Azaria Alon, SPNIs co-founder, said: I am not concerned with nature, it is humans that I am concerned with. How can a man live without birds, butterflies and flowers?
SPNI and other environmental organizations have been fighting these battles for decades. I hope that a new generation of Jewish environmental philanthropy is emerging, one heralded by the publication of the Peoplehood Papers and latest JFN Greenbook. If this cause is of interest to you, then please reach out to me or other leaders of Israels environmental movement and explore how we can work together to make an impact, one that will be felt both in Israel and throughout the wider world.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) is the oldest, leading and largest environmental non-profit organization in Israel. For the last 62 years it has been dedicated to making Israel a better place to live through education, activism and direct action to protect Israels natural resources, environment and unique landscapes. SPNIs work to advance sustainable land-use planning and environmental-social justice will help ensure a high quality of life for all Israelis.
Founded before the Nature and Parks Authority (1962) and the Ministry for Environmental Protection (1988), SPNI laid the foundations for Israels modern environmental movement which it now spearheads. SPNI works tirelessly with policy makers and young people, and across the country, to create a sustainable future for Israel, protecting and harnessing Israels natural resources for current and future generations.
SPNIs professional planners have statutory seats on governmental planning committees, ensuring that the publics voice is represented and damaging plans nixed before they advance. Furthermore, it collaborates with the Ministry for Environmental Protection and Israels universities and zoos on a variety of innovative research and conservation projects. In partnership with the Ministry of Education, its unique environmental education programs engage 700,000 students in all parts of the country, introducing them to the natural processes surrounding them.
In Israels major cities, SPNIs urban communities work with local stakeholders to make these urban centers better places to live. A network of field schools and hiking trails, including the world famous, country-spanning Israel National Trail, enables Israelis from across the cultural and religious spectrum to enjoy the rich biodiversity with which Israel is blessed.
Urban Nature Innovation
In the shadow of Jerusalems scandalous Holyland complex lays the most remarkable urban oasis – the Gazelle Valley Urban Wildlife Park. This paradise preserves the habitat of the endangered Israeli gazelle by transforming it into the capitals largest public park. The Gazelle Valley, which opened in March 2015 after a multi-year battle against developers, represents a new paradigm for nature integration within a city for the benefit of both residents and wildlife. The campaign was led by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and numerous social and environmental organizations. United, they spearheaded a counter-initiative to preserve the Valley as an open space and independent biological habitat along with recreational facilities for residents and visitors. The resulting Gazelle Valley Master Plan was a unique cooperative and democratic process involving residents, activists, ecologists and social organizations.
The park was designed to include a natural core where the gazelles graze undisturbed, alongside trails for the public to enjoy. The Rehavia Stream flows through the valley and acts as an unobtrusive separator between the natural core and the rest of the park. The stream is purified in three artificial pools using natural wetland processes before collecting in a new half-acre artificial lake which serves as a haven for migrating birds. Nearly 100 species of birds have been spotted in the valley this year. Thousands of native and culturally important trees and plants have also been planted as part of the restoration process.
Gazelle Valley is the first in a series of planned and diverse initiatives to develop Israels urban nature across Israel. Since it opened, over 100,000 people have already visited this remarkable urban nature site in the heart of the capital. The future of the gazelle herd looks bright with a rare set of twin fawns born last spring.
Jay Shofet is the Director of Partnerships and Development at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Tel Aviv. He previously served as the Executive Director of Jerusalem-based Green Environment Fund.