Israel's 'Climate Children' Are Furious: 'How Can I Sit Quietly in School When My Life's in Danger?'

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Young Israelis protest to demand action on climate change.
Young Israelis protest to demand action on climate change.Credit: Moti Milrod
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

As the new school year approaches, Adi Wagner, 17, of Nahariya, is already looking forward to Friday. It isn’t about school per se. On Friday she will resume her routine of participating in weekly protests in front of City Hall.

She isn’t protesting about mask mandates or coronavirus vaccine regimes. Her priority is the climate crisis. Extreme weather is expected to just get worse in the decades to come, and the children are protesting that the adults who should be protecting them are failing at their mission.

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This is how she’s been spending many of her Fridays since October 2019. Whether her school has class or not, she’s been coming, sign in hand, to the Nahariya City Hall plaza.

“Scientists are telling us with certainty that there will be more and more floods and disasters,” she says. “How can I sit quietly in school and study math and language arts when my life is in danger and that’s the only thing the teacher doesn’t teach?”

Wagner is one of about 600 Israeli youngsters who skip school to protest on Friday. It is part of a growing global movement of millions of youngsters doing that, to demand action on the climate crisis. The movement, Fridays for Future, began with a teenager named Greta Thunberg, in Sweden in 2018, when heat waves and fires struck and so did she, striking to protest during school hours.

The movement’s Israeli branch opened a year later, in October 2019, with dozens of children, and has been growing ever since, despite the pandemic.

Young people demonstrate to demand action on climate change.Credit: Moti Milrod

Israel’s “climate children” range in age from 11 to 17. They are girls and boys, religious and secular, from big cities and outlying areas.

Yizhar Kolet, 12, of Zichron Yaakov, can’t understand how the Israel has such a powerful military but doesn’t supply even minimal protection against the greatest threat to his future. “We’ve known this for 50 years, and what we’ve done so far is akin to sending one miserable plane up against an entire army,” he says. One detects a sense of betrayal in his words.

Haaretz brought together more than 50 young activists from all over the country and spoke to them. The voices were different but there were messages that repeated themselves, messages of disappointment, anger at politicians, at adults, even at their parents – anyone who should have stood up and done something.

“We’re kids and we want to do kid things,” says Dani Drimmer, 12, of Tel Aviv. “We want to go to school and learn like your generation was able to.” But there’s no choice, she says, angrily, and other children around her nod silently. “The adults ruined the planet and are telling us that we have to fix it. It’s frustrating.”

Children at high risk

Last week UNICEF reported that nearly half the world’s 2.2 billion children are at “very high risk” of being affected by the climate crisis, and almost every child is exposed to at least one of the crisis’ destructive influences. Some 920 million children are at high risk of suffering a lack of water, the report estimates; 820 million are exposed to extreme heat waves, and 600 million are at risk for illnesses, like malaria and dengue fever, which are expected to spread as the climate crisis bears down.

Teenagers protest failures to address climate change. Credit: Moti Milrod

Roni Amarilio, 17, from Kibbutz Magal, is familiar with the various reports, which are getting increasingly frightening. “The penny dropped for me on how dangerous the climate crisis is in 10th grade,” she says. “Now I’m going into 12th grade, and from year to year, along with thinking about friends, tests, the first [army draft] order and years of service – I have these scientific statistics running through my head that portray such a dangerous picture of my future, the future of everyone I love, of all of us.”

Suddenly Amarilio found herself in the role of teacher, albeit not in school. “I had to teach my parents why my future is at risk, because the awareness was so low that I know [about it] and they don’t,” she explains. “Once they thought I was exaggerating, being swayed by fake news. Today they read the news and realize that I’m right, that we’re in a state of emergency.”

Fridays for Future involves more than 14 million children in 7,500 cities, and like the others, the Israeli branch has no specific leader. The protest is a partnership of all its members, and anyone can join on two conditions: that he or she is under 18, and is prepared to volunteer. Together they operate a website, pages on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, and have divided themselves into orderly teams: a study team; the team responsible for visiting schools and giving lectures; the digital team, the government liaison team, the public relations team, and more.

“The movement operates in a flat and democratic fashion, so that every vote is equal, and every team has a team leader who coordinates everything but even his vote is as equal as any other vote,” says Lia Lev, 16, of Tel Aviv, who has been active two years. “We created this whole format of teams and all the policies. We get the word out through digital, through collaborations with other organizations and more.”

The responsible adult

One of the organizations they collaborate with is Green Course. Ya’ara Peretz, a Green Course activist, has been advising the climate kids since they started organizing themselves. But it is merely assistance; the policy is theirs. The youngsters are also planning two large events in Tel Aviv: A large demonstration, expected to draw thousands of children, at the end of September, and a climate march to the government precinct in Jerusalem at the end of October. They also meet with politicians and professionals in government ministries to spur them to action.

Teenagers hold a sign protesting inaction on climate change.Credit: Moti Milrod

One of their main complaints is that the Education Ministry, whose job it should be to instill in them this crucial information, isn’t doing so.

Ori Rimon, 13, of Tivon, says she learned about the climate crisis from Tik Tok and not in school. “I was so angry and shocked that adults hadn’t told me about this. From the moment I began to find out about the forecasts I became active in the protest. I’m worried about my friends and relatives and I’m living in existential fear. Adults are trying to tell me that it’s nonsense and that I’m being scared for nothing, but essentially I feel as if we’ve switched roles and I’m the responsible adult.”

Earlier this month protest representatives met with Education Ministry officials to discuss their demand for compulsory climate education. Some of the children at the meeting, who prefer to remain unnamed, said they asked the officials to train science and geography teachers to give a one-hour weekly lesson on the climate crisis and solutions.

“They barely listened to us, and offered us one lesson every six months,” said one. “They were so closed and detached. The kept saying it would cost huge sums, and we asked, isn’t it worth it? School is a place where we are supposed to prepare for the future.”

This week for the first time, a response was received from the Education Ministry, which said that a professional team, headed by the director of the ministry’s science division, Dr. Gilmor Keshet-Maor, had been appointed to be responsible for developing and integrating the subject. Activists welcomed the response, but said that without the involvement of the minister, and budgets, it’s like aspirin for a gunshot.

Until the system starts to take them seriously, the students are forced to protest, often alone, against teachers, parents and an environment that doesn’t understand their woe. Ella Gilad, 17, of Yavne, who demonstrates in nearby Ashdod, describes the responses she’s had to her protest. “A lot of people in Ashdod call me and my friends leftists, they don’t understand that this has nothing to do with politics, it’s the future of right-wingers and leftists alike,” she says.

Meanwhile, they draw inspiration and hope from the huge demonstrations by young people around the world, and hope that thousands of others will join in Israel too.

Nika Barnatzivsky, 16, of Tel Aviv, is inspired by the activists in Austria, for example. “Before the coronavirus I went there with my family to see snow, but I wanted to meet their teen climate activists. I was with them most of the time, and it was amazing. There were so many kids at the protest that there was no room to stand; they had songs and a summary and fliers in all the supermarkets. We’re also going there; we won’t let decision makers ignore us anymore.”

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