In Israel, Healing the Earth

Groups turn to Jewish values in tackling Israel's environmental degradation.

BY: Julia C. Keller

 
Reprinted from the April 2004 issue of Science and Theology News.



BOSTON - In war-torn Israel, environmental issues are often secondary to safety concerns.



"There was a sense that, `When peace comes, then we'll worry about the environment,'" Philip Warburg, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, said of Israeli sentiment toward environmental degradation.



"I would like to say, `It's the best of times; it's the worst of times,' but really, the worst of times is pretty clear," said Lisa Gann-Perkal, program director of the Jewish Global Environmental Network, or JGEN.

"We're not going to bring peace to the Middle East, not today, not this week or this month," she said, "but there are ways we can make a difference, and the environment can certainly be one of those ways."



Warburg and Gann-Perkal were two of the many speakers at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life's annual meeting held in conjunction with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Tzedek Hillel.



Gann-Perkal's 1-year-old networking program places emphasis "on making this world a better place not because it's a personal value, but because it's a Jewish value," she said.



The Jewish religion uses the phrase 'tikkun olam' to describe the religious imperative and desire to repair the world. "We need to say what Judaism stands for is social justice, community action and a clean environment," said Gann-Perkal.



According to Daniel Orenstein, a doctoral student at the Center for Environmental Studies at Brown University, the preservation of the land is paramount in Jewish values.



"Our identity is tied to the physical landscape," Orenstein said. "By losing that, we're losing a fundamental part of us."



Surprisingly, said Orenstein, who is also a former faculty member at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel, funding for the Israeli department of environmental ministry is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Israel's budget: That amount is one-sixth of the religious ministry, he said, one of the smaller departments in Israel's government.



Rachel Lessem, a 30-year-old resident of Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the steering committee for the coalition's Boston branch, said that she experienced Israel's environmental degradation first hand. On a trip to the country with her parents, she said they were astounded at the intense increase of smog that enveloped the major cities within the last 20 years.



Orenstein said that the desire for houses with yards - which grew out of what he called the Israeli suburban dream of the 1980s - has permanently altered the landscape with "incredibly fast changes." So fast that Orenstein recounted stories about people who reminisced about the orange groves that used to surround their towns. The storytellers, he said, were only 18 years old.



Though only slightly smaller in area than New Jersey, Israel has a growth rate of about 1.5 percent. Orenstein said the population west of the Jordan River grows by about an additional million people every 10 years, making Israel's growth far from static.



Warburg said that despite the nationalistic trend in Israel since World War II to rebuild population and follow the biblical command to be fruitful and multiply, "The modern spin can be, `The land is full!'"



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