Battleground Israel: Should Environmental Conservation Outshine Terror Deterrence?

A herd of gazelles in the Gazelle Valley; photo by Amir Balaban/SPNI.
A herd of gazelles in the Gazelle Valley; photo by Amir Balaban/SPNI.

By Jay Shofet

We live in a fraught and explosive time right now.  The terrorist violence that Israel has faced for so long no longer seems extraordinary in our battered, interconnected world. This can understandably cause us, like frightened turtles, to retract into our shells. However, the facts on the ground – and in the sea and air – dictate that we not wait for a better time, certainly not here in Israel. The fragile and threatened ecology of our land, and our responsibility to protect it, must compel you – as a global citizen concerned about Israel – to do the opposite. The time to engage is right now.

Much like the mercurial, hot-and-cold violence we Israelis live with, the country’s ecology – and our great biodiversity – are also locked in a battle which we cannot afford to lose.

Our territorial waters in the Mediterranean have been over-fished. The Jordan River has been reduced to a trickle, and the Dead Sea is a receding shadow of its former self. Our frogs and otters are almost gone, and mammal populations are in decline all over Israel as habitats shrink and fragment. Free public access to our beaches is again being threatened. The birds of Israel – including the half billion that pass through our skies and drink at our water sources twice a year during the great migrations – are at risk from poorly-placed wind turbines and power lines.

And though this decline is obvious to all, the Israeli Government remains reluctant to do what needs to be done. Rather than protecting open spaces, 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 Israel’s citizens. Rather than engaging the public to help protect nature, the government seeks to exclude citizens from the planning and development process.

Israel’s carbon emission reduction goals are embarrassingly low; we are currently producing less than 2% of our energy from renewables. And this from a country with 350 days a year of sun, a country that invented the solar power in the 1970s that 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, including Jerusalem’s innovative Gazelle Valley Park, a new urban oasis that preserves the habitat of the endangered Israeli gazelle (a project spearheaded by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel).

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. And a new urban ethos of dense sustainable cities – with green high-rise buildings and integrated urban nature – is finally part of the national agenda.

Why should this be of special interest to supporters of the Jewish state abroad? Because most (though not all) Israeli environmental organizations, have traditionally relied heavily upon Diaspora Jewish funding. The rapid evaporation of this philanthropic pipeline in recent years left at least two of the central players in the movement in disarray, and several smaller organizations scrambling to survive.

Though there are many positive developments, the bigger picture shows that we are all in a precarious situation due the cumulative and sometimes irreversible effects of environmental degradation, as well as many lost opportunities to mitigate the damage. As such, we need a great deal of support from beyond our borders to ensure that our efforts to preserve Israel’s special ecosystems remain on track.

Environmental issues may not be more important than peace, but they command our attention now.

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 all to enjoy and nature woven into its urban fabric, will be an Israel to behold.

Jay Shofet is the Director of Partnerships and Development at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) is the oldest, leading and largest environmental nonprofit organization in Israel. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Jerusalem-based Green Environment Fund.