Sustainable Israel-Diaspora Engagement through Sustainability

Hadera River power station. Photo courtesy KKL-JNF Archive.
Hadera River power station. Photo courtesy KKL-JNF Archive.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Jay Shofet

Today, unsurprisingly, according to surveys in the North American Jewish community, environmental issues are among the top concerns and philanthropic giving areas of the younger generation. Fortuitously at this very moment, the maturation of the Israeli environmental movement and its confluence with the most potent trends of “start-up nation” has presented Israel-Diaspora relations with a whole new bridge for engagement, one that is just beginning to be recognized and utilized. By the “environmental movement” I mean not just the NGO’s, but the wider policy community and “shareholders” in the broadest sense, including the entrepreneurs and innovators of Israel’s renewable energy and clean-tech industries, now key drivers of start-up nation. These are the actors who provide a new and more sustainable platform for engagement among Israelis and their co-religionists abroad. This platform, which includes traditional philanthropy, also transcends it.

The Israeli environmental NGO’s have recently matured into a movement that reflects, for the first time, a social movement with which North American Jews are familiar. It is, like the movement spurred by Rachel Carson in the ‘60s and galvanized by Bill McKibben today, rooted in nature preservation and now motivated by climate change and sustainability. In the last decade in Israel, environmental education and recycling were mainstreamed; municipalities elected green parties and signed climate change pacts; consumer culture and veganism became issues; and the founding of The Israel Green Building Council and the Movement for Israeli Urbanism vaulted sustainable building in sustainable cities into the discourse. The social protests of 2011 brought to the fore the inherent social justice and cost-of-living issues involved in public transportation and land-use policies.

Perhaps most strikingly in the last few years, like America, Israel is becoming an exporter of fossil fuels; environmentalists are concerned about the potential impacts of Israel’s undersea natural gas bonanza on the marine environment and on Israel’s tepid commitment to develop renewable energy. Further, current battles are underway – just like in New York and Pennsylvania – to prohibit fracking for oil shale reserves in central Israel and the Golan Heights. Like American Jewish activism historically, issues of social justice and public health today motivate Israeli environmentalism. It is concerned not just with the ecosystems of this planet, but with the quality of life on it – particularly for vulnerable populations – and in that, is true to the eternal Jewish value tikkun olam.

This is good news for the Israel-Diaspora relationship, which, at least since the 1980’s, has been a history of the leadership of Diaspora Jewry seeking ways to engage a rank and file increasingly disaffected from the Zionist endeavor. Fundraising for traditional Israeli development needs has lost its urgency, and overall allocations to Israel have been in decline. True, Birthright has been hugely successful in at least limited engagement with Israel for a new generation – but sustaining that engagement requires a Jewish community, which recognizes the everyday passions of program returnees and provides myriad outlets for connecting them to Israel.

Fortunately and inevitably, new areas of engagement are coming to the fore, and the Israeli third sector landscape in the new millennium is a crowded one. World Jewry is flush with new, or newly bon-ton, causes and organizations: the American-Israel Cultural Foundation in Tel Aviv is branding Israel an “art-up nation” of diversity and excellence in the performing and visual arts, while at the Ruderman Foundation and other NGO’s like Shutaf in Jerusalem, a new generation of disability activists are tapping into the deep historical current of Jewish involvement in this field.

Traditional philanthropic support for environmentalism and sustainability in Israel is now a crossroads. The growth and maturation of the Israeli environmental movement means that ever-more green NGO’s will clamor for a still-limited pool of philanthropic dollars. Yet The Jewish National Fund in the US has shown that, as a platform for philanthropic engagement, the environment in Israel is still potent, perhaps more than ever. No longer counting on your Bubbe’s pushka, the JNF has diversified its original message of tree planting to engage its donors in water issues, sustainability, green innovation and environmental education. Although several long-time North American foundations are no longer active in the environmental field for a variety of reasons, some European funding and Israeli donors are picking up the slack. Over 45,000 households in Israel are dues-paying members of, and donors to, Israel’s largest and oldest environmental NGO, The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel; and tens of thousands more in Israel support Greenpeace every year.

Many young, concerned environmentalists are looking beyond traditional philanthropy for more, well, sustainable ways of fighting climate change and protecting our natural resources. Acting as “impact investors”, these social entrepreneurs support through financial investments Israel’s innovative, start-up sectors of renewable energy, water management, clean-tech, smart-grid and energy storage. These investors are in some cases willing to accept an lower initial return-on-investment than would be otherwise achievable in the financial markets in order to “do good” with their financial investments, not just their philanthropic dollars. Israeli innovations in these new fields of start-up nation, like the microchips, biomed, and telecommunications sectors before them, but perhaps even more dramatically, will benefit the lives of billions in the developing world and in the industrialized economies too. With the coming-of-age of the next generation of American Jewish donors, sustainability and environmentalism will no doubt find their place as a vital concern of not just their Israeli-centered philanthropy.

Increasingly, this nascent sector is learning to stand on its own feet. At least one Israeli company is already building solar fields to supply power to largely un-electrified rural sub-Saharan Africa. In telecommunications, these countries leapfrogged over the industrial-revolution era of landlines right to the digital’s age’s cell phones. Similarly, instead of coal or fossil fuel-based power plants, these countries first electrical grids will be smart, and powered by renewables. That is a business plan, and a road map to mitigate the effects of climate change, that investors and environmentalists together can embrace.

Social justice, peace, religious pluralism, the arts, disability rights – are all valid concerns in Israel and legitimate, necessary areas of Diaspora Jewish involvement. But a polluted, gridlocked Holy Land is not a beacon to anyone. An exporter of solar energy and a clean-tech superpower, with open spaces for enjoyment and green belts around our livable cities – well, that is an Israel to rally behind. Traditional philanthropy, impact investing, and corporate social responsibility all have a role to play, both in safeguarding Israel’s natural environment and as avenues of engagement. Sustainability is the roadmap to our future, on this planet, in Israel, and as a vital bridge to the Diaspora.

Jay Shofet is Director of Partnerships and Development at The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and the former Executive Director of The Green Environment Fund.