On October 20 the 37th Zionist Congress convenes in Jerusalem. Except for those with a highly refined sense of Israel’s history, the event is mostly greeted with a shrug. There are no shortage of patriotic Israelis, good people, who see the Congress, and the World Zionist Organization and Jewish National Fund leadership it elects as an anachronism. The Zionist Congress may succeed in bringing together a significant number lot of well-meaning Jews from around the world to visit Israel. But ultimately they argue about issues which have little relevance to the future of the Third Jewish Commonwealth.
I disagree. I have come to believe that this gathering actually matters a great deal. Jews from around the world, especially those in the U.S., who care about Israel, should actually take advantage of the Congress to help craft a healthier and more sustainable homeland. Here’s why:
There’s little doubt that Israel’s environmental record is checkered at best. There are reasons for being proud of the reforestation and soil conservation work that reversed centuries of desertification. Water conservation is another area where we have done well. But most of Israel’s environmental indicators are appalling. The OECD recently reported that more mammals face extinction in Israel than in any other developed country; groundwater contamination remains rampant; streams and rivers remain largely contaminated; recycling rates are among the lowest in Europe; and even the most charitable visitor to Israel cannot help but notice the disgraceful surfeit of litter in public places.
How did a nation forged by a Zionist movement that set out to reestablish the harmony between the Jewish people and its homeland produce such disappointing ecological results? And what can someone who loves this land, but lives outsides its borders, do to make a positive contribution?
The Zionist Congress actually offers a key opportunity. That’s because the balance of power at the Congress determines the makeup of the board of directors of the Keren Kayemeth L’Yisrael – the Jewish National Fund. JNF owns about 13% of the lands of Israel; it is legally mandated to be the country’s national forester; its considerable income from land leasing and donations leave it with a 900 million shekel annual budget, enabling the organization to take the lead on a range of environmental infrastructure projects: from bicycle lanes to wastewater recycling reservoirs.
These critical green initiatives do not happen by themselves. The board of directors is highly political and its members invariably bring their own, competing priorities with them. That’s why, Rabbi Michael Cohen and a number of other of environmentally-minded Zionists successfully ran a slate of candidates in the Zionist Congress twelve years ago . For the first time, “green representatives” had a seat at the table. During the past several years, David Krantz, an indefatigable, idealistic and savvy graduate student has done the heavy-lifting to keep the “Green Zionist Alliance” afloat.
For more than ten years now I have been a volunteer member of the JNF’s international board of directors, representing these green interests as part of a political agreement between the Green Zionist Alliance and the Conservative Movement’s Zionist party “Mercaz”. Dr. Orr Karassin, one of Israel’s leading environmental leaders and academics has been the second representative.
Even though the GZA only had three seats at the previous Congress, with the help of the Conservative partners, it managed to leverage its presence to attain appointments to chair two key JNF committees: Dr. Karassin oversees the JNF sustainable development committee and for the past eight years I have been a co-chair of the land development committee. This committee oversees forestry policy, stream restoration and soil reclamation projects. Although we are only two of 35 JNF board members, in retrospect, that there are a few things that we have managed to influence:
A new JNF “Bible of Forestry” was codified last year as Israel formalized sustainable practices to ensure the ecological integrity of its woodlands. For the first time, bike lanes and a cycling culture in Israel’s forest became an institutional priority; funding for forestry and ecological research tripled; a new greening initiative both changed internal JNF practices and created a significant national competition to inspire integration of environmentally friendly construction technologies.
Most of all we lobbied hard and succeeded in pushing the JNF to be a far more determined advocate for protection of open spaces and its endangered forest lands. Dr. Karassin’s committee reviewed a proposal for fracking in the open vistas around the Jerusalem corridor and found that the hydrological and environmental risks were extraordinary. The JNF then helped lead a coalition that managed to defeat the initiative. Support for a Supreme Court action to enjoin a highway that will cut through the Jerusalem forest proved unsuccessful. But a new campaign is now underway to stop massive development that would essentially destroy the Menahem Begin forest to the south of Jerusalem. Its outcome is more promising. Due its historic pedigree and considerable financial resources, the JNF needs to be at the front of such battles. This won’t happen without proven environmental leadership on the board of directors.
Green ideology is not only about the environment. In recent years, with the growing criticism of impropriety among the JNF international chairs and management, we have pushed hard for a new culture of good governance in the organization. The JNF has a long and largely acrimonious history with Israel’s Arab citizens. It is time to find a way to engage the 20% of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish. Indeed, the most common commandment in the Bible involves giving a fair shake to the disempowered widow, orphan and non-Jew. Nothing could be more Jewish than the new program my committee established this year to prioritize support for improving quality of life in Arab communities with amenities that JNF has long offered the Jewish public. Hiking trails, parks, outdoor classrooms and river restoration projects are designed and implemented at a growing number of Arab towns and villages.
That’s why you might want to consider engaging. There are other parties out there with other agendas. Perhaps the Reform or Orthodox representatives on the JNF board can present a list of accomplishments. Feel free to ask. But if you believe that Israel needs better conservation programs, stronger integration of Israeli Arab citizens, a transparent organizational culture and an uncompromising commitment to preserving Israel’s environment, then there is something that you can do – besides sending a check. Give us the power to do more for a sustainable future in Israel.
Voting is fast and easy: Simply go to worldzionistcongress.org and click on the link to vote. After completing voter registration, continue to click to cast your vote for the Green Israel slate. For five dollars, in five minutes or less, you can vote for a Green Israel!
The March 17th Israeli election is not the only vote that matters. The Zionist Congress offers an opportunity to make a key statement. The JNF owns a considerable percentage of Israel’s lands. As a corporation owned by the Jewish people, Jews everywhere have the chance to decide whether we will be slum lords in our promised land or not. Registration is taking place now. Log in and cast your ballot. You too can do your part to ensure that we bring a blessing to the land of Israel.