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A week of reckoning: Israel’s elections and the climate strike

As resources dry up due to rising temperatures conflict will inevitably grow -- now is the time to plan and wean off of Big Oil
Aridity Index, Israel/Palestine, CLEMDES, public domain - adapted by author

Today is a day of reckoning, in a week of reckoning and a decade of reckoning. I don’t mean for Bibi Netanyahu or democracy in Israel, though it’s that too. Israel’s second election of 2019 has been about everything but climate change. Three days after the election, starting September 20th, students have called for a Global Climate Strike to protest the world’s stalling and inaction on climate change. Climate disaster is Israel’s biggest threat, even bigger than Iran.

Around the world, the magnitude of impoverishment, famine and the creation of millions of refugees that could be brought on by climate disruption is almost unimaginable. Climate change is a Jewish issue, for the same reasons that justice is a Jewish issue. But it’s just as much an issue of Israel’s survival.

Under extreme climate change, according to the 2000 Israel National Report from Ben Gurion University report, the region’s ecosystems could shift 300-500 km northward by the next century. The distance from the Negev to Lebanon is less than 250 km. “Extreme” in this report from the turn of the millenium meant an increase in average global temperature of 1.5 degrees – but now that’s considered one of the best case scenarios. A 2018 report on the Mediterranean shows that regional temperatures, already 1.5°C higher, are increasing one and a half times as fast as the global average, and are higher than they have been for the last 10,000 years. “Without additional mitigation,” the report states, “regional temperature increase will be 2.2°C higher in 2040”. (Soon more detailed studies should be coming out that model climate specifically for Israel and its local region.)

Even with less of an increase in temperature, much of the sh’feilah—the agriculturally productive lowlands—will require very intensive irrigation, even as water supplies dwindle, while Tel Aviv would be threatened by rising sea levels. Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection lays out some of the consequences on its website, including flooding and desertification.

Whether you identify as a Zionist, or whatever your politics, if you don’t take action on climate, you are condemning the lands where Israelis and Palestinians live. If you’re not advocating for getting off all petroleum, you might as well be calling for the destruction of the state and the land.

The Torah tells us that if we miscarry justice, if we create societies that harm the most vulnerable, rob the stranger, or refuse to let the land rest, we will get no rain. There are good reasons to see climate disruption through that lens. Our economies are founded upon taking more and more, from the people and from the Earth. If we know that our actions will cause climate disaster, then we are in already sinning against the people who are the most vulnerable and who will be most harmed. Local communities as well as future generations are being robbed of justice. Our debt to Nature will be paid by those generations – in the Torah’s words, we “will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters” (Lev. 26:29).

Unlike the U.S., Israel’s contribution to the causes of climate disruption is comparatively small, but climate disruption’s impact on Israel is enormous beyond imagining. If we want to see a different reality, we need to get focused. The climate strike can help us do that, whatever the outcome of Israel’s election.  Every country matters, and this is one area where Israeli practices and innovations can be a “light to the nations.”

Also unlike the U.S., admitting the reality of climate change is not a partisan wedge issue in Israel. Even though this election cycle in Israel mostly avoided climate change, at the end of August, the Democratic Union proposed a Green New Deal for Israel. All of Israel’s citizens from parties across the spectrum could work together to make that proposal a reality.

The biggest obstacle in Israel is not partisan propaganda against science, but the fact that Israel will probably remain mired in, and focused on, the conflict in the West Bank and with Gaza, which distracts Israel and the Jewish world from the issue of catastrophic climate change.

For Jews in the U.S., our government’s actions have a vast impact on the consequences of climate for everyone everywhere, including the holy land, so we need to step up our advocacy. That includes making a case that people on the right can hear that the U.S. role in exacerbating the conflict is diverting our attention from the biggest threat to the U.S. and to Israel. 

If we don’t forge a new path, both societies will continue to focus on fighting over land, expelling foreigners, waging class war, and undermining peace. People will continue to do exactly the kinds of things people instinctively do when vast scarcity looms on the horizon: they think, if there won’t be enough water, our people better take control of as much water as we can right now. If farmland will shrink along with food supply, we better not let in more people. If society could collapse, we better have an autocratic leader on our side who will save us. Those are sure ways of guaranteeing that the coming climate disaster will be as big as it’s predicted to be.

Today is the time to get our places of worship and communities to stand up for the Earth, including divesting from Big Oil. Now is the time for Israel—and the United States—to commit to fully renewable energy, to not fracking the earth, not destroying mountains for coal, and not exploiting the sea drilling for fossil fuels. And it’s time to focus on resiliency—on how Israel, and Palestine, survive climate change—because without that planning, conflict can only grow immeasurably worse. 

Now is also the time for personal actions like composting every scrap of food or not driving a car – even when those actions can sometimes seem like symbolic rituals. Every action is a way to show our gratitude and to reforge our hearts, to start t’shuvah, change.

On the Shabbat at the end of global climate strike we will read in Nitzavim: “I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil.” Let’s not wait til we hear the shofar to renew Creation. May we wake up now to “choose life, in order that you and your seed will live!”(Deut. 30:19). Let’s not wait til we blow the shofar to renew Creation. Let it start now with a new Knesset, let it burgeon now with the global climate strike. Let it begin with us today.

About the Author
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and the translation of Laments. David also teaches nigunim and is an avid dancer. He was ordained by both JTS and Reb Zalman.
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