Like many of my friends in the environmental movement, I was stunned by Greta Thunberg’s post, which showed her and a few of her friends (one of them Jewish) holding signs expressing full support for Gaza, and for Hamas effectively. In light of harsh criticism, Thunberg published a clarification and a new photo in which a stuffed octopus that stood in the background was removed. She apologized because some people thought the doll was an anti-Semitic symbol and explained that it was a puppet whose purpose was to assist people with emotional challenges to express their feelings. After heavy pressure, she published a note saying she did not support Hamas, but that was too little and too late for the environmental movement.
For those who don’t know, Thunberg is a 20-year-old climate activist from Sweden who gained global publicity after she was given the privilege to speak on the UN stage in 2018, following several protests she organized in Sweden. She has gained a large social media following and inspired millions of students to demonstrate worldwide. Her messages are marked by intimidation as she demands her audience to panic and feel the fear that she feels.
From the standpoint of Israel’s environmental movement, and the Jewish world in general, Thunberg’s unilateral standing with Hamas (even if only out of ignorance) was a slap in the face. Last week, a letter signed by leaders of the environmental movement in Israel was sent to her. The letter states, among other things, that Thunberg’s position harms the climate movement in Israel and worldwide, plays into the hands of climate change deniers, and leads to the alienation of millions – Jews and non-Jews – who could have joined the movement but will now avoid identifying with it to avoid identifying with Tunberg and her support for Hamas.
I have been in the environmental field since the mid-1990s, when I was roughly the same age as Greta when she first engaged with the climate crisis. I dare to say that I am in the inner circles of the Jewish environmental movement in Israel and globally. For years, we felt marginalized, and for my generation the turning point occurred almost two decades ago with the release of Al Gore’s film (“An Inconvenient Truth”, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2006). A year later, he won the Nobel Peace Prize together with the IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change, whose reports form the scientific backbone of the climate movement). This is important considering Thunberg’s overrating, to the point that some people claim that if it weren’t for her, the environmental issue would still not be on the global agenda, which is obviously not true. Although she made a significant contribution, mainly thanks to her speech at the UN, I suggest not confusing speeches and followers on social media with in-depth processes. Personally, I have never adhered to Thunberg’s militant and fear-based line, which was and still is ineffective. It primarily alienated the mainstream audience from the environmental movement and deepened its radicalization.
Although she demonstrates an impressive amount of knowledge regarding earth sciences when it comes to solutions, economics, and public policy, Thunberg demonstrates time and time again a lack of knowledge and depth. For example, her insistence on avoiding flights at almost all costs ignores that about 80 economies worldwide are totally dependent on incoming tourism. Making flights unaffordable (by taxing flights, for example) will send hundreds of millions of people in those countries to life-long poverty. Furthermore, many of those countries preserve their natural assets just because they attract tourism. Without tourists, the wildlife reserves in Africa will turn into cattle grounds, which will intensify climate change much more than flights. I am not saying we should not do anything about flights, only trying to exemplify how complex these issues are and that dealing with them requires vast knowledge and expertise, not panic and fear.
All this was before Thunberg announced her support for Hamas. By doing this, she demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of Middle East history, geopolitics, religion, and even recent news reports. She relied on false reports and superficial knowledge to make a decisive claim. The problem is that she has undermined her own efforts regarding climate change by doing so. If she can be so easily manipulated by false information, the argument goes, perhaps she is also wrong on climate change and should not be taken seriously. Climate change deniers could not have hoped for anything better.
The root of the problem, however, is that like many other movements the environmental one has become addicted to the Likes industry and the TikTok culture, where publicity and visibility have become more important than knowledge, ideas, and integrity. Unfortunately, this addiction backfired with Thunberg’s support for Hamas, which, as mentioned, is not based on cruelty but mainly on ignorance. Like many celebrities who live online, it seems that she was also mistaken to think that millions of followers on social media equal intellectual authority on any matter, even if you have no clue about it.
Seeking New Leadership
The damage Thunberg caused to the environmental movement in Israel and worldwide is still difficult to quantify, but it is already clear that it is enormous. After Israel wins the war and the dust settles, it will be very difficult to clean the environmental movement of the stain that has stuck to it and convince more people to join efforts in one of the most important struggles of our generation (after the war against extreme Islamic terrorism). However, perhaps this is also an opportunity for the environmental movement to recalculate its course and develop a different kind of leadership that upholds knowledge, ideas, and integrity as its prime values.
This lesson is also relevant to other social movements since we all suffer from the addiction to counting Likes and followers. This is natural and understandable, and the business model of social media is built on this human weakness. However, we have no choice but to try to overcome it if we want to succeed in promoting the essential issues we have undertaken.