With the climate crisis accelerating, this year’s Earth Day activities — Thursday, April 22nd — take on an air of urgency. It also happens to be Herzl Day, the 10th of Iyar, which commemorates the birthday of the founder of modern Zionism, with ceremonies in the Knesset and schools across the country. Herzl’s environmental legacy is extraordinary, although we are not living up to his carbon-neutral vision for the State of Israel.
Yes, Theodor Herzl the environmentalist.
State-building is serious business and Herzl understood the value of lush landscapes, sustainable agriculture, public transportation, ending the era of dirty fossil fuels, promoting green energy, and, of course, trees. Keren Kayamet Leyisrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), founded by Herzl in 1901, has planted more than a quarter of billion trees, which suck in our carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Trees, along with draining the swamps, were key elements in Herzl’s vision for what his ideal state of the Jews should look, outlined in his novel The Old-New Land.
The founding father of the state also wanted to end the era of burning fossil fuels. His vision for Israel’s transportation was anchored by electric trains, electric tram lines over cities to reduce traffic, electric agriculture equipment like tractors, and in an astounding precursor to the direction the world is finally going when it comes to electric vehicles, Herzl envisioned an all-electric fleet, with battery swap stations maintained by a driver’s cooperative. Elon Musk and Shai Agassi, take note!
Writing about two decades before Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the photovoltaic effect — essentially making electricity from light — the only clean power available for Herzl’s vision was hydro-electric. Indeed, the first power plant in Israel was a 18 MW hydro plant — the Rutenberg — on what used to be a mightier Jordan River. Herzl understood that the dramatic drop from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea could produce enough power for the state, as well as to share with our Arab neighbors in the interest of promoting peace. His model was the Niagara Falls.
On Earth Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is invited, along with about 40 world leaders, to President Biden’s virtual Climate Leadership Summit, which is meant to encourage countries to increase dramatically their commitment to renewables and a more aggressive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Israel is currently a bad green citizen, with the gas monopoly holding a choking 93% monopoly on the country’s energy and a promised gas-dominated future for another generation. Gas has fewer poisonous particles in the air than coal but it is much more harmful to the climate than coal.
If our prime minister had any awareness that Earth Day is also Herzl Day, perhaps he would rise to the occasion and affirm at the climate summit that Israel, no stranger to realizing big dreams, will commit itself to 50 percent renewables by 2030 and 100% by 2035, like President Biden is doing for the United States. Herzl would be very unhappy that over 2,000 Israelis die every year from the poison of air pollution, and that instead of leading the world on renewables, we are anything but a renewable light unto the nations.
Given the confluence of Earth Day and Herzl Day, the best way to celebrate it would be for the Jewish state to commit itself to ambitious and measurable climate goals and immediately pass a climate bill with a 50% renewables goal by 2030. This would be consistent with Herzl’s green Zionism.