The diversity of the new government of Israel importantly includes a leading Israeli environmentalist — Alon Tal — as a member of the Knesset.
Tal, the author of the landmark book Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel, is the founder of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. He co-founded Ecopeace: Friends of the Earth, Middle East; This is My Earth; and the Israel Forum for Demography, Environment and Society.
And he was among the founders of Israel’s Green Movement political party.
An attorney — a graduate of Hebrew University Law School — Tal also has a doctorate in Environmental Health Policy from Harvard University.
Since 2017, he has been chair of the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University.
He has long been an environmental activist in Israel. In years earlier, he sought election to the Knesset. Now, under Blue and White, he made it.
Tal will expand the environmental focus in the Knesset.
Israel is “blessed with unbelievable biodiversity—and we are losing it,” he declared when I first met Tal in Israel several years back.
As he concluded in his Pollution in a Promised Land: “Before he went to his lonely death, Moses wrote a farewell letter to the people of Israel that is otherwise known as the book of Deuteronomy. He offered them the options of a blessing or a curse. The choice has been woven into Judaism’s central prayer, the Shema.”
“According to the Scriptures: ‘The land that you go to possess is not like the land of Egypt that you just left….No, the land you will…inherit is filled with hills and valleys, and it drinks the water of the rains of heaven’”
Tal, who made aliyah in 1980 at 20 and served as a paratrooper in IDF, continued: “It is instructive to imagine what the Creator might see, peering down from on high upon this promised land four thousand years after.”
“Jews returned en masse to their ancestral homeland, making much of it a greener place. The renewed forests, the abundant agriculture, and the reserves set aside for the other creatures would surely be a source of happiness. Yet other omens would be troubling…The toll that the farmers’ and the factories’ chemicals took would also not be overlooked. Asphalt strips crisscrossing the hills and plains added little to the landscape, except perhaps the acrid exhaust of cars…”
“Who would expect the people to turn the good rivers of their land into streams of squalor? Who could imagine producing such copious quantities of garbage and toxins with no serious plan about how to dispose of them? Or allowing a land so venerated to be paved and built into submission?”
“Rationalizations would be duly noted,” Tal went on. “There had been poverty and refugees and wars to overcome; a modern state was created. But these cannot temper a deep sense of sorrow at what has been lost.”
“And so it is important to remember that it is not divine decree, but human ambition, myopia, negligence, and sometimes greed that brought these curses to the land. Precisely because the people of Israel created their many environmental problems, they were also blessed with the collective wisdom, wealth, laws, technologies and passion to solve them.”
“The same Zionist zeal that allowed an ancient nation to defy all odds for an entire century can be harnessed to confront the newest national challenge,” declared Tal.
“More than any of their ancestors, the present generation stands at an ecological crossroads — offered the choice of life and good, or death and evil. This ‘last chance’ to preserve a healthy Promised Land for posterity is a weighty privilege indeed. Surely as it writes the next chapters in its environmental history, Israel will once again choose life.”
It has only been since 1988 that there has been a Ministry of the Environment—now the Ministry of Environmental Protection—in Israel.
Its creation was championed by another committed environmentalist, Josef Tamir, who was also a member of the Knesset. He served as an MK from 1965 to 1985.
In 1991 he told me of the problem resulting from many Jews in the Diaspora having been separated from their deep roots in nature. Born in what is now Ukraine, Tamir spoke about Jews not being welcome, for example, in parks there. “Jews were disconnected from the environment, the environment belonged to the non-Jews. Jews could deal with their kitchens, their homes, but not with the common places. They were not welcome. They were despised by the non-Jews when they came. So, they became estranged from nature.”
Nevertheless, said Tamir, “The link between Judaism and the environment is greater than any other faith.” Tamir devoted his life to the link. As an MK he was especially concerned with the preservation of farmland and open space in Israel.
In later years, Tamir saw environmental change in Israel. “Today there is increased recognition that development and environmental protection do not contradict one another but rather that a balance must be struck between them,” he said in 2008, a year before his death.
Tamir also was the founder of several Israeli environmental organizations including the Council for a Beautiful Israel and the Life and Environment Organization. He began the environmental journal Green Blue and White.
Tal, in 1989, settled with his wife, Robyn, in Ketura, a kibbutz founded by Jews from the U.S. Most were members of Young Judea, the Zionist youth movement in which Tal was active growing up in North Carolina. In 1996 Tal founded the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Ketura. It is a program that brings together Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and others from around the world “as an academic and research center for environmental leadership in the Middle East.”
The kibbutz is known for its many environmental initiatives. It is part of the Green Kibbutz movement.
A thriving feature at Ketura that bridges two millennia: a Judean date palm germinated from a 2,000-year-old seed discovered during archaeological excavations at Masada. It’s nicknamed Methuselah.
“Judaism was one of the first great environmental religions,” wrote Professor David Ehrenfeld who teaches courses in ecology at Rutgers University and whose books include Conserving Life on Earth, and Rabbi Philip J. Bentley, in their essay “Judaism and the Practice of Stewardship.”
They cite passages in the Bible “that stress God as creator and owner, and humankind caretaker or steward of the earth. ‘And…God…put him into the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.’ (Genesis 2:25) “The land shall not be sold for ever; for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.’ (Leviticus 25:23.)” They say that “many other biblical texts can be construed as being relevant to the idea of stewardship.”
“There are, in Judaism, a number of specific rules—together constituting a kind of ‘Steward’s Manual’ — setting forth humanity’s particular responsibilities for its behavior toward natural resources, animals, and other parts of nature,” they write. “First among these rules is the commandment of bal tashhit.”
The Bible declares that “when thou shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shall not destroy” the fruit trees. “From this source,” they relate, “is derived the notion of bal tashhit (do not destroy), an ancient and sweeping series of Jewish environmental regulations that embrace not only the limited case in question but have been rabbinically extended to a great range of transgressions including the cutting off of water supplies to trees, the over-grazing of the countryside, the unjustified killing of animals or feeding them harmful foods, the hunting of animals for sport, species extinction and destruction of cultivated plant varieties, pollution of air and water, over-consumption of anything, and the waste of mineral and other resources.”
“It is also the Sabbath alone,” they write, “that can reconcile the Jewish attitude towards nature.” It’s a time that “we create nothing, we destroy nothing, and we enjoy the bounty of the earth. In this way the Sabbath becomes a celebration of our tenancy and stewardship in the world.”
Rabbi Norman Lamm, who died last year, long president and then chancellor of Yeshiva University, in his book Faith & Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought, related how the prohibition in Deuteronomy on cutting down an enemy’s fruit trees was “expanded.” He quotes Maimonides: “And not only trees, but whoever breaks vessels, tears clothing, wrecks that which is built up, stops fountains, or wastes food in a destruction manner, transgresses the commandment of bal tashhit.”
Judaism on many levels, concluded Lamm, “possesses the values on which an ecological morality may be grounded.”
Tal has engaged in numerous environmental campaigns through the years.
In 2010 he was elected chair of the Green Movement.
He has taught at universities in Israel and abroad including Ben Gurion University and Tel Aviv University Law School; in the U.S. at Harvard, Stanford University and Michigan State; at Renmin University in China; and at the University of Otago Law School in New Zealand.
As Tal wrote in February on his The Times of Israel blog: “I thought long and hard before I decided to run, yet again, on the 2021 Blue and White ticket for Knesset. I did it because I believe that Benny Gantz and his colleagues have done more for Israel than any political party in recent memory. As I see it, when you get past the cynicism that informs many voters’ preferences in the present election, Blue and White, is the only party that makes sense.” He said, “Environmentally, Miki Haimovich,” a Blue and White MK from 2019 to this year, “set a new standard in green leadership while chairing the Knesset Interior Committee.” Blue and White Minister of Agriculture Alon Schuster “used his ministry’s authorities to fight to protect forests and open spaces. Indeed, as in the previous three elections, today Blue and White by far, still offers the most focused and authentic environmental campaign and platform.”
Tal will bring inspired, articulate and knowledgeable environmental messages to the Knesset.