Murray Barbash: Championing the Environment of Long Island — and Israel

A major figure championing the environment of Long Island—and Israel—has passed away. Maurice “Murray” Barbash was the long-time chairman of North American Friends of Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research.

IOLR was established in 1967 with a mission to “generate knowledge for the sustainable use and protection of Israel’s marine, coastal and freshwater resources.”

“We lost our best member when Murray died,” comments Daniel A. Cohan, the current chairman of North American Friends of IOLR. “He was the lifeblood of this organization for almost 20 years, and his active interest, tireless fundraising efforts and personal generosity animated a small cadre of supporters to do big things. As a group, NAF-IOLR is diminished without him.”

“From a personal standpoint,” says Cohan, “I looked at Murray as my role model in nonprofit leadership. His advice to me was ‘people give to people,’ and that relationships were the most important part of the job. “

“Murray was a unique, energetic and creative guy who spent more time doing than talking.” Cohan recalls having “first met Murray at an IOLR meeting in 2001. In 2003 he made a plan to shoot a new IOLR promo video in Israel. Murray, 78 at the time, was supposed to travel with two younger guys, me and the son of a major contributor. Something came up at work and I dropped out, but Murray still had one guy joining him. At the very last minute the other fellow dropped out, saying he was quitting for political reasons. This was during the Second Intifada. I put aside work, got on a plane, and met Murray in Tel Aviv. We travelled together for the duration of the project, and I came to admire Murray’s confidence and easygoing charm.  He was genuinely loved by his IOLR colleagues.”

Hanna Rosenfeld of IOLR’s National Center for Mariculture (NCM), among the 180 scientists, engineers and technicians at IOLR, says “Murray was a true friend of IOLR in general and NCM in particular. He was the driving force promoting funds allocation to NCM, aiding the advance of our institute to the forefront. We will cherish his unforgettable visit to ‘hold our hands’ and encourage us during wartime.”

Murray was chairman of NAF-IOLR from 1988 to 2007.

Scientists at IOLR’s Kinneret Limnological Laboratory, Tom Berman, Assaf Sukenik and Tamar Zohary, write: “From his first visit to the lab, Murray understood and appreciated our mission of preserving the water quality of Lake Kinneret, a major source of Israel’s water supply. Murray had the rare capability of inspiring immediate rapport with all kinds of people that he met. He radiated optimism, tempered with a very realistic outlook on life. He was a sympathetic and understanding friend, with boundless curiosity about the work being done and the projects being planned, offering constructive criticism and practical suggestions. His visits to the lab were always followed by personal commitments. Among the many, we note especially our research vessel, the Lillian.” Lillian is named after Murray’s wife of 65 years. “With the passing of Murray,  IOLR has lost a true friend and partner.”

A commitment to Israel goes back to Murray’s father, Shep. As Murray’s son, also Shep, noted at the memorial service for Murray, his grandfather left America in 1917 for “Canada to enlist in the British legionnaires and fight for the liberation of Palestine. Sounds like something Murray might have done. While in the Middle East he contracted malaria, and never fully recovered. He suffered a heart attack at age 47 and died in a hospital hallway, two weeks after my dad’s bar mitzvah.”

Of his father, Shep said, “He had this instinct for getting the big things right.” 

On Long Island, where I knew Murray for more than a half-century, I saw this: he was a giant in the modern environmental and energy history of Long Island.

He was a key to the creation of the Fire Island National Seashore and, in so doing, stopping the plan of New York area public works czar Robert Moses from building a four-lane highway on top of Fire Island, an extraordinary barrier beach, long a vacation haven for New Yorkers.  Later, he and his brother-in-law, attorney Irving Like, flipped the Fire Island strategy and was central in stopping the Shoreham nuclear power plant, what was to be the first of many nuclear power plants on Long Island.

My first big story as a reporter on Long Island was in 1962 on my first week at the Babylon Town Leader. Moses had just announced his highway plan and the newspaper—which had long challenged the schemes of Moses, a Babylon resident—sent me to Fire Island to do an article about the impacts of a highway. The consequences were obvious: it would pave over natural treasures such as Fire Island’s famed Sunken Forest and destroy many of the unique, indeed magical communities on the roadless beach (the highway would be wider than Fire Island at points).

The day my article appeared, I got a telephone call from Murray, who said he was preparing to fight the Moses road. And did he!

With Like, who a few years later would co-author the Environmental Bill of Rights of the New York State Constitution, he created the Citizens Committee for a Fire Island National Seashore.

Saying no to Moses wasn’t enough: there needed to be a focus on the positive and also, there was no way to stop Moses on the state level. Moses had failed dismally in a run for New York State governor so instead amassed huge power, not through democracy, but with his commissions and authorities.

As chairman of the committee, working with Like, renowned Long Island naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy and others, Murray succeeded in saving beautiful Fire Island.

Meanwhile, I wrote article after article about the Moses’ highway plan and the drive for a Fire Island National Seashore, federal involvement neutralizing Moses’ state power.

Two decades later, the great threat to Long Island was the group of nuclear power plants—seven to 11—that the Long Island Lighting Company sought to build on Long Island. The first would be Shoreham Nuclear Power Station 1 on Long Island’s North Shore. There would be two more nuclear plants at Shoreham, four at Jamesport further east on the North Shore, and more in between, and possibly even along the South Shore in Bridgehampton.

For this, Murray and Irv flipped the Fire Island strategy.

There was no way to stop the U.S. government from approving these nuclear plants. By 1980 it had issued a construction license and was preparing to give an operating license to LILCO for Shoreham and had given a construction OK for the first two nuclear plants to go up at Jamesport. The U.S. government’s nuclear agencies—the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—never (to this day) denied a construction or operating license for a nuclear plant.

So, here, the strategy would be to use the power of the state, specifically its power of eminent domain, to blunt this federal nuclear rubber stamp. Eminent domain is the legal principle going back centuries giving government the power to condemn property if the owners refuse to sell.

Citizens to Replace LILCO was created by Murray and Irv with also a focus on the positive—establishment of a Long Island Power Authority with the power, under eminent domain, to eliminate LILCO as a corporate entity if it persisted with its nuclear scheme. Moreover, it would emphasize the use of safe, clean, renewable energy.

The argument of Long Island’s Suffolk County government before the NRC that evacuation would be impossible on dead-ended, heavily populated Long Island in the event of a Shoreham disaster held back the opening of the plant for a time. Mass protests, political organizing, legal action and other moves were also very important. But in the end it was this strategy that stopped Shoreham and LILCO’s plans to build many other nuclear plants on Long Island.

Murray and Lillian Barbash (Irv’s sister) have also been great contributors to arts and culture on Long Island, including the founding of the Long Island Philharmonic.

Murray, of Brightwaters, died on March 13 at 88 of complications from heart bypass surgery—after a great run.

Shep also noted at the memorial service how being a Jew saved his father’s life. Murray enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II and “his fate was decided…in the most ironic way. He had been sent to the South for training. His commander—Lieutenant Derryberry, I can still hear him say the name—turned out to be an anti-Semite. When it came time for them to ship out, this Derryberry passed over every Jew in the battalion. Not long after, my dad heard that Derryberry and all of his men had been wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge. So it’s fair to say that I am here—we [Murray’s children and grandchildren] are all here—thanks in part to… Jewish hatred. Whenever I’m about to rail against bigotry, I try to remind myself: I am the child of bigotry. It saved my dad’s life, and made mine possible. ‘The Almighty has his own purposes.’”

Photo of Lillian and Murray Barbash —

About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.