When the Jews of the first aliya arrived in Palestine at the end of the 19th century they found a natural, unblemished landscape. Fast-forward to today and Israel is, ecologically speaking, a mess. According to environmental activist Rabbi Michael Cohen, “the Dead Sea is disappearing, the level of air pollution is doubling every 10 years, open space is quickly giving way to urban sprawl and development, 70% of the wells along the coastal aquifer don’t meet international environmental standards, and a number of species — from the coral reefs in Eilat to the hills of the upper Galilee — are in danger of extinction.”
One reason for the neglect has been Israel’s understandable preoccupation with battling terrorism and poverty. Nevertheless, environmental change is in the air — for the most part, due to the efforts of Alon Tal, a 45-year-old American-born Israeli who has been working energetically both in front of the camera and behind the scenes to force environmental issues to become a priority in Israeli public policy. On January 10, Tal was awarded the Charles Bronfman Prize in Jerusalem, in the presence of Jerusalem’s mayor, Uri Lupolianski. On presenting Tal with the $100,000 prize the jury dubbed him “an outstanding environmental visionary who set out to change the world and has actually done so.”
Tal, who specializes in environmental law, immigrated to Israel in 1981. Nine years later, he founded Adam Teva V’Din (which literally means Man, Nature and Jewish Law, but is referred to in English as the Israel Union for Environmental Defense) — the first Israeli legal advocacy group for the environment. Under Tal’s guidance the group succeeded in greatly reducing the amount of sewage that factories were dumping into the Kishon River, which is located north of Haifa and flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
In 1996 Tal founded the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, in the Negev, where Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian students study side by side. He founded it with the hope that the students would go home and continue to work actively toward peace and sustainable development on a regional and global scale.
However, not all of Tal’s projects have ended happily. From 1994 to 1997, he led a number of legal battles against the paving of the trans-Israel highway — a sprawling eight-lane expressway from the Negev to the Lebanese border — insisting that paving it would promote suburban sprawl and increase air pollution. In 1999, realizing that he wasn’t making headway, Tal resorted to standing in front of the bulldozers. “Of course, I was arrested,” he said.
Between 1999 and 2004, Tal headed Chaim V’sviva (Life and Environment), an umbrella organization of 80 Israeli environmental groups. He also has authored several books, including the first environmental history book of Israel, “Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel” (University of California Press, 2002).
“There’s a stereotype about environmental activists in Israel — that we’re all Ashkenazic males,” Tal joked. “But I’ve worked with Arabs, with ultra-Orthodox Jews, women, people from wealthy neighborhoods as well as from poor areas. There’s a broad spectrum of people” who want to work to save the environment.
As for his own background, Tal considers his environmental activism a supremely Jewish act, “going all the way back to the time when God entrusted Adam and Eve to take care or God’s creations, and to show mercy toward His other creatures.” Tal is, in his own words, “a devout Conservative Jew” who considers Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Ismar Schorsch one of his “halachic spiritual gurus.”
Tal (né Albert Rosenthal) was born in North Carolina, and it was there that his love for both Judaism and nature first took root. As a child of fervently Zionist parents — and himself an active member of the Hadassah-sponsored Zionist youth movement Young Judea — Tal knew early on that aliya was “the only option.” His frequent camping and canoeing trips in the nearby Smoky Mountains inspired his love of nature.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Tal made aliya and enlisted in the Israeli army, where he served as a paratrooper. He studied law at Hebrew University and received a doctorate in environmental health policy from Harvard. Today he lives in Modi’in with his wife and three daughters.
Five years ago, Tal and Cohen established The Green Zionist Alliance, which became the first environmental organization to participate in a World Zionist Congress election. The GZA had three goals in mind: to include environmental responsibility as an integral part of the international Zionist agenda; to see the Jewish National Fund become more of an environmental organization, and to attract Jews to Zionism who would not have achieved this through traditional means. After being elected as part of the American delegation to the 34th Zionist Congress, the GZA, joined into a coalition with Mercaz Olami, the Zionist organization of the Conservative movement. As part of the coalition agreement, Mercaz Olami gave the GZA two of their three seats on the JNF board. One of those seats went to Alon Tal; the other went to Dr. Eilon Schwartz, director of the Heschel Center for the Environment, in Tel Aviv.
Only five days after Tal received the Bronfman Prize, the GZA nominated him to be international chairman of the JNF at the 2006 World Zionist Congress, set to take place in June. Tal said he is flattered by the nomination and is seriously considering it: “Do I think I’m qualified to step up to the plate and take on such a challenge?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes, I believe I am.”
This article has been adapted from a version that appeared in the Yiddish Forward.