Enter The Green Zionists

The Green Zionist Alliance is an unlikely force in Jewish environmental politics. Run by volunteers and largely unknown, the New York-based group heads into the 2010 World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in June armed with seven resolutions, touching on topics from Israeli farming and sustainable business to renewable energy and climate change.

At the previous World Zionist Congress in June 2006, where the alliance held just two of about 400 seats, it succeeded in passing its three resolutions. It called on KKL (the Jewish National Fund in Israel) to strengthen its environmental policies, demanded environmental-impact statements for World Zionist Organization building projects and required the Jewish Agency for Israel, KKL and the WZO to vastly increase their use of recycled paper.

“It’s estimated that air pollution in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area alone kills more Israelis every year than wars and terrorist acts combined,” said alliance President David Krantz, citing a World Health Organization study. “Israeli society often focuses on terrorism and war — and they’re important issues — but pollution has been much more deadly.”

The alliance was founded in 2001 to educate and mobilize Jews to support Israel’s environmental movement. It won one seat to the 2002 World Zionist Congress (which convenes every four years), becoming the first environmental organization ever to attend. This year, with three seats, the alliance is pressing for its most ambitious set of proposals yet.

The alliance’s resolutions include a call for the WZO, the Jewish Agency and KKL to install energy-generating solar panels and rainwater-saving systems on their rooftops. There is a resolution for future World Zionist Congresses to fund carbon-mitigating projects in Israel to offset emissions from delegates’ travel. There is also a proposal for KKL to increase funding for projects including environmental research and river restoration.

These proposals have every chance of passing. But experience indicates a question mark hangs over their implementation.

For example, the recycled paper resolution of 2006 called on the WZO, KKL and the Jewish Agency to buy at least 50% of their paper from recycled sources. But Michael Jankelowitz, a spokesman for the WZO and for the Jewish Agency — which share a building in Jerusalem — said the cost of recycled office paper in Israel is prohibitive. Instead, the only sign of progress so far is the use of recycled toilet paper and air hand dryers, rather than paper towels, in the building’s bathrooms.

Alliance co-founder Rabbi Michael Cohen pointed out that resolutions do not always lead to results. “The resolutions have value because they give a sense of the direction in which the World Zionist Congress and the KKL should be going,” he said. “Maybe we didn’t have a complete success with recycled paper, but at least it put on the radar that this stuff needs to be done.”

The Alliance is a critic of past environmental policies of KKL, such as the planting of nonindigenous trees and the draining of the ecologically important Hula Valley during the 1950s. In 2006, the alliance called on the KKL to make improvements, such as increasing budgets for river restoration and developing a more sustainable transportation policy.

Although resolutions help, the alliance has achieved the most success by placing three of its members on the KKL board of directors. At the 2002 Congress, the Alliance teamed up with the Conservative movement’s Zionist wing, MERCAZ Olami, and MERCAZ Olami offered the alliance two seats on the KKL board. Alliance co-founders Eilon Schwartz and Alon Tal took the seats, joined later by a third member, Orr Karassin. (Rabbi Yoav Ende, another GZA member, replaced Schwartz on the KKL board last year.)

Tal said World Zionist Congress resolutions are sometimes not implemented because the WZO, the Jewish Agency and KKL have “a lack of respect” for the Congress. “The only way things get done,” said Tal, “is by having people in positions of power to implement them.”

Tal listed achievements made while he has been on the KKL board: sponsoring a program for Rwandan villagers, pushing for a 20-million-shekel bike lane plan in Israel, quadrupling funding for new forests.

Jankelowitz, meanwhile, said the WZO and Jewish Agency continue to adopt greener practices. He said the removal of paper towels had caused “an uproar” among employees.

“There is a big sign here explaining why there’s a hand dryer,” he said. “It explains that … you are saving 12 trees a year. So there is this attempt to convey to workers why there’s no paper and why we have to be environmentally conscious. All this is because of the resolution of the green Zionists.”

Written by

Paul Berger

Paul Berger

Paul Berger has been a staff writer at the Forward since 2011, covering crime and healthcare issues, such as sex abuse, circumcision, and fraud. He is a fluent Russian speaker and has reported from Russia and Ukraine. He also likes digging into historicalmysteries.

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