Despite making vast inroads in enriching and preserving its environment, Israel faces significant ecological challenges, according to Alon Tal, the featured speaker of the Jewish National Fund’s Western Pennsylvania Community Breakfast, held last Thursday at Phipps Conservatory.
Tal, who sits on the JNF’s international board, has spent his career balancing academia and public interest advocacy as a champion of environmentalism. He is currently on the faculty of Ben Gurion University, and in 1996 founded the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a graduate studies center in which Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian students join environmentalists from around the world in an advanced interdisciplinary research program.
Citing such crises in Israel as contaminated water, poor air quality in some areas, and high cancer rates, Tal praised the JNF for recognizing that these “trends are not destiny.”
“We need to, and can, do better,” he said.
Yet despite severe environmental problems in the Jewish state, progress is being made in some areas, he noted. For example, he said, Israelis have recognized that trees are “a renewable resource,” and the JNF has been instrumental in expanding its forestland 800 percent since 1949.
“We need to ask how we take that kind of success and apply it to other environmental endeavors,” he asserted.
JNF has taken an active role in challenging the government on policies that affect the environment, Tal noted, including successfully blocking a proposed fracking project near Jerusalem.
While other JNF endeavors have not been as successful — it lost a recent battle to stop the construction of a highway through the Jerusalem Forest — it continues to advocate for greener policies.
As Israel is becoming more crowded, Tal said, there arise “enormous pressures” to develop the land, and to “perhaps decimate landscapes,” which puts Israelis, as stewards of the land, at a crossroads.
“We have to make a decision,” Tal posited. “Do we want to be slumlords, or do we want to be responsible landlords? Do we want to take part in the land restoration movement, or do we just stand by.”
As the indigenous people of the land, he continued, “we have to take care of it for our grandchildren.”
Outreach to Arab communities is another important objective of the JNF, according to Tal.
“We’ve come to feel there is nothing more Jewish than assisting minorities in our country,” he said, adding that the JNF has created an “affirmative action” program that seeks to close the gap between Jewish and Arab communities in Israel and has helped to build parks and hiking trails and to restore rivers in those communities.
“Our responsibility is for the entire State of Israel,” he said.
After the presentation of a video highlighting JNF’s contributions during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas last summer — including raising more than $6 million and delivering over 200 portable bomb shelters — Tal responded to questions from audience members, including representatives from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). In the week prior to the breakfast, JVP had run “an educational campaign directed at the general public and the local community of green professionals and sustainability advocates to address the racist nature of the JNF’s activities in Israel-Palestine,” according to an email from JVP representative Daniel Klein.
The tone of the Q-and-A remained civil.
When audience member Dara Levy-Bernstein charged that the JNF had bulldozed Bedouin homes in “the village” of Al-Araqib in the Negev, Tal corrected her by noting that the area in question was not a village, but a “small cemetery with intermittent agriculture,” and that the people on the land who complained were just 10 to 15 families of squatters who have the opportunity to challenge the actions of the JNF in court.
The work of the JNF in that area, Tal said, was for the betterment of an entire community.
“I see it very differently,” he said, adding that the JNF does not have the authority to bulldoze homes.
A charge by audience member Hadeel Salameh, president of the University of Pittsburgh’s chapter of SJP, that the JNF plants trees “in the illegal settlements of the West Bank,” was similarly refuted by Tal, who stated that there was not a single JNF project in the West Bank outside of areas accepted to be under Israeli control under any future peace deal.
“They just aren’t there,” he said.
Manar Saria, an Israeli Arab from Haifa who is working on her doctorate in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, came to hear Tal speak. Saria first met Tal when she was learning at the Arava Institute in Ktura, Israel.
“It was one of the best years of my life,” Saria said of the environmental and research program that Tal founded. “It opens your eyes to different perspectives.”
While Saria does not agree with many of the past and current activities of the JNF, she is grateful for the support the organization has given to the Arava Institute, in which she still participates as an alumna. JNF raises funds for student scholarships for Arava as well as for a capital campaign. It has provided $1 million for scholarships for students to attend.
She also commended JNF for its support of the Wadi Attir project for Bedouins, which she said helps the Bedouins preserve their traditional medicine and plants.
“I don’t agree with the JNF with all they do,” Saria said. “But you can’t paint things in black and white.
“I really appreciate Alon [Tal] a lot,” she added, noting that he employed her to bring more Arab scientists into an international Drylands, Deserts and Desertification Conference and that he is “still doing outreach.”
“I always say that politics is dirty,” she continued. “But you need good people there to help steer the wind.”
JVP plans to continue its campaign against JNF, according to Klein, through the screening of the film “Enduring Roots,” which purports to feature the testimonies of Bedouins and Palestinians “about the JNF’s involvement in forcing their families and communities off their lands in 1947-48 and continuing since,” Klein wrote in an email. JVP also plans to continue using social media to advocate against the actions of the JNF, and will be asking members to sign a petition to the IRS to revoke the JNF’s charitable status in the United States.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.