As the sun began to set over the Sheep Meadow in Central Park on a recent Friday night, hundreds of young, environmentally minded professionals gathered to kindle Shabbat candles and say hamotzi together.
Approximately 250 people attended what was billed as the first “Shabbat in the Park,” an environmental benefit for Israel organized by JNFuture, the young leadership division of the Jewish National Fund. Before sunset, guests mingled under a sprawling white tent for a cocktail hour, relaxing in the park’s foliage as their busy weeks came to an end. During dinner, Rep. Anthony Weiner, (D-Queens/Brooklyn) addressed the group, focusing on America and Israel’s mutual desire to create a greener world.
The Shabbat-goers were there to raise money for Blueprint Negev, a JNF venture that seeks to sustain and revitalize Israeli desert regions. The project will introduce new plants and animals to the regions as well as solar energy, said Andrew Ashwal, a table host and associate developer for Africa Israel Investments Ltd.
But what was left unsaid at the event were the potential environmental and social repercussions of Blueprint Negev.
“[JNF] needs to make sure that the impact of Blueprint Negev is positive both for the Bedouin and the government development towns,” said Rabbi David Seidenberg, teacher of Jewish theology with a focus on the ecology, who did not attend the Shabbat event. “They have to move from the model of developer to the model of environmental protection.”
According to Rabbi Seidenberg, JNF wants to bring a half-million people to a region that cannot support these numbers and build suburban “lawns and sprinklers” on land that cannot harbor such development.
Even more problematic, Rabbi Seidenberg said, is the Israeli government’s attitude toward the Negev’s Bedouin residents, who have neither civil rights nor lawful farming privileges. Rabbi Seidenberg believes that in order for Blueprint Negev to succeed, the government must first recognize the Bedouin people and give them equal political say.
Pointing to successful desert development in Arizona and Las Vegas, JNF CEO Russell Robinson said, “The worst environmental damage will be when the desert takes over the land.”
Robinson, speaking in the days after the June 20 event, agreed that JNF wants to bring 500,000 people to the Negev, but rather than bringing urban sprawl, the group aims to increase population in each of the small towns throughout the Negev, rather than create a single metropolitan area with suburbs.
Robinson argued that the Bedouin community has civil rights equal to those of any Israeli citizen and explained that JNF is helping prepare farmland for Bedouins.
“We work hard to help all the citizens of Israel, and the Negev needs help for all of the citizens,” Robinson said. “I want to make sure that everybody in the Negev has the opportunity to be part of Israeli society — Bedouin and Jew alike — and it won’t happen unless we increase the population.”
Rabbi Seidenberg, who runs the Web site SavetheNegev.org, said he continues to talk with JNF leadership.
“We’re waiting for them to develop a review process that looks at both environmental and social impacts of their projects, and we’re hopeful that they’re going to achieve that,” he said.