The rabbinic tract, Midrash Kohelet Raba, tells us that when God created Adam, he took him to see each and every tree and plant, telling him “make sure you do not degrade and spoil my planet — for if you do, there will be none to come after you and restore it.”
The scholars of the Talmud derived the halachic prohibition of unwarranted waste and destruction from the biblical injunction to protect natural woodland, even while laying siege to an enemy city. The biblical story of Noah’s ark can be seen as the earliest recognition of humanity’s responsibility to safeguard biodiversity from the consequences of human wrong-doing. It is too often forgotten, but commitment to the protection of the environment has always been an authentic and a significant value in the Jewish tradition.
Environmentalism and Zionism are two causes we do not typically associate in our minds. Yet if protection of the environment is a Jewish value, should we not think of the national movement of the Jewish people in ecological terms, just as we do in political ones? The primary political goal of the Zionist movement, the restoration of a National Home for the Jewish People, has happily been achieved. Yet its ecological corollary, the restoration and protection of the native flora and fauna of that homeland and the rehabilitation of its unique eco-systems and landscapes, is an ongoing struggle.
The Jewish communities of the diaspora, first and foremost in the United States, have always been a key partner in the resurrection and preservation of Jewish political sovereignty. To this day, we are fortunate to have young American Jews involved in a wide range of projects for the welfare of the Jewish State — be it serving as first responders on Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulances in Israel, advocating for Israel on U.S. campuses or even volunteering for the Israel Defense Forces. We are blessed to have all of these. But, there is no better time than Tu b’Shvat to remind ourselves that safeguarding Israel is as much an ecological cause as it is a political one, and that we are all stakeholders in the sustainability of Israel’s natural environment.
It is true that tree planting, notably on Tu b’Shvat, was iconic of Zionism in its early days. We still owe a great debt to the forestation projects undertaken by those pioneers, both as forerunners to Israel’s world-renowned (and much sought-after) techniques to negate desertification and for its contribution to the ethos of ‘making the desert bloom’. But from the point of view of contemporary conservationism, the mass introduction of insufficiently diverse cultivars from outside Israel’s local ecosystem, is outdated. Moreover, over the years, “green Zionism” has declined in prominence in our collective consciousness, giving way to other causes and concerns.
Awareness, education and involvement are the key elements of eco-Zionism regaining its rightful place in the fabric of Israel-diaspora relations. The first step is for young American Jews, from Teaneck to Texas, to begin thinking of the Fallow Deer, the Griffon Vulture, the Arabian Oryx and all the other treasures of Israel’s wildlife and plant life as part of their own heritage and developing a sense of commitment to their preservation. Furthermore, careful and conscientious learning are required to realistically appreciate the complex environmental prospects and challenges Israel faces in balancing environmental principles with the needs of economic and social development, within constrained geographical limits. Finally, there is a wide selection of opportunities for ecological activism in Israel for young American Jews to choose among — be it rescuing sea turtles, reintroducing biblical wildlife species or adopting sand-dune ridges in order to conserve their delicate and fragile ecosystem. Committed and idealistic activists with their own professional backgrounds in conservation and environmental studies can serve as a two-way conduit of expertise by introducing American best practices in Israel and by sharing experience and know-how accumulated in Israel with the professional community in the U.S.
While the establishment of peaceful relations between humans and nature is worthy enough a cause in and of itself, environmental activism in the Israeli context can benefit the promotion of other important social goals. The environmental education of young Israeli children, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, can be a journey of empowerment. Respect for and dedication to Israel’s natural treasures can nurture the sense of responsibility and self-worth that make the difference between delinquency and civic virtue. Similarly, joint Jewish-Arab youth activities in nature protection and ecology, such as the Eco-Hemed project in the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, can break down barriers and foster coexistence not only between the participants and the flora, fauna and landscape which surround them but also between the different communities that make up the tapestry of modern Israel. No less importantly, in an increasingly polarized and divisive public sphere, a renewed pledge to the survival of the landscapes and habitats with which the Jewish People has been collectively entrusted, has the potential to create a space of unity and cooperation where there might otherwise be discord and strife.
To paraphrase Ahad Ha’Am, we may find that more than we protect the environment, the environment will protect us.
Tu B’Shvat can be so much more meaningful than the exchange of dried-fruit baskets (typically imported from Turkey or Morocco). It can sound the rallying call for a renewed communion between the Jewish People and the land of Israel. I strongly believe this communion must be an important part of the future partnership between Jewish communities in America and in Israel and it is an honor for me to call out to all those who would make it so.
Shaul Goldstein is director general of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.