‘The kids are smart enough to differentiate between the Holy Land home of the Jewish people and the things that need to be addressed. They see it as comprehensive.’ – Zalul’s Yariv AbramovichA group of American college students recently immersed themselves in the world of Israeli environmental activism, and received a very special look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Israel’s environmental endeavors and concerns.
The country’s leading environmental organization – Zalul – teamed up with the Taglit-birthright Israel program to organize a first-of-its-kind 10 day ‘Encounter Program’ for a group of 25 University of Wisconsin students aged 18 to 26, which included travels to some of the country’s environmental hotspots and meetings with leading environmentalists and government officials.
“Our partnership with Taglit-birthright Israel is important because it will educate young people on the long-term environmental dangers faced by Israel, a topic that not many young people have exposure to,” Zalul’s managing director Yariv Abramovich told ISRAEL21c. “While young Jews around the world are made aware of many of the political and military threats faced by Israel, they need to learn about the environmental threat to our homeland as well. They are our future leaders, and educating them now may help save the environment for generations to come.”
The partnership between Zalul and Taglit is natural. Taglit-birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group trips to Israel for young Jewish adults. Since 2000, more than 110,000 students from 51 countries have visited Israel through the program.
Zalul, founded in 1999, is a multi-disciplinary organization dedicated to protecting Israel’s seas and rivers. Comprised of professionals from various fields including academia, environmental specialists, lawyers, public relations experts and lobbyists, the organization has fought vigorously to defend the seas and rivers from industrial and municipal pollutants. More than 3,000 Israelis support Zalul by participating in rallies, letter writing and government outreach activities.
During the combined trip, Zalul guided the group through some of Israel’s critical environmental pockets including Haifa’s Kishon River for a meeting with a former Israeli Defense Forces naval instructor to discuss the industrial sewage problems along the river.
In the Galilee and Golan, they witnessed the contrasting sights of abundant lush landscapes with a visit to the Naftali Forest, charred by last summer’s war in Lebanon.
“I was amazed when I saw the trees and forests damaged during the war in the north,” 23-year-old University of Madison anthropology and Chinese major Laura Bernstein told ISRAEL21c. “You see huge chunks of forests that are completely destroyed. I would have never imagined that in terms of the impact of a war.”
While in Jerusalem, the group was briefed by the Environmental Ministry’s Dr. Yehuda Bar Or on some of the environmental challenges and projects that the government is shepherding – like water technologies, recycling, and desalination. They then traveled to the mineral rich Dead Sea to take a look at the sea’s infamous receding shorelines. While there, they were briefed by specialist Yechiam Schlezinger on why the sea is declining by an average one meter (1.1 yards) per year.
“My impression is that in Israel, security has always been number one,” Taglit participant Bernstein commented. “It overshadows everything. So while I’ve been here, this has shown me that planning a country without knowing in advance what the environmental impacts will be definitely has its effects.”
Abramovich says that while he and other organizers hesitated to show the young people some of the less positive facets of Israel’s environmental policy, they found the results to be positive nonetheless.
“The kids are smart enough to differentiate between the Holy Land home of the Jewish people and the things that need to be addressed. They see it as comprehensive,” Abramovich said. “They were very surprised and very excited about what they saw here. Some are very attached to environment and they understood there is a lot to do. Some got angry about the negligence and I think most of them think they can contribute through environmental activity.”
While in the Negev desert the group met with Ben Gurion University’s Dr. Alon Tal – founder of Israel’s Union for Environmental Defense – and traveled to Eilat where they snorkeled along coral reefs for an inventory of marine biology and reef upkeep. Participants were offered the opportunity to extend their travels to participate in Zalul scuba diving expeditions and specialized environmental activities.
Twenty-year-old sociology/legal Student Jonathan Lipsky said he was both excited and saddened by some of the things he saw and heard on his visit but overall, he felt hopeful. “Some of the action seems more retroactive than proactive. I think corporate legislature to prevent companies from abusing the environment might help,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m pleasantly shocked by how prevalent desalination is here. It’s nice to see that technological advance for a small place.”
Lipsky said he plans on returning to Israel and hopes to eventually serve in a capacity to influence government legislation vis a vis environment.
“I hope to have a positive influence on environment. Here too. But in the meantime, it’s also nice to see that Israelis do care about environment and are doing something about it,” Lipsky concluded.
As far as Zalul’s Abramovich is concerned, that is the type of response he was aiming for. “The modern Jewish population has to understand there are non-traditional ways to be involved in Israel. Young people are more into global issues so these are the right values the young generation of travelers wants to be involved in. They want hands-on travel and that’s what we gave them.”