Category Archives: Energy Efficiency

On Hanukkah, Let’s Rededicate Our Commitment to Environmental Justice

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TOMERTU / SHUTTERSTOCK

Cross-posted with Truthout

The central story commemorated on Hanukkah comes from books 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tells of a small group of Jews in the land of Israel that fought to liberate their community from the increasingly oppressive reign of the Seleucid empire. Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the empire had imposed their Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish community; in 167 BCE, Antiochus intensified his campaign by defiling the temple in Jerusalem and banning Jewish practice. The Jewish band known as the Maccabees subsequently waged a three-year campaign that culminated in the cleaning and rededication of the temple and ultimately, the establishment of the second Jewish commonwealth.

The meaning of Hanukkah has historically been understood and interpreted in many different ways by Jewish communities throughout the centuries. For the rabbis of the Talmud, who sought to downplay the militarism and violence of the story, the holiday is emblematic of God’s miraculous power, symbolized famously by the Talmudic legend (quoted above) of a miraculous cruse of oil in the rededicated Temple that lasted for eight days. The Zionist movement and the state of Israel celebrate Hanukkah as a nationalist holiday, glorifying the Maccabees’ military struggle for political independence. In many nations throughout the Jewish diaspora, the festival is often understood as an expression of Jewish minority pride and a celebration of religious freedom.

More recently, some American Jewish religious leaders have been reinterpreting Hanukkah as a holiday of sacred environmental concern, framing the legend of the oil as a lesson about the importance of energy sustainability. Jewish environmental activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow, for instance, has proposed observing “Eight Days of Environmental Action” during Hanukkah, suggesting that the legend “is a reminder that if we have the courage to change our lifestyles to conserve energy, the miracle of our own creativity will sustain us.” The website of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) now devotes an entire section to “Green Resources for Hanukkah.” The Jewish environmental organization Hazon also offers extensive resources for the holiday, including “10 Ways to Make your Hanukkah More Sustainable.”

While these new approaches are certainly meaningful as far as they go, it is worth questioning why the environmental dimensions of Hanukkah must begin and end with green personal behaviors. Given that the festival celebrates a struggle for liberation, Hanukkah also offers us a powerful opportunity to highlight and celebrate the emergent global movement for environmental justice.

This connection is particularly relevant since this struggle is unfolding in critical ways in the land where the Hanukkah story actually took place. In fact, the state of Israel has a well-documented history of monopolizing and exploiting the natural resources of historic Palestine — all too often at the expense of the Palestinian people themselves. If we are truly serious about celebrating Hanukkah as a “green holiday,” we should also use these eight days to shine a light on the myriad environmental injustices being committed in Israel/Palestine — and further, to rededicate ourselves to the movement for environmental justice there and around the world.

“Green Colonialism” in Israel/Palestine

Environmentalism has always been central to the myth of Zionist pioneers who described themselves as having “greened the barren desert” of Palestine. Like many of my generation who came of age in American Jewish religious schools, I well remember being taught that helping the Jewish National Fund (JNF) plant pine trees in Israel was an act of almost sacred significance. Like generations of Hebrew school students before and after us, we were encouraged to regularly put coins in the iconic blue-and-white JNF collection boxes and were given certificates as gifts whenever a tree was planted in our honor or for a special occasion.

The reality beneath this mythos, however, reveals a much more problematic and troubling history. We didn’t learn the crucial colonial goal behind the JNF’s forestation policy throughout Palestine — that the widespread planting of pine groves and forests was instrumental in the dispossession of Palestinians. We certainly didn’t learn about Yosef Weitz, director of the JNF from 1932 to 1948, who was a primary architect of the Zionist policy of Palestinian Arab “transfer,” often advocating for this policy openly and unabashedly.

At a meeting of the Transfer Committee in 1937, for instance, Weitz stated:

The transfer of Arab population from the area of the Jewish state does not serve only one aim — to diminish the Arab population. It also serves a second, no less important, aim which is to advocate land presently held and cultivated by the Arabs and thus to release it for Jewish inhabitants.

It is now known that pine forests planted by the JNF were widely used as national and recreational parks to hide the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages and neighborhoods that were depopulated by force in 1948. According to scholars Ilan Pappé and Samer Jaber, “covering ethnic cleansing with pine trees is probably the most cynical method employed by Israel in its quest to take over as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as possible.” The Israeli organization Zochrot estimates that “more than two-thirds of [JNF] forests and sites — 46 out of 68 — conceal or are located on the ruins of Palestinian villages demolished by Israel.”

In a recent conference call sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), journalist/activist Naomi Klein referred to this practice as “green colonialism,” pointing out that “the use of conservation and tree planting and forest protection as a tool of settler colonialism is not unique to Israel” and that “the creation of state parks and national parks (in North America) are seen by Indigenous people in these settler colonial contexts in similar ways.” According to Klein, “there is a long and ongoing history of conservation … where the land is declared a park and the traditional inhabitants and users of the land are locked out.”

The cumulative environmental impact of nonindigenous pine trees throughout historic Palestine has been devasting. European pines, which were consciously planted to evoke the memory of the forests familiar to Zionist settlers, have largely failed to adapt to the local soil, requiring frequent replanting. As they have aged, non-native pines also have demanded more and more water, rendering them more vulnerable to disease. Moreover, falling pine needles have acidified the soil, inhibiting the growth of native species.

This practice, coupled with the steadily soaring temperatures in the region, has increasingly led to devastating forest fires such as the Carmel wildfire in 2010, estimated to be the worst in Israel’s history. Given its grievous environmental impact, the 2010 fire subsequently precipitated a widespread reassessment in Israel of early Zionist tree-planting policies. In 2011, Yisrael Tauber, director of forest management for the JNF, grudgingly admitted, “Planting is still important, but in many cases we have to make a kind of change in our consciousness.…We are now building sustainable forestry after these pioneering pines did a wonderful job for the first generation.”

Of course, given the rising threat of the global climate crisis, this admission arrives as too little, too late. Increasingly dangerous conflagrations are now a regular occurrence throughout Israel; this past summer, three simultaneous wildfires necessitated the evacuation of hundreds of residents across the country. This trend is particularly ominous given that this region is among the hardest hit by the climate crisis. At the UN Climate Conference in Madrid this month, the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a report listing a number of devastating projections, including an expected rise in the risk of natural disasters.

“Water Apartheid” in the West Bank

The struggle over water resources is another important example of historic and ongoing climate injustice in Israel/Palestine. Israel has almost complete control over water sources in the region, a monopoly the human rights group Al-Haq refers to as “water apartheid.” According to Amnesty International, Palestinian consumption in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is about 70 liters a day per person (well below the 100 liters per capita daily recommended by the World Health Organization) whereas Israeli daily per capita consumption is about 300 liters. In some rural communities, Palestinians survive on 20 liters per day.

Those who visit the West Bank cannot help but be struck by the sight of Israeli settlements, with lush, well-watered lawns looming over Palestinian towns and villages surrounded by rocky soil and sparse vegetation. This is largely due to the fact that Israel uses more than 80 percent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the only source of underground water in the West Bank, as well as all of the surface water available from the Jordan River, which is completely denied to Palestinians.

As a result of this inequitable system, some 180,000 to 200,000 Palestinians in rural communities have no access to running water. In towns and villages which are connected to the water network, water rationing is common, many Palestinians have no choice but to purchase additional supplies from mobile water tankers which deliver water of often dubious quality at a much higher price. (The Mountain Aquifer, one of the most valuable natural resources in the region, is situated almost completely east of the Green Line, a key factor in Israel’s inexorable annexation of the West Bank.)

Over the years, Israel’s over-pumping of underground aquifers has lowered the groundwater table below sea level and caused saline water intrusion in many areas. The average flow of the Jordan River has been decreasing dramatically and has become so polluted by Israeli settlement and industry run-off that it was declared unsafe for baptism by Friends of the Earth Middle East in 2010 (known today as EcoPeace Middle East). The Dead Sea has shrunk into two separate and rapidly evaporating bodies of water, increasingly polluted by Israeli companies that pump out its salts for cosmetic products.

Environmental Injustice in Gaza

When it comes to Gaza, Israel’s crushing 12-year-old blockade has almost completely depleted the supply of drinkable water for the nearly 2,000,000 Palestinians who live in this small strip of land. Gaza’s only water resource, the Coastal Aquifer, is insufficient for the needs of the population, and Israel does not allow the transfer of water from the West Bank to Gaza. In the meantime, the aquifer has been steadily depleted and contaminated by over-extraction and by sewage and seawater infiltration, and 97 percent of its water has been contaminated and unfit for human consumption.

Stringent restrictions imposed in recent years by Israel on the entry into Gaza of material and equipment necessary for the development and repair of infrastructure have caused further deterioration of its water and sanitation situation. For the past several years, sewage has been flowing into the Mediterranean at a rate of 110 million liters a day. At present, 97 percent of Gaza’s freshwater is unsuitable for human consumption and only 10 percent of Gaza’s residents have access to safe drinking water.

However, as is invariably the case with issues of environmental injustice, what goes around comes around. This past June, EcoPeace Middle East reported that the collapsing environmental situation in Gaza was creating a “national security risk” to Israel, warning that “the collapsing water, sewage and electricity infrastructure in the Gaza Strip pose a material danger to (Israel).” In a particularly perverse example of victim-blaming, the Israeli military recently urged the World Health Organization to condemn the “ecological catastrophe” caused by the burning of tires by Palestinians on the border during the weekly Great March of Return protests.

In addition to water pollution, there have also been reports of rapidly increasing soil contamination due to Israel’s regular military assaults on Gaza. According to a report by the New Weapons Research Group, Israeli bombings in Gaza Strip have left a high concentration of toxic metals, such as tungsten, mercury, molybdenum, cadmium and cobalt in the soil. These metals can cause tumors and problems with fertility, and they can have serious and harmful effects on newly born babies.

Hanukkah and Global Climate Justice

What does this current environmental reality bode for the future of the Jewish state? British journalist Robert Cohen powerfully concludes that the climate crisis, coupled with Israel’s steady over-exploitation of resources, has functionally rendered Zionism “obsolete.”

“How,” writes Cohen, “can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round…? When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land.”

Cohen’s point can certainly be applied to the world at large. The climate crisis clearly knows no borders. But while no one will ultimately be safe from its devastating effects, we can be sure that the more powerful will increasingly seek to safeguard themselves and their interests at all costs at the expense of the less powerful. Such is the harsh reality of “green colonialism”: as the climate crisis renders more and more of the world uninhabitable, we are clearly witnessing increased state efforts at border militarization, population control and the warehousing of humanity.

What then, is to be done? In a recent op-ed for The Nation, journalist Ben Ehrenreich offered this compelling prescription: “it is time to shout, and loudly, that the freedom of all the earth’s people to move across borders must be at the center of any response to the climate crisis.… If we are to survive as a species, we must know that no boat can save us except the one we build together.” In her JVP presentation, Naomi Klein echoed this challenge in similarly powerful terms:

What is clear is that the space for humanity to live well is contracting…. So, the core question is what kind of people are we going to be as we live in greater density? And if we look to Israel/Palestine, we see a really terrifying example of how to lose your humanity and how to fail to share land — and the monstrousness it requires to fail to share….

This is a global process that is happening now … so we’re going to have to start practicing solidarity and mutual aid. And we’re going to have to practice love and show each other what love looks like in public more and more. Because a lot of people have lost faith that they can do it.

There can be no better Hanukkah message for the 21st century. Given the realities of our current age, the nationalist dimensions of the holiday are not merely irrelevant, but dangerous. In the words of poet/liturgist Aurora Levins Morales, “this time it’s all of us or none.” If Hanukkah is to be a true celebration of environmental justice, it must become a “rededication” to fight for a more universal vision of liberation, for a world of solidarity, mutual aid and open borders.

Or to put it another way, the Maccabees’ struggle must now be broadened to represent the universal struggle of all who are committed to showing what love looks like in public, for the sake of all humanity. For the age of global climate crisis, the stakes could not be higher.

Getting Political with Sandy

Lots of pundits are cautioning Obama and Romney against “playing politics” with the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I disagree. I’d say if there was ever a time to play politics, now is it.

As far as I can tell, neither candidate has broken their “climate silence” in relation to Hurricane Sandy – that is, explicitly connect the dots and say in no uncertain terms that Hurricane Sandy was, as George Lakoff so accurately described it, systemically caused by global warming:

Global warming systemically caused the huge and ferocious Hurricane Sandy. And consequently, it systemically caused all the loss of life, material damage, and economic loss of Hurricane Sandy. Global warming heated the water of the Gulf and Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in greatly increased energy and water vapor in the air above the water.  When that happens, extremely energetic and wet storms occur more frequently and ferociously. These systemic effects of global warming came together to produce the ferocity and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy.

The precise details of Hurricane Sandy cannot be predicted in advance, any more than when, or whether, a smoker develops lung cancer, or sex without contraception yields an unwanted pregnancy, or a drunk driver has an accident.  But systemic causation is nonetheless causal.

If we do believe that, in the wake of this devastation we must redouble our efforts to prevent future tragedies such as this from occurring, then the most important thing we can do is to play politics. And the first step is to break climate silence. Even if our leaders are unwilling, it is time for us to speak up and face down the deniers.

Please watch and share the clip above to everyone you know. Then help those who are advocating in no uncertain terms for public policies that will curb carbon emissions and promote alternative energies worldwide.

“The Largest Art Project the World Has Ever Seen…”

Here’s a pretty awesome global statement arriving just ahead of UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico: the first global art show on climate change has just opened, launching several huge art projects seen from space designed to highlight the hazards of global warming.

The massive scale of the project is fairly breathtaking. Organized by activist Bill McKibben and his 350 Earth environmental advocacy group, thousands of volunteers ranging from New Mexico to China, Egypt, India and Spain, have gathered for a week long photo-performance project – using human bodies as the main media.

Click here for some amazing pix of the projects. The picture up top was taken of the effort in Santa Fe, in which over one thousand residents held blue posters in a dry riverbed to depict what it would (should) look like if there was actually water flowing through it.

In his email to 350 Earth supporters, McKibben wrote:

We’re not going to solve the climate crisis with art. We know that–we’re deeply based in science and politics. But we’re not going to solve the climate crisis without a movement. And art is one of the ways that movements express themselves, one of the things that reach human beings in powerful and deep ways. So by next week, when the UN climate conference in Cancun opens, we’ll be focused on a new set of ideas and tactics, asking your help for all sorts of practical and political things.

But today–today just know you’re part of the largest art project the world has ever seen.

JRC Returns to New Orleans

I’ve spent the last two days participating in JRC’s second congregational trip to New Orleans. We were last here in October 2007, when we spent of our time stripping the interiors of storm damaged houses in Gentilly. It’s been fascinating to observe the difference in the city since our last visit. While there are undeniable signs of improvement and rebirth, there are clearly some areas that continue to languish – and several aspects of the city’s comeback come with no small share of controversy. And of course, there is the BP spill: a fresh wave of anguish to this already tortured region.

We spent a good portion of our first day as the guests of St. John #5 Faith Church, who welcomed us with a heartfelt hospitality and a delicious home cooked meal. St. John’s is located in the 7th Ward, an area that was hit hard by Katrina but has received little of the publicity or attention that has been paid to neighborhoods such as the Lower 9th.

The 7th Ward is plagued by poverty, gangs and rising levels of HIV/AIDS – and in many ways St. John’s seems to be one of the few institutions actually fighting to bring stability and relief to the neighborhood. The church is led by Pastor Bruce Davenport (right), a joyful, deeply religious, profoundly beloved religious leader who is committed to helping the citizens of this community one member at a time.

As we shared dinner together, Pastor Bruce was unabashedly open about his own past of gang activity and drug abuse – as were the parishoners with whom we spoke. While the realities facing the members of this community are profoundly dire, we couldn’t help but be moved by their deep commitment to God, to one another, and to their home in the 7th Ward.

At the same time, however, it is clear that they harbor a justifiable resentment over the government’s abandonment of their community. It certainly appears that if not for churches like St. John’s, there would be little significant institutional support for the 7th Ward whatsoever.

Today we spent most of our day volunteering in the Lower 9th, where we’re seeing a significant change since our last visit. In 2007 this area looked washed clean away – a once densely populated neighborhood now reduced to concrete slab foundations and abandoned rotting homes.

Today, the Lower 9th is clearly on a rebound, thanks to efforts such as Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” Foundation, which is building new green homes for former residents. It’s a noble effort that hopes to have 150 new state of the art LEED certified Platinum homes built by the end of the year.

The homes are striking and eye-catching to be sure (see above) and there is apparently some controversy that they have not been built according to the architectural vernacular of the area. It’s also hard to imagine that this project can ever replace the enormity of what was lost in the Lower 9th. On the other hand, we’ve heard from more than one resident that every act of support and kindness is welcomed and appreciated, no matter what the complexities involved.

The fifteen participants of our delegation split into work teams and mine spent the better part of the afternoon today working in the garden of a Lower 9th resident named Veronica (top pic). She and her husband (who was paralyzed) were evacuated in advance of Katrina and ended up spending over a year in Shreveport, LA where their return to their home was repeated stymied by Kafka-esque red tape. (They were told by FEMA that they did not qualify for assistance because their home, which had been completely destroyed by flood water up to the roof, was not located in a “flood zone.”) After too many painful runarounds, they received some compensation and their home was rebuilt by their son.

Of course, the BP spill is on everyone’s mind now. The timing of this latest disaster is particularly cruel: just when the city seems to beginning to rebound (winning a Super Bowl, no less), here comes yet another catastrophic communal event. The region’s fishermen, who depend upon this time of year for their livelihood – and upon whom the area depends for a large portion of its economy – have been devastated by the spill. The palpable sense of betrayal and abandonment is all too familiar – and all too tragic.

More soon.

Jewish Ritual Reinvented

If you’re in New York or are planning to be, you need to get to the Jewish Museum and check out their latest exhibit, “Reinventing Ritual, survey of “the explosion of new Jewish rituals, art, and objects that has occurred since the mid-1990s.”

The exhibit celebrates the post-modern age as a time in which Jewish ritual can be radical as well as a return to its elemental basics:

This attitude of innovation is shared by a wide range of artists inclusive of generation, nationality, and religion. Contemporary artists and designers focus on Judaism as a lived experience by transforming the physical acts of ritual into new forms.

Outstanding works of industrial design, metalwork, ceramics, video, drawing, comics, sculpture, installation, and textiles from Europe, Israel, and North America reveal the diversity within Judaism. The exhibition will present works in thematic groups and environments that suggest the spaces and situations in which ritual is performed.

Here at JRC, we’re particularly honored that our new synagogue building is included in the exhibit. The Museum was interested in our LEED Platinum rated facility because “its principle of active conservation is at the heart of the exhibition.”

If you can’t make it to NYC, you can still see and read about many amazing pieces from the exhibit at the Museum website (like artist Michael Berkowitz’s combination wedding dress/amulet, above).

Evanston in the LEED!

evanstonI’m proud to announce that my hometown of Evanston has just passed an extraordinary environmental ordinance requiring new commercial buildings over 10,00 square feet to meet the LEED Silver standard. This makes our fair city one of a small handful of municipalities in the nation that have mandated LEED building standards for privately-funded commercial buildings.

Evanston has long made environmental concern a top civic priority.  In October 2006, the city unanimously voted to sign the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement. The city has also partnered with the Network for Evanston’s Future, a local coalition of citizens’ groups, to jointly develop a climate action plan through a citizen-based process.

Mazel Tov, Evanston – we’re proud our city is leading the way!

More JRC Kudos!

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I’m told this one is pretty huge: JRC’s new synagogue building was recently chosen as one of the top ten green projects of 2009 by the American Institute of Architects.  Here’s an excerpt from their announcement:

The new synagogue for the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, Illinois, replaces the group’s original building and is located adjacent to a residential area, public park, community center, and tracks of the Skokie Swift commuter train. The design balances the limitations of a small site with an ambitious program that promotes worship, education, and community objectives.

Offices, early childhood classrooms, and a chapel occupy the first floor; the religious school and library are on the second floor; and a sanctuary, social hall, and kitchen are on the third floor. This strategy allowed cost-effective construction of high-volume space for the sanctuary.

JRC’s commitment to the principle of tikkun olam—Hebrew for “repairing the world”—is manifest in the building’s architecture. On a modest budget, the synagogue achieved a LEED Platinum certification, a primary goal of its board of directors. JRC has become a community leader, demonstrating benefits of green design.

More Greening in the News

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Just in time for spring, some spiritual greening news for you:

The AP did up a nice piece about religious environmental efforts that featured JRC. It was picked up by a number of news outlets, inluding the Washington Post.

And check out this trailer for a documentary commissioned by Chicago magazine that spotlights six local green efforts, including – that’s right – our humble shul…

Green Mosque, Green Shul

Here’s a nice piece that ran on Chicago’s ABC affiliate last January: a feature on JRC’s green building as well as a local mosque that incorporated energy-saving features into their recent renovation. Especially nice that they highlighted two “Abrahamic environmental efforts.”  (One snarky correction: it’s Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, not Center).

JRC Dons the Green Beanie!

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I’m proud to announce that JRC has tied for First Place in the JTA’s Green Beanie awards! (An honorable concept, though a more dignified name might be in order…)

The JTA sponsored the competition to recognize groundbreaking environmental initiatives in the Jewish community.  Apparently, they received over 100 applications from Jewish organizations and institutions around the world.

Check out the piece and learn more about the other finalists who are doing important and sacred work. It’s so great to see how the Jewish community continues to deepen its commitment to a sustainable world.