I was fortunate enough to get invited by the Jewish Federation to visit Los Angeles’ sister city, Tel Aviv, to discuss environmental issues with leaders here. I joined city and county officials and Federation activists to share stories about water quality, sustainability and river restoration. We’ve met with people in the NGO community, the mayor of Tel Aviv and his staff, representatives from the Ministry of the Environment, academics and even a couple of members of the Knesset.
After four days in Israel, my overall assessment is that this is a nation of contrasts. On the one hand, every building seems to have a solar water heater, every bathroom has dual flush toilets and the nation recycles an astounding 70% of its wastewater. On the other, the nation gets about two thirds of its energy from coal, completely abuses rivers through sewage discharges and flow extractions for agriculture, and dumps massive amounts of sewage sludge into the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel is struggling with its environmental identity. As a highly educated, high-tech nation, the country is poised to be a major force in the global solar market. But despite all the innovation, Israelis have yet to build major solar facilities to wean themselves from coal. In fact, their energy use continues to rise due to increasing reliance on desalination for water supply, a love affair with air conditioners, and massive pump infrastructure to deliver potable and recycled water throughout the New Jersey-sized nation of 7 million. (However it is worth noting that Israelis are still much more efficient per capita than Americans.)
Security and water supply remain the dominant issues for Israel. Environmental concerns have only emerged in the last 15 years or so. The NGO movement is growing, but still has a long way to go. But keep your eye on the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, well on its way to becoming the NRDC of this nation.
The regulatory and legal framework still has some glaring loopholes, especially on clean water and enforcement responsibility. Also, Israel’s complex regulatory system involving numerous ministries makes progress exceedingly slow and difficult. However, eco-minded Israelis all agree that there is reason for optimism because of greater public awareness, growing elected sustainability leadership, and a few recent environmental wins, such as getting rid of fish pens for aquaculture off the coral reefs of Eilat.
The trip has been eye-opening in other, more personal, ways. I took my son Jake along as a reward for his just completed Bar Mitzvah. To see him blessed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall by Valley Beth Shalom’s Noah Farkas was a moving, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I only regret that my entire family couldn’t join us for the powerful, emotional moment.
Next up: Taking a look at a two-month sewage spill.