Activist says Israeli and U.S. environment imperiled

A leading Israeli activist warns that American Jews should defend U.S. environmental laws — and protect Israel's ecological future.

Alon Tal, director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, told a conference on Judaism and ecology in Berkeley Saturday that attempts to roll back U.S. environmental policies could have disastrous effects nationally and around the world.

He also warned about the effects of unfettered industrial growth in Israel.

"I'm here today to appeal to you for greater environmental activism," Tal told some 100 people, mostly college students, who attended the day-long Ecoruach (Ecology Spirit) III conference sponsored by U.C. Berkeley Hillel.

Tal and others are concerned about proposals in Congress to curb two decades of federal water, air and wildlife regulations — laws that some feel are a regulatory burden to business.

The proposed changes, some of which have bipartisan support in Congress, could influence public policy in other nations, including Israel, which look to the United States for international leadership on ecological issues, Tal said.

His organization and others have pointed to the United States as a model in urging Israel's Knesset to adopt more stringent environmental laws.

With a booming economy and population, Israel is confronting all the problems associated with rapid growth, from nightmarish traffic to declining open space. Air pollution in Jerusalem, Tal said, will be "comparable to Mexico City" by 2010.

"We are systematically paving over the land of milk and honey," he said.

Israel, he said, also lags behind the United States and some Western European nations in recycling, resource conservation, and pesticide control laws.

In addition, U.S. officials have significant influence over their Israeli counterparts because of financial ties that bind the two nations, he said.

Tal urged his audience to write letters in support of environmental policy to U.S. and Israeli officials, to learn more about ecological issues and to join public policy groups like the Sierra Club.

The Israel Union for Environmental Defense claims to be the nation's only public interest science and law advocacy group. Its parallels in the United States would be the Sierra Club or Natural Resources Defense Council.

Tal, who is 35 and has a doctorate in environmental policy from Harvard, was in the United States for five days to recruit students for an environmental studies course in Israel.

Many of those attending the day of workshops and lectures were already involved in environmental studies or related activities, said Matt Biers-Ariel, one of the conference organizers.

A smaller contingent at the conference were interested in Judaism but unaware of what Biers-Ariel described as the spiritual and philosophical connections to the ecology movement.

"Jews have traditionally been very tuned into the environmental movement very much the way Jews were involved with the civil rights movement," he said.

The conference, modeled after similar gatherings in Santa Cruz and Oregon over the past three years, mixed political and spiritual themes and included workshops and lectures exploring the links between Jewish texts and the natural world.