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Israel’s Tent-City Movement Promotes Social Justice, but is it Green?

By Sarah Friedman

TEL AVIV (Sept. 13, 2012) — It began with exorbitantly expensive cottage cheese and unaffordable rent. As more people joined together, united by disaffection with their economic status and lack of opportunities, the grievances of the Israeli masses gradually coalesced into the agenda of the social-justice movement that reached international prominence with its camps of tent cities across Israel during the summer of 2011. Deliberately or not, the most explosive of issues were avoided, underscoring the universality of economic struggle and the ability to ignore about seemingly all-encompassing issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But how much was the environment part of the agenda?


Tent-city participants certainly learned lessons in green living, according to Dr. Emily Silverman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. People living in the camps learned to consume less, recycle materials and cook group meals, thus internalizing lessons promoted by environmental groups. But the organic process by which the movement’s agenda was created generated a minimal role for green political issues.


“There was no central decision on this or any other agenda because that’s not how the protest movement worked,” said Michael Alexander, who coordinated fundraisers at the major demonstrations of summer 2011 and until February was the Israeli coordinator of Friends of the Earth-Middle East’s Transborder Advocacy to Parliamentarians project. “Green issues just aren't as foremost in Israeli minds as they are in the U.S. or Europe.”


Environmentalism and the expert teams


Determined to turn the summer’s protest into policy, the social-justice movement entrusted a committee of experts with formulating a new socioeconomic policy plan for Israel. The committee, led by Profs. Avia Spivak and Yossi Yonah, presented itself as an alternative to but not an opposition to the Trachtenberg Committee, the official government team tasked with a similar agenda.


The Spivak-Yonah committee subdivided into issue-specific teams, and perhaps following the minimal public concern with green issues among protesters, no team was appointed to address issues of environmental justice.


A small group of Israeli environmental professionals  and Tel Aviv University Prof. Dan Rabinowitz, who serves as vice chair of Greenpeace U.K. and chair of the Association of Environmental Justice in Israel, compiled a paper on the environmental aspects of issues of socioeconomic inequality in Israel. Rabinowitz said he emailed Spivak and Yonah the paper “plus a suggestion that we might become part of the thinking process,” but never received a response.


“We made the case that any attempt to address the current socioeconomic situation in Israel is incomplete without looking at how natural resources are being used,” said Rabinowitz.


But more requests to form issue-specific teams were made than could be accommodated, according to Yonah.


“We were working at a revolutionary moment, with all the pros and cons,” said Yonah. “Thus the decision to form the teams that actually went into work did not indicate the best of priorities. Should an ecological team [been] thought of at the launching moment of our work, it would have certainly been included in the final report.”


Green issues did find a home in the land-development team led by Dr. Emily Silverman, head of the workshop for social sustainability at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Three major issues comprising the environmental-social justice overlap discussed by Silverman’s team were included in the Yonah-Spivak Committee’s recommendations published last month.


First, the team advocated for shifting the national transportation focus from intercity mobility to intracity accessibility, which entails making cities friendlier to bikers and walkers and adjusting public bus schedules and upgrading bus amenities so that low-income people can move freely and comfortably within cities.


“That agenda — walkability, biking, improving services of public transport — was a perfect overlap,” said Silverman.


Second, the team discussed the need to halt ongoing privatization of Israel’s natural resources, including water, land and gas, and recommended nationalizing these resources instead.


Third, given several factors, including that about 40 percent of Israeli households do not own cars, the team recommended developing existing residential areas instead of building out farther into suburbia. This recommendation aligns, too, with “one of the strongest environmental agendas here: protecting open space,” said Silverman. The findings and recommendation were presented “through a social-justice lens of noting the cost savings, particularly to middle-income and low-income people,” she said.


However, social-justice and environmentalist interests clashed when it came to housing for Arabs.


“The primary focus of improving the housing situation within the Arab towns really is on allocation of state lands for housing purposes, which for some of the open-space-protection environmentalists is a conflict,” said Silverman.


But in all the issues that Silverman’s team examined, the overlap of issues of environmental and socioeconomic justice was more seamless than not, even if it was less defined and publicized than many environmentalists would have liked.


Moving forward

Yonah said that he is open to the prospect of further linking between green policies and the committee’s socioeconomic recommendations but he is not optimistic about that happening. A significant obstacle to an integrative effort is the team may not be willing to meet again.


“The challenge now is not bringing them to deal with ecological issues,” Yonah said. “The challenge is to bring them to do something.”


But there is some movement. For example, a representative for the Israel Sea Forum, which combats overdevelopment of Israel’s beaches, spoke at a protest event several weeks ago. Environmental issues continue to be raised on occasion in the movement. And outside of the official movement, environmental activists continue their work. The Green Movement, headed by GZA co-founder Dr. Alon Tal, is advocating development of a green New Deal through a partnership of academic institutions. And tent-cities leader Daphni Leef is teaming with American photographer Spencer Tunick for a photo shoot at the Dead Sea tomorrow, Sept. 14 — a year after his nude photo shoot there — to raise awareness about the sea’s rapidly declining water levels.

Still, Israel’s social-justice movement may not have the backing or motivation to influence a comprehensive socioeconomic policy plan incorporating ecological concerns.





Sarah Friedman is a former reporting intern for Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.




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