“A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
Those words, on a poster of a boat that still hangs in Prof. Alon Tal’s office at Ben-Gurion University 34 years after his sister gave it to him for his 14th birthday, has inspired him ever since, he told The Jerusalem Post this week.
Tal’s new political party, the Green Movement, heads to primaries on Friday ahead of a run for the Knesset in February. Tal is running against party co-founder Eran Ben-Yemini for the top spot.
North Carolina-born Tal founded the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva, V’din) in 1990, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in 1996, and as head of Life and Environment he more than tripled the number of organizations belonging to that umbrella group. And on the side, he’s organized Israel’s biggest environmental conference ever, on desertification, set to run for four days starting on Sunday at BGU’s Sde Boker campus.
“The environmental crisis in Israel will not let me rest,” Tal declared.
“I refuse to accept that trend is destiny and I know that people created the environmental problems, and people can solve them,” he told the Post.
“No other political party had a cogent, professional and clear environmental-social agenda… We’ve built such an institution,” he said.
Tal is one of three Anglos running for seats on the party’s Knesset candidates list. The other two are Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information founder Dr. Gershon Baskin and Arava Power Company founder Yosef Abramowitz.
Not coincidentally, all three are alumni of the Young Judaea youth movement and credit it with turning them into people who go out and make change.
“Everything I learned in life I learned in Young Judaea,” Tal quipped.
Later, Baskin echoed the sentiment almost verbatim during an interview at his office.
Growing up in North Carolina, Tal was president of his local Young Judaea chapter by 14 and vice president of the national movement by 16.
“I was flying up to New York every other week for meetings,” he said. “If you tell kids to take themselves seriously, then they will.”
Baskin also held several positions in the movement, eventually becoming programming and activities director for his native Long Island.
Baskin reflected that Young Judaea “indoctrinated” them with the idea that moving to Israel was about making a change. All three have a long history of leadership and initiatives behind them, and, in a sense, moving onto the national scene was the logical next step.
The Green Movement was founded by environmental movement professionals just a few months ago because they didn’t see any other party advocating that which they ardently believed in. However, Tal said the Green Movement was more than just a one-issue party.
“Israel’s problems go beyond the environmental. It is disingenuous and dishonest to the public to give our standing on 15 percent of the issues,” he maintained. Therefore, the party’s platform details their stance on peace and security, culture, education and the other pressing issues of Israeli society.
Tal, who holds a law degree from the Hebrew University and a doctorate in environmental science and policy from Harvard, said the party hoped to emulate European countries where a green party was a regular part of the political spectrum.
“Every European country has a green party and now Israel will, too,” he said.
Recent polls have given a green party at least two mandates in the next Knesset though there has been speculation that the greens could be the next Gil Pensioners Party and gain as many as five or six seats.
However, as Baskin put it succinctly, “February is the target, but not the goal.”
The ultimate goal, he said, was to create a long-term party which became a fixture on the political scene.
Baskin, raised in Smithtown, Long Island, has been an advocate for coexistence for 35 years. In 1975, he called for a two-state solution and approached the then-PLO ambassador to the US to propose the idea. However, Baskin recalled, the ambassador wasn’t in the least bit interested, saying, “Over my dead body.”
On the Israeli side, Baskin was told again and again that “you don’t understand them [the Arabs].”
Taking that as a challenge, he decided to become as knowledgeable as he could.
He made aliya through the Interns for Peace program and spent his first two years in the country in Kafr Kara. At the age of 24, he petitioned then-prime minister Menachem Begin to appoint him in charge of Jewish-Arab relations. After 14 months of lobbying, he was appointed the first civil servant in Israeli history responsible for Jewish-Arab relations. From within the Education Ministry and in conjunction with the Prime Minister’s Office, he went on to found the Institute for Education for Jewish-Arab Coexistence. The institute taught and trained teachers in coexistence education from 1981 up until the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987.
“In March 1988, I drove to the Dehaishe refugee camp to talk to the people. What I heard was ‘Get out of our face – end the occupation,'” he recalled.
The conflict was no longer an existential zero-sum game, Baskin realized, and so he founded the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information to look for like-minded individuals to try to bring about the two-state solution he had dreamed of more than 10 years before.
Today, 20 years later, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information is a bastion of coexistence initiatives that participates in Track II diplomacy (informal diplomacy, in which non-officials engage in dialogue, with the aim of conflict resolution or confidence-building) between Israelis and Palestinians and also focuses on peace education and environment and water issues.
After writing policy papers and advising politicians for 30 years, Baskin said he had found a political home in the Green Movement and decided it was time to run for the Knesset.
The party’s biggest challenge, said Baskin, was to figure out how to differentiate itself from the other environmental party running for the Knesset, the Greens, as the public had difficulty distinguishing between the two. Both Tal and Baskin said the ideal solution would be a merger; there were good people in the Greens, it was just the leadership that was very problematic.
Baskin said the Green Movement hoped to reach the one million people who hadn’t voted in the last national election, as well as the people who voted for the Pensioners and the Green Leaf party.
“Our strength is our link to the grassroots, because we come from there,” he said.
While the new left-wing New Move group launched by Meretz recently offered the party a place, Tal said there were too many ideological differences between the parties for them to join forces. The party members voted recently to reject the offer.
One of those ideological differences was a commitment to renewable energy, an area where one man feels he can help bring about a sea change in Israeli policy.
Abramowitz has many Jewish-world credentials under his belt, including founding the Jewish Life and Family NGO, extensive work with the Ethiopian and Russian Jewish communities (for which he was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize) and a previous run with the Atid Ehad Ethiopian party for the Knesset. However his self-appointed single-minded focus and role in the party is to be its renewable-energy expert.
Abramowitz uprooted his family of five from Newton, Massachusetts, two years ago and moved with his wife Rabbi Susan Silverman (sister of comedienne Sarah Silverman) to Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava. Shortly after arriving and experiencing the amazing heat of the desert sun, he started to put together the Arava Power Company.
The company has plans to provide 500 MW of photovoltaic solar energy, with the potential for 1 GW and more. According to Abramowitz, given the right conditions, the Arava Power Company could support 40% of Israel’s energy needs.
“The other 40 candidates are very impressive and I really admire them. They have activist and academic credentials, but they don’t have a green business background and no specific expertise on renewable energy,” he said Wednesday by phone.
He already knows what he would do in the first 100 days after being elected an MK.
“I’d put together a comprehensive renewable energy act,” he said. Abramowitz said 30 years of leadership had prepared him for becoming an MK. He’s running for the fourth slot on the list.
“The environmental problems [in Israel] are symptomatic of a general non-accountability. I would push for serious accountability,” he added.
Although the party had originally hoped to have a year and a half to launch, Tal said, they’ve crunched their campaign into two and a half months.
“We’re picking up new members all the time. Thirty to 40 new members join every day,” he said.
He added that the party was actively courting Anglos, holding informational sessions in English speakers’ homes across the country every week. It had also translated its vision and platform into English, set up an English-language blog and an English Facebook group.