The anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar on the Jewish calendar, observed this year May 9-10) has become a major holiday throughout the mainstream Jewish community in Israel and around the world. On Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), many synagogues recite Hallel, the collection of Psalms of thanksgiving (Psalms 113-118) that are central to the liturgy of the major festivals throughout the year.
I'll leave it to numerous other bloggers, columnists and reporters to provide geo-political analysis regarding the relationship between Israel, the Palestinians and its neighbors. As my Blog's focus is on Judaism and the environment, I'd like to take the opportunity to note Israel's contributions to environmental awareness and sustainability.
For many centuries, Jews primarily dwelled in urban areas as they were barred from owning land in their host countries. The immigration of Jews to the historic land of Israel in the late 19th century and early 20th century revived a lost spiritual connection between Jews and the land. In fact, in antiquity, Jews in Israel had an agrarian economy that thrived on the relationship between humans and nature. The late visionary ecologist and Biblical scholar Nogah Hareuveni created the Neot Kedumim biblical garden that brings to life the lush natural images that are evoked throughout the Bible and early rabbinic literature.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews arriving to Palestine with no agricultural background suddenly had to become farmers. Their survival depended on their working the land with their own hands and figuring out how to live in mutually benficial relationship with it. The mythology and ethos of the early Zionist pioneers was that they would drain the swamps in the north and make the desert bloom in the south. The sentiment was right, even as recent Israeli environmental advocates and scientists have worked toward restoring some swamps and desert to its original natural state for the benefit of the natural foliage, fauna and earth.
Trees have played an important role in the Jewish reclamation of the land, particularly under the leadership of the Jewish National Fund/Keren Kayemet. While Theodore Herzl and the early visionaries of the Jewish state may not have known all of the science of trees -- how they fill the atmosphere with oxygen, nourish the soil, prevent soil erosion -- they knew intuitively that the soul of the people was nourished by planting trees. They weren't perfect in their calculations. The Carmel fires last December raised questions about whether pine and eucalyptus trees are best for Israel's dry climate, and efforts are afoot to adjust tree planting to Israel's ecology (See: "After fire, what types of trees are best suited for Israel?"). What has not changed is the recognition that the soul of the people of Israel is dependent on a thriving symbiosis with nature, and trees are vital to this relationship.
Israel at 63 is a thriving, growing economy that is noted for its innovative ethos, as illustrated by Dan Senor and Saul Singer in Start-Up Nation. One of the most exciting business developments from the perspective of environmental sustainability is Shai Agassi's company Better Place. Responding to rising oil prices, dependence on oil produced largely by hostile, undemocratic nations and the environmental crisis created by fossil fuel dependency, Agassi's firm has begun to create an infrustructure to support electric vehicles throughout Israel. The technology of electric cars has been around for awhile, but Agassi is implementing a vision of economic viability for the electric vehicle. Better Place is building service stations around Israel where electric vehicles would get a "fill-up" of electric charge or trade out their spent batteries for a used one. In addition, the service stations will be powered by a revitalized smart grid that will draw largely upon renewable energy. As this system starts to come online in Israel, other countries are taking notice. Better Place has undertaken similar projects in Denmark, China, Japan and the American states of Hawaii, California and Oregon.
Every year at this time, Israelis and Jews around the world reflect on whether this will be the year in which, at last, Israel and its neighbors will find a lasting peace that will be mutually beneficial for both Jews and Arabs who live between the Jordan River and the Meditteranean Sea. While Israeli and Palestinian politicians wrestle with the details, the wills of their constituencies and with each other, some Jewish and Arab citizens have found ways to discuss regional cooperation on a grass-roots level. Not surprisingly, the areas of common interest revolve around their shared ecology. The Arava Institute brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to discuss and implement vital innovations in management of water resources, sustainable agriculture, sustainable development, energy conservation and ecological research. The future success of endeavors such as this will bring great benefit to the region and the world.
Jewish liturgy has incorporated the words of Isaiah (2:3): "From out of Zion shall come forth Torah." As the modern State of Israel marks its anniversary, my hope is that from out of Zion will come forth inspiration, innovation and regional collaboration that will pave the way toward environmental sustainability and peace.
Follow Rabbi Edward Bernstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rabbiecb