We are Jewish folks who joined more than a thousand others in getting ourselves arrested in front of the White House this past summer protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. Some of us are rabbis; many of us wore kippot that day; all of us did what we did because it felt, among other things, like a mitzvah.
Before the project was delayed last month, the pipeline would have carried crude oil from the Canadian tar sands across 1,700 miles and six states. The extraction of tar sands oil generates more heat-trapping climate pollution than other oil. Climate scientist James Hansen has said that fully exploiting the tar sands would essentially spell "game over" for our climate.
It would have been nice for us to know -- as our Catholic, Methodist, Quaker, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers knew -- that our larger religious community supported our stand. But on the Keystone XL Pipeline, the major Jewish organizations were mostly silent.
Only the American Jewish Committee spoke out -- in support of the pipeline as "a crucial step in strengthening U.S. energy security."
In other words: this pipeline would be good for the Jews. Even the world's dirtiest oil, if it came from Canada, would theoretically displace oil from the Middle East. So a tar sands pipeline seems good for Israel and the U.S. And what serves the immediate interests of Israel and America, must be good for the Jews.
We dispute the AJC's argument outright, because the pipeline's oil was destined for export anyway; because putting this expensive tar sands oil on the market would not reduce the flow of profits to Middle Eastern oil producers; because tar sands oil only deepens the United States' addiction to oil, the vast majority of which will continue to come from elsewhere; and because tapping Canadian oil with a particularly harsh carbon footprint that drives more extreme climate change will, in a generation or two, actually create greater insecurity for both the U.S. and for Israel.
But we have a bigger question: Is climate change the sort of issue where the best, first concern our people can raise is whether it's good for the Jews?
The heat-trapping greenhouse gases released by our burning of fossil fuels has already raised the global average temperature 1.4 degrees over the past 150 years, causing stronger storms, devastating droughts and outbreaks of disease all over the world. And the temperature is going up faster and faster. Scientists are clear that the concentrations of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere cannot stay long above 350 parts per million for life on Earth to proceed as we have known it; we're already up near 400, and rising.
Every single Jewish soul is a human being who lives on Earth, and who depends for sustenance on rains in the right season and the continued bounty of the land. The Torah itself and our Jewish calendar are rooted in Middle Eastern agricultural seasons which would be permanently disrupted by climate change. The modern State of Israel is located on Earth, where its people continue to depend on a stable and life-giving climate -- and where projections suggest longer droughts, and more regional insecurity, in the near future.
Jewish people, like all people, hope for our children and grandchildren to live on Earth, in a world that is not more characterized by flooding, hunger, or suffering than the one we inherited from our parents.
We are people who affirm that anyone who saves a single life saves a whole world, and already, the World Health Organization estimates that 300,000 people around the world are dying from effects of climate change every year, most of them in developing countries.
And what of the one-third of all species of plants and animals that may not adapt fast enough to a warming climate? What kind of Shabbat could our people celebrate in commemoration of God's creation of the world, if our weeks are spent witnessing the extinction of huge swaths of that Creation?
We are heartened that our protest, joining a chorus of many caring people, succeeded in scuttling the Keystone XL pipeline -- for now. But the struggle -- to stop this project, to halt tar sands development, and above all, to address the climate crisis -- continues.
In this critical moment, confronting irreparable damage to the only Earth any of us have ever known, it's high time for Jewish leaders to stop wondering which climate-polluting projects may be in some short-term Jewish interest.
Climate change hurts everyone human, today and in the future. Who are we, if we are not able to say, in one voice, that that couldn't possibly be good for the Jews?
From left to right, Laura Bellows, Joelle Novey, Sam Novey, and Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb joined diverse religious leaders in protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in front of the White House on August 29th.
Over 140 people, including America's top climate scientist and a large group of religious leaders, were arrested at the White House on August 29th urging President Obama to deny the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Jonah Adels, of Putnam Valley, New York, works as a Jewish environmental educator for the Teva Learning Alliance and Eden Village Camp, and is a founder of Jews Against Hydrofracking. He was arrested on September 3rd protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.
Joshua Kahn Russell, of the Bay Area in California, is arrested September 2nd in the Tar Sands Action in front of the White House.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb is arrested on August 29th protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. "We must turn up the heat in a sustained effort against the scourge of climate change," said Dobb, who serves Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland. "Climate change harms not just our land and water but people here and now, our human future, and all earthly Creation."
Laura Bellows, of Washington DC, is arrested by police at the Tar Sands Action in front of the White House on August 29th. "Jewish tradition tells us to pursue justice and gives us the laws of 'bal taschit' to not destroy or waste resources unnecessarily," said Bellows, who works as a Jewish environmental educator for the Teva Learning Alliance. "I am risking arrest because we have a moral obligation to act when the well-being of creation is threatened."
Shefa Siegel, bottom right, leads a Jewish prayer during an interfaith prayer service preceding the Tar Sands Action at the White House on August 29th.
Green team leaders at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, including Karen Menichelli and Lawrence MacDonald, participated together in the Tar Sands Action. "Pirkei Avot, the ethical teachings of the ancient sages, says a person whose wisdom 'is more abundant than his works' is compared to a tree 'whose branches are abundant but whose roots are few,'" wrote MacDonald on Tikkun.org. "Such a tree is easily toppled in the wind. Up until now, the movement for sane climate policy has resembled the tree with more branches than roots. We know a lot, and we write a lot, and we talk, talk, talk. For me, at least, the time has come for that to change."
Rabbi David Shneyer, of Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Community of Greater Washington, is arrested at the Tar Sands Action on August 29th.
Sam Novey and Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb join in a protest chant at the Tar Sands Action.
Joelle Novey, of Tikkun Leil Shabbat in Washington DC, is arrested by police at the Tar Sands Action in front of the White House. "In the 14th Century, Rabbi Isaac Ben Sheshet taught that 'it is forbidden to make a living at the expense of another's health,'" Novey said. "I am here because it is wrong for oil companies to continue making their living at the expense of the health of people and our planet."
Sam Novey, of Boston, is arrested August 29th in the Tar Sands Action. "It's a powerful experience, getting arrested," Novey told the Boston Globe. "There were religious leaders from all the traditions in their collars and yarmulkes, and it got me thinking the way that science and morality are connected. Twenty years ago, we could say we didn't know. Now the science is clear. Once we know, to not act is a moral choice."
Joelle Novey, along with Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Rabbi David Shneyer, Jonah Adels, Phil Aroneanu, Laura Bellows, Lisa Jo Finstrom, Robert Friedman, Elizabeth Gaines, Johanna Galat, Richard Graves, Glenn Hurowitz, Joshua Kahn Russell, Lawrence MacDonald, Jeff Mann,
Geri Maskell, Karen Menichelli, Sam Novey, Lore Rosenthal, Harriet Shugarman, Joe Solomon and Basia Yoffe were among 1,253 people arrested at the White House in August and September protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline.