Where do the human rights of Gazans fit into the fight for a ‘sustainable’ future?

The following is a response to the profile of Jesse Fox that we posted yesterday. We will be posting interviews all week with Jewish Israelis discussing their connection to the idea of Zionism in the hope of sparking a conversation over the what Zionism means today.


My wife and I were active in the Israeli environmental movement for many years. I know FoEMe, and they’re a good group. I’m not familiar with Ir Lekulanu (we were Jerusalemites, and have been out of the country for a while), but it sounds like they are also doing good work. The fight against developers, gentrification and the process of suburbanisation that has destroyed the Israeli landscape – with grave environmental and social ramifications – is a good fight. Apart from the usual arguments against environmental activism (progress, jobs, etc.), Israeli environmentalists have always had to contend with the popular notion that environmental battles are a "luxury" for spoiled "Tzfonim" ("Northerners" – referring to the liberal, moneyed-elite of North Tel-Aviv), at a time when the country is "besieged by brutal enemies and struggling for its very survival". We fought that particular argument tooth and nail, arguing that all of the "national" and "security" battles are pointless, if the land itself is rendered uninhabitable. Many in the movement argued that the "red-green" combination – particularly in terms of the conflict with the Palestinians – was divisive, and environmentalism should be "apolitical". You seem to understand that environmentalism is not just about this or that wildflower or nature reserve, and that it is an issue that can’t wait any longer.

Reading your interview/profile however – assuming it is a faithful reflection of your beliefs and your activism – I do feel the need to point out "more important issues", not because the environment is not important, or a "luxury" for "spoiled western olim" (I’ve heard that too), but because you are living only a few kilometres from Gaza, the scene of ongoing crimes against humanity (including grave environmental crimes), perpetrated by the very society in which you live and which you are striving to improve. You refer to "sustainability in a Zionist context". Sustainable for whom? Your vision of a Middle East of co-existence and respect for the environment is admirable, but people in Gaza are dying now. You may also be a peace and human rights activist. Many Israeli environmentalists are. But don’t you think the fundamental human rights of the people of Gaza (I repeat, only a few kilometres from Tel-Aviv) also deserve a place in your credo?


Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel is a 43-year-old Canadian-born, Israeli-raised translator, living in Rome, Italy.

About Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel

Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel is a Canadian-Israeli translator living in Italy.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 24 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Citizen says:

    Thank you so much Shmuel; you have raised the question many of us on this blog would
    like to know the answer to–like you, we appreciate what Jesse is trying to do, using the environmental issues and issues of sharing natural resources to make the local a better place for living, but what about the plight of the Palestinians beyond drinking watery slop so Israeli Jews can swim in their clear home swimming pools?

  2. potsherd says:

    well-put, Shmuel

  3. Aref says:

    Thank you Shmuel. One of the main problems I always had trouble understanding is the tendency of some (many?) to dissociate different spheres of society and think of them disjointly. While it is true that one cannot fight battles at all fronts simultaneously but we must have the analysis to integrate all those spheres into the unit that they really are.
    Very eloquent and candid response. Again, thank you.

    • “fighting battles”?

      The work of environmentalists aren’t usually in fighting battles. Much more of it is in design process and considering needs and benign ways to meet needs.

    • zamaaz says:

      The arguments of Shmuel Sermoneta is very valid, and the more I can see the need for two state partition, so that each nation can plan and design for the welfare of their respective ecological resources without a tendency of going the path to social conflict. Otherwise, the Jews would say let’s do this, and the Palestinians would response no!, we do not agree on that because that does not conform our views, or ways! Then opposing sentiments will rise again…

      • Chaos4700 says:

        Israel has a problem. Israel cannot survive in its current form without appropriating (i.e. stealing) water from outside the Green Line borders. Seriously. The average Israeli uses four to five times as much water as the average Palestinian. Over half of the water Israel consumes (and I don’t have the figures handy, but I think it may actually be upwards of 70-80%) comes from outside the Green Line borders.

    • MRW says:

      Aref, in one sentence you captured the way I think, so I couldn’t agree with you more when you write:

      One of the main problems I always had trouble understanding is the tendency of some (many?) to dissociate different spheres of society and think of them disjointly.

      Some call them systems; I visually associate them on a 2D scale as the rings that are created when you drop a stone into water when, in fact and of course, they (and the situation) are 3D and interactive. Interactive and living and breathing, pulsating and constantly interacting with each other. The solution to problems — even world problems — within those disparate “rings” is always from without, something new that either displaces or rearranges the thinking, or activity, within. Something that intervenes in those closed systems, and renews them. And creates real change.

      Which is why we never seem to solve problems like, say, world poverty or regional war, because we think one action or series of actions is going to do it and fail to understand not only the result of that action within those spheres, but more importantly, the consequence of that result or results. Because it is the consequence, or consequences, over time that determines the future. The accumulation of the consequences, of the results, of our actions, over time determines our future.

      For that dissociation of which you write not to occur, we have to start with the fact that time is not linear when assessing the problem initially. But I am veering off into a much larger discussion here, so I’ll stop.

      [Apropos the current comment by RW, it is why I find his constant pube-hair twirling so bereft of purpose or sincerity, other than a need for attention or using a worn-out toolkit of psychological jargon that in and of itself is meaningless without directed thought.]

  4. LeaNder says:

    “fighting battles”?

    Only the posse fights battles. Right? Dangerous as militia or vigilantes or criminal gangs. Maybe we should substitute the latter with terrorists?

    But more to the point. Thanks Shmuel. Interesting, I always like it when one of the “posse” surfaces above.

  5. MRW says:

    A very thoughtful hand on Jesse’s earnest shoulder, Shmuel.

  6. I’m actually not sure what you mean. I don’t know you well enough to know if you are committed to construct, or committed to confront only.

    There are holistic environmental approaches that conclude all is ecological, and proceeding as needed. That precludes that the whole earth is alive and self-heals naturally.

    And, there are holistic environmental approaches that conclude everything in modern society is fucked to the root, that humans fucked it up, that that is the end all of the discussion, and that focusing on the healing part of the exercise determinedly is a distraction.

    So, the example in the article of politics superceding Jesse’s environmental interests, that he should in some sense feel shame for not focusing on Gaza, is on point.

    A holistic approach values simultaneous various efforts, not a single litmus test.

    There is not a single valid perspective on Israel/Palestine, there are many, as there are many experiences that vary radically.

    • Citizen says:

      I don’t think so Dick Witty. Anyone concerned about aiding the natural physical environment and usurpation of natural resources by any elite power group should also be thinking about the other ways harmful to man and planet. I’d call that the holistic approach. One who is a “tree hugger” and cares not about the people of Gaza, for example,
      is only seeing trees, not the forest.

    • Chaos4700 says:

      I’m actually not sure what you mean.

      You really can end your post right there. That explains everything about you.

    • Mooser says:

      “There is not a single valid perspective on Israel/Palestine, there are many, as there are many experiences that vary radically.”

      So post modern, ain’t he. And of course, each time you vary your perspective, a whole buncha dead people get up and walk, huh?

  7. VR says:

    Perhaps Larry Derfner’s way (Jerusalem Post) of approaching this subject is germane to the point of the post:

    “Rattling the Cage: A taboo question for Israelis
    There’s a question we Israelis won’t ask ourselves about the Palestinians, especially not about Gaza. The question is taboo. Not only won’t anyone ask it out loud, but very, very few people will dare ask it in the privacy of their own minds….
    ….The question we have to ask ourselves is this: If anybody treated us like we’re treating the people in Gaza, what would we do?

    We don’t want to go there, do we? And because we don’t, we make it our business not to see, hear or think about how, indeed, we are treating the people in Gaza.

    All these shocked dignitaries, all these reports, these details, these numbers – thousands of destroyed this and tens of thousands of destroyed that. Rubble, sewage, malnutrition, crying babies, humanitarian crises – who can keep up? Who cares? They did it to themselves. Where to for lunch?”


    Perhaps the closest thing I can think of to it is the siege of the black community in the United States. Standing armies almost in the streets, and the prison industrial complex filling with people of color, private for profit prisons popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain for a new slave population.

    There is a man in the middle of this, they call him Paris, and take my word for it he is tough and pretty graphic. However, maybe we should ask ourselves “what would we do?” Keeping in mind that the compared to Gaza these hell hole ghettos pale in comparison. What would you do?


    Something to think about Israelis.

    • VR says:

      Oh, and just in case someone thinks I am saying I agree 100% with all that Derfner said, as if Gaza is some separate country from Israel with no connection, and that the Palestinian leadership there is sworn to Israel’s total destruction – I do not agree. However, there were enough congent points to post that link, as food for thought.

    • sammy says:

      I read that post this morning. As you said, something to think about. A gander at the comments section is not very encouraging. The inability to see the people of Palestine as human beings with fears and hopes and the right to react to being dispossessed and massacred, is evident in all its glory. The only sensible comments are from outsiders.

  8. Jesse Fox says:

    Dear Shmuel, Sammy, Witty and all the other commenters,

    Thank you all for your “advice” and “feedback.” Unfortunately, it seems that many of you chose to react more to what I did not say than to what I actually did say, as quoted by Mya. Reading your comments here, and the 200+ comments to the original post, I’m afraid some of your righteous indignation might be just a bit misplaced.

    I understand that, in this age of blogs and talk backs, this culture of shooting from the hip on websites like this one exists, and I also understand that it is much easier to anonymously criticize others than to actually get involved in the non-virtual world as an activist.

    I was interviewed about my views regarding environmentalism, urban planning and activism. As someone who lives and is active in Tel Aviv – Jaffa, my focus is naturally on what happens in that city, and believe me, there are enough controversial issues just in that city to keep the entire activist community busy year round.

    For example, the fight against the government’s decision earlier this year to expel African refugees (many of them fleeing the genocide in Darfur) from the center of Israel. If any of you had bothered to look for it, you could have found these pieces that I wrote right here on this site about my participation in that fight for human rights, which was eventually won:
    link to mondoweiss.net
    link to mondoweiss.net

    However, this was not the subject of the interview. As for making me “in some sense feel shame for not focusing on Gaza” as Witty put it, or my being a “tree hugger” who “cares not about the people of Gaza” as Citizen said, let me first state that I don’t feel the need to defend my record to any sort of self-righteous armchair critics. But, again, if any of you had bothered to look for it, you would have found very clear statements of my views on these issues and accounts of my activism around the topic, among other places, on my blog: http://www.sustainablecityblog.com.

    To Shmuel, who asks if I “think the fundamental human rights of the people of Gaza also deserve a place” in my “credo,” here is a piece I wrote exactly a year ago in reaction to the war in Gaza last year: link to sustainablecityblog.com. I was in Israel, protesting, writing, trying to carry on rational discussions with people while the whole country was gripped with self-righteousness and fear. Where were you Shmuel?

    I understand that, when viewed from abroad, the situation in Israel-Palestine can often look two dimensional and simplistic. But take it from me – the fight for social justice and human rights in such a complex environment must necessarily take place on a variety of fronts. As people who profess to be “on the right side” of that fight, I would suggest that you all take a more nuanced and sensitive approach, rather than boiling everything down to a simple “where does this guy stand on what’s happening in Gaza and why doesn’t he say anything about it?”


    • Shmuel says:


      First of all, thanks for answering. I was really hoping to have more of a two-way discussion. I understand your being ticked off at some of the comments on your very short interview. I and others here have remarked on the shortcomings of the format chosen by Ms. Guarnieri. Maybe I should have gone and googled you to see what else you’ve been up to, but I was relating to a snapshot, not judging a person as a whole. As a matter of fact, in my comment, I take note of the fact that it might not be an accurate representation of your beliefs and your activities.

      The interview and the series as a whole are framed as “Jewish Israelis discussing their connection to the idea of Zionism”. I pointed out something I feel to be far more immediate and important than the things you discussed – an elephant in the room, as it were, when discussing “the idea of Zionism” in Tel-Aviv today. Apparently the project was presented to you in a somewhat different context. As I said, I did recognise that possibility, and qualified my remarks accordingly.

      As to where I was during the massacre in Gaza, I was in Rome, writing, protesting and talking to people in Israel, Europe and the US – in short, probably doing very much the same things you were doing. You also make assumptions about “getting involved in the non-virtual world as an activist”. I think I too have a few credentials in that department.

      If you are interested in elaborating on your views about Israel and Zionism, beyond the incomplete picture provided in the interview, I for one, would be interested in hearing what you have to say.

      • Mooser says:

        So basically, Jesse is as he is portrayed in the article, someone who believes Jews have the racial or ethnic or religious (or whatever) right to kick Palestinians out of their houses and replace them with Jews.
        He’s a Zionist who will back-pedal, a bit. Seen plenty of those.

  9. Mooser says:

    Now I’ve seen everything! “Holistic” used as defense for theft and murder! If only the Palestinians would take a “holistic” perspective, as Witty advocates, and they would know all the death, all the destruction, is all a matter of “viewpoint”

    And then they will want to “construct” instead of “confront”.