The climate emergency makes Zionism redundant as a future response to antisemitism; it’s already responsible for gross inequality in resilience against climate change; and, in the context of the global crisis we face, Zionism is one of many obsolete ideologies which needs to be ditched if we’re to build a sustainable future for all of us.
In contrast, Judaism itself, shorn of its Zionist overlay, has plenty to offer as we look for radically different ways to relate to each other and the planet.
It’s getting hotter
Climate change didn’t feature much in last week’s election in Israel. Perhaps that’s not surprising. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Centre, Israelis seem notably less concerned about climate than other nations.
But climate change ought to have been front and center of every party’s campaign.
On Wednesday 17 July this year, Israel recorded a temperature of 49.9 degrees celsius [122 F] on the southern shores of the Dead Sea. The heat in Tel Aviv was 40 degrees and 38 in Jerusalem [104 and 100 F]. The same day, as a consequence of the heatwave, bush fires broke out across the country (and around some West Bank Settlements) spreading at nine miles an hour in places.
In May more than 1,000 fires ravaged Israel over a three-day heatwave with thousands of people forced to leave their homes.
This year’s heatwaves have followed similar extreme weather events in recent years, but as each year passes the fires become fiercer.
The evidence suggests that the heatwaves and fires are no longer exceptional. The Middle East is expected to be hit hard by climate change with longer droughts, hotter heat waves, severe water shortages and grasslands turning permanently to desert.
In the second half of the century, if business as usual continues, Israeli researchers are predicting average temperature rise of up to 2.5 degrees celsius [3.5 F], and a drop in precipitation of up to 40 percent in non-arid parts of the country.
Any temperature rises above 1.5 degrees globally is expected to have catastrophic consequences. And even if the United Nation’s targets are achieved, we are still looking at significant change to our world.
No country is doing enough to mitigate the climate emergency. As things stand, governments around the world are failing to recognize the depth and breadth of the changes that will be required to avoid the calamity we’ve been warned about for decades. There’s plenty of global bad thinking that’s stopping our ability to address the emergency and plenty of distractions getting in the way of determined action. In the UK it’s called Brexit.
For Israel though, there is a particular context which makes things additionally difficult: Zionism.
The irrelevance of Zionism
If we look at Zionism from the point of view of its intended beneficiaries – Jews around the world under threat from antisemitism – it’s clearly no longer fit for purpose in the time we must now call the Anthropocene.
How can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round? In a region already fraught with conflict, climate analysts expect temperature rise to have a multiplier effect that exacerbates and accelerates wars and mass migrations. Promoting Zionism starts to look like an invitation to Jews to jump from the metaphorical frying pan into the literal fire.
When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land. Climate change is staunchly apolitical, ahistorical and agnostic.
Of course, climate change won’t make antisemitism go away. But like much else that’s wrong and unfair about the world, the climate emergency compels us to looks at things differently, consider the root causes, and understand the interconnectedness of injustice. As well as terrible threats, climate change forces upon us the possibility of a profound ethical revolution.
In the meantime, human-created injustice goes on, which brings us to the victims of Zionism – the Palestinian people.
The most vulnerable
Climate change hits the most vulnerable in every part of the world. That’s certainly the case in Israel/Palestine where inequality is constitutionally, institutionally and culturally built-in.
The 52-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has created a climate change apartheid overseen by Israeli governments from left to right. However, the origins of today’s unequal access to natural resources and the political and economic infrastructure to respond and adapt to the coming crisis, must be tracked back much further in the story of Zionism. And that long history of settler colonialism includes the introduction of European pine trees planted across the country by the Jewish National Fund which turned out to be ethnic cleansing disguised as environmentalism. The pines have turned out to be a poor choice when it comes to managing forest fires.
Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, has detailed how the on-going occupation has profoundly weakened the Palestinians’ ability, in both Gaza and the West Bank, to adapt or implement resilience strategies for what’s soon to come. For anyone who’s traveled through the West Bank, the contrast between the lush, well-irrigated fields of the Settlements and the dwindling and thirsty Palestinian farmland nearby is both glaring and outrageous.
But there could be far worse discrimination to come if the climate emergency encourages not an ethical revolution but a retreat into extreme nationalist and nativist thinking. And there’s plenty of that already within Zionism.
Zionism, with its belief in the necessity of valuing the needs of one group of people over another in the name of ethnoreligious exceptionalism, has the potential to become part of the eco-fascism that many are already observing in different parts of the world. Naomi Klein in her new book “On Fire – The burning case for a new green deal” describes the phenomenon:
Let there be no mistake: This is the dawn of climate barbarism. And unless there is a radical change not only in politics but in the underlying values that govern our politics, this is how the wealthy world is going to “adapt” to more climate disruption: by fully unleashing the toxic ideologies that rank the relative value of human lives in order to justify the monstrous discarding of huge swaths of humanity.
Judaism (not Zionism) can help save the planet
A people and planet focused approach to the climate emergency ought to make Zionism a candidate for the landfill rather than recycling. Judaism on the other hand has a great deal to offer in terms of wisdom for understanding how to create a new global agenda.
Last Friday (20 September) as millions protested around the world as part of the Global Climate Strike, I joined a modest but passionate gathering on the high street of my home village in North Yorkshire and later an ecumenical prayer vigil. At the vigil I suggested we read aloud the Book of Lamentations.
Lamentations is a collection of five biblical poems, bleak laments for Jerusalem, a city laid waste and abandoned by God because of its own wrongdoing. It describes destruction, murder, famine and even cannibalism, as society and morality crumbles. The poet (thought to be the prophet Jeremiah) describes a time when it’s better to be dead than alive. It’s a part of the Hebrew Bible where God’s voice is silent.
Traditionally, Lamentations is read at the Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av, an annual day of Jewish mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples and also much else that has befallen us as a people.
When thinking about the destruction that climate has already brought to many people and what is likely on the way for many more of us, the text starts to speak with a contemporary voice.
Lamentations chapter 5:14-18:
“The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped their music. Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning. The crown has fallen from our head. Woe to us, for we have sinned! Because of this our hearts are faint, because of these things our eyes grow dim for Mount Zion, which lies desolate, with jackals prowling over it.”
The Hebrew prophet Zechariah believed the cause of the destruction was God’s anger at the lack of justice in that society. He offers this advice for how to prevent a repeat performance, from Zechariah chapter 7: 5-6:
“Execute true justice and behave to one another with loyalty and compassion. Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor, and do not plot evil against one another.”
A Judaism, shorn of the ethical corruption that Zionism has led it to, has plenty to offer us in a campaign to radically re-orient our value system.
I used to read Jewish scripture and liturgy as largely poetic and allegorical. Now it looks like a literal reading makes far more sense.
Here’s a passage from the Shema, the most familiar of Jewish prayers. Isn’t this a very clear instruction that needs no accommodation to our contemporary situation? Deuteronomy chapter 11: 13-17:
“And it shall come to pass if you surely listen to the commandments that I command you today to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul, That I will give rain to your land, the early and the late rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle and you will eat and you will be satisfied. Beware, lest your heart be deceived and you turn and serve other gods and worship them. And anger of the Lord will blaze against you, and he will close the heavens and there will not be rain, and the earth will not give you its fullness, and you will perish quickly from the good land that the Lord gives you.”
Whether you have a belief in this God or not, the gods we currently worship have undoubtedly wrecked the planet, possibly beyond the point of redemption, and the “blaze” is already upon us. Or as Greta Thunberg puts it: “Our house is on fire.”
Climate change makes Zionism (along with much other narrow and divisive thinking) not only obsolete but counterproductive to the task before us.
To deal with the climate emergency requires a global level of co-operation we have yet to see in human history. It requires us to act in the interests of people we don’t know, who live in places we have never been to. It requires us to measure individual, corporate and national achievements in an entirely new way that places sustainability and wellbeing at the center of all our endeavors. It also requires humanity to become a great deal more humble that it is today. With my Jewish sensibility, this sounds remarkably like the just society presented to us in the scroll of the Torah.
This article originally appeared on Robert Cohen’s blog on September 21, 2019.