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Award-winning Immigrant a Force in Environmental Activism

January 17, 2006
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High in an overcast sky, beneath a bank of clouds, Alon Tal is waving his hands and delivering a rapid-fire account of Israel’s environmental history. Tal is delivering this lecture in a conference room at the top of a former airport control tower — a fitting setting for a leading proponent of recycling in Israel. Captivated, his students, most of them government employees dealing with the environment, have their eyes fixed on him and a series of charts and lists documenting the battles to save Israel’s forests, beaches, air and water.

Tal, 45, a powerhouse in environmental activism, is an American immigrant to Israel who was born Albert Rosenthal in North Carolina. He came to Israel determined to make a difference. On Jan.10, he was awarded the Charles Bronfman Prize, a prize given to outstanding young Jewish humanitarians. Selected from dozens of nominees, the $100,000 award went to Tal as an example, the prize founders said, of “an outstanding environmental visionary who set out to change the world and has actually done so.”

Fighting for the environment in a country focused on development and security has not been easy. In receiving the award, Tal recounted a turning point one rainy winter night 12 years ago when he traveled to Beit Shemesh to deliver a talk on air pollution. He was convinced no one would attend on such a miserable, cold night. To his surprise, he was greeted by a hall packed with 300 people.

“And then I got it. The people of Israel really do care deeply about the health of their communities. They love this land of theirs. And when we learn to tap into that love, we really can move mountains.”

Tal has moved his share of mountains.

In 1990 he founded Adam Teva v’Din, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. The group was the first environmental watchdog organization of its kind in Israel. It uses American-style legal advocacy to help protect Israel’s environment, filing court petitions challenging the government’s development policies that it says risk endangering the environment and public health. The group focuses on issues of air pollution, safe drinking water, solid waste management and accessible open space.

Their first victory was stopping sewage being dumped from Eilat into the Red Sea. One of their landmark

court victories saw a $10 million purification system installed in the Kishon River in northern Israel, after the group uncovered that nearby factories were pouring more sewage into the river than they had been reporting, making the river toxic.

The organization has also worked with Jordan and the Palestinians on common water issues, including shared rivers.

“We’ll never restore our rivers without doing it together and we are doing it together,” Tal said.

Among Tal’s admirers is Naim Daoud, director of the environmental department of the Arab National Society For Health Research and Services.

“Alon Tal is an environmentalist who understands that ecology can be a force that brings people together and bridges our differences in the region. Few have done more in our field to make this happen,” he said.

In 1996 Tal founded the Arava Institute at his then-home, Kibbutz Ketura near Eilat. He also served as the chairman of Israel’s umbrella group for environmental organizations between 1999 and 2004 and is currently a board member of the Jewish National Fund.

After immigrating to Israel at the age of 20, Tal spent two years in the army as a paratrooper. Crisscrossing the Israeli landscape he saw great beauty, but also, to his surprise, a lot of trash. “We are willing to die for it, but not keep it clean,” Tal said. He had been looking for a way to contribute to Israel as an American immigrant, and soon realized that environmental work might be his calling.

While studying law, he did an internship with the environmental protection service, a department within the Interior Ministry that would eventually become the Ministry of Environment. There he met a woman who would become his mentor, Ruth Rotenberg. It was Rotenberg, he said, who suggested to him that Israel needed an environmental policy organization that would push the government to create better environmental policies.

“I thought he was a person who could move things,” said Rotenberg, now legal adviser and head of the legal department at the Ministry of Environment.

Tal then returned to the United States to do a doctorate in Harvard in environmental health policy — a degree that did not exist in Israel.

He returned here and founded the Arava Institute in 1996. It offers master’s degrees in desert studies and environmental studies. He recruited students not only from Israel but from abroad, including Jordan. Today, some 80 percent of the institute’s graduates hold key environmental positions in the region.

Among those at the award ceremony in Jerusalem were several of Tal’s students, including Zein Nsheiwat, 24, from Amman, Jordan.

“Alon’s classes are my favorites,” she said. Nsheiwat said it was not easy for her friends back in Jordan to see her come to Israel and study. But she is convinced it is the best thing she has ever done.

“I think we are doing something here — for the environment, for peace, for our countries,” she said.

The institute is affiliated with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where Tal is a member of both the Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology and the Department of Man in the Desert at the Jacob Blaustein Institute.

Avishay Braverman, the university’s former president, said Tal is a major asset.

“He is a force in bringing most of the practical aspects of how to keep the Holy Land ecologically sound,” said Braverman. “New immigrants like Alon Tal are so needed in the country. He is a role model.”

In his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony, Tal spoke about how he once wished he belonged to the generation of Israel’s founders but now realizes he has an equally if not more important task.

“We are blessed because we have the privilege and the responsibility to define what will be preserved of the land of Israel,” he said. “Will future generations enjoy the same natural treasures that so inspired pilgrims and prophets for a millennia?”

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