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Environmental Slate Tries to Prove It’s Easy to Be Both Green and Zionist

January 11, 2002
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A new Zionist party wants to mix blue and white with green.

For the first time, an environmental Jewish party has gathered enough signatures to get onto the ballot for the upcoming elections to the World Zionist Congress.

The Green Zionists Alliance got the boost from more than 600 signatures on a petition, which qualified them to run in the upcoming World Zionist Congress elections.

A promotional campaign is intended to get even more name recognition and support.

There are 145 seats in the American delegation of the Congress, which determines the policies, priorities and programs for Zionist organizational activity through the World Zionist Organization.

Party organizers hope to get at least one seat on the Congress. Such a seat would give them a voice in one of the Congress’ main functions, determining how the $350 million budget of the Jewish Agency for Israel is distributed.

The Jewish Agency is involved in immigration and absorption and runs religious, political and educational programs throughout the world.

The launching of the party is more than just a call for environmental improvements in Israel, members of the party slate say.

A Jewish environmental party also can attract those unaffiliated Jews to play a role in the Zionist movement, they argue.

“Five Minutes of Your Time Will Save Israel’s Environment and Breathe New Life Into The Zionist Movement,” the group’s Web site claims.

Although other parties include environmental issues in their platforms, there never has been a strong voice raising environmental issues in the Congress, according to Mark Jacobs, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, a New York-based group.

American and Israeli environmentalists first seriously discussed the idea of launching a party last year.

While teaching at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel, Rabbi Michael Cohen talked with the institute’s then-director, Alon Tal.

The two decided the time had come for the Zionist movement to become a leader in ecological conservation, says Cohen, a longtime environmental activist and the rabbi emeritus at Israel Congregation of Manchester Center, Vt.

“Zionism stands not just for returning the people to the land, but also the care of that very land so that the Jewish people may thrive on it,” he said.

The Green Zionists Alliance says it will call for the creation of an environmental officer in the Jewish Agency who will have authority to review the ecological implications of Zionist-funded activities.

Other platform issues include:

Directing a “sizable portion” of Zionist movement-sponsored programs to projects and organizations designed to improve Israel’s environment.

Supporting the Jewish National Fund in preserving open spaces, confronting Israel’s water crisis and promoting river restoration, forestry and other environmental initiatives.

Asking for all Zionist educational institutions and programs supported by the Jewish Agency to integrate ecological education topics into their curricula and programs.

The Congress also selects the board of the Jewish National Fund, which helps determine environmental policy in Israel.

Just how many seats the party can hope for still depends on how many people register and then actually vote. There will be more than 100,000 registered voters, said Karen Rubinstein, executive director for the American Zionist Movement, which administers the elections for the U.S. delegation.

This year, numbers of voters are expected to be down from the last elections in 1997, possibly because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Organizations had a difficult time getting their campaigns out, and people seem to be more focused on U.S.-based programs, Rubinstein said.

Adam Werbach, a member of the Green Zionist Alliance slate, says there are a lot of young Jews who do not make connections between their support for Israel and their support for social justice issues, but backing conservation in Israel is something they can understand.

Werbach, a former national president of the Sierra Club who now consults and produces video projects for environmental organizations, believes the party will help Zionism reflect what many young American Jews support.

“It’s important to work within the system to make it better,” he said. “If you ignore it, it’s at your own peril.”

The deadline to register to vote in the World Zionist Congress elections is Jan. 18 and ballots can be sent in until April 5. The 34th Zionist Congress will convene June 17-20 in Jerusalem.

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