Fuel for the Fire

Funny how a massive attack on American shores, the devastating loss of 3,000 innocent lives, the U.S. invasion of one country (Afghanistan), the incipient invasion of another (Iraq) and the continued threat of biological, nuclear and random terror in our own neighborhoods can get people thinking.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, an ideologically diverse and unallied group of analysts, pundits, activists, business people and the occasional brave politician has been proffering one very simple message for anyone interested in how America can shake free from the grip of Islamic terror: It’s the oil, stupid. “If we can reduce our dependence on oil, and our need to go the extra mile in going along with some of the things that repressive regimes do, we would be a lot better off,” former CIA Director James Woolsey told Reuters. “But to get that kind of independence we have got to be not so dependent on their oil.”

Such sentiments have begun to resonate loudly with Jewish activists and organizations. Buttressed by the research of energy experts such as Amory Lovins, they have concluded that American energy consumption endangers not just American stability, but Israeli security and even what they understand as Jewish values. “The Persian Gulf has 63 percent of the world’s oil reserves, and worldwide consumption is expected to grow 55 percent over the next 20 years,” said Jack Halpern, chairman of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) Energy Independence Task Force, in a recent address. “The bitter reality is that the Arabs don’t invest in their peoples’ welfare. Instead, they spend their petrodollars acquiring weapons of mass destruction, distorting the votes and conferences of the United Nations, harboring terror organizations, rewarding the families of suicide bombers and funding the Wahabi madrases that breed radical Islam. In short, Arab oil imposes a suffocating burden on Israel, and is a lethal threat to U.S. citizens.”

If there’s a bit of overkill in the rhetoric — Arab states do spend many of their petrodollars legitimately — the concern over our open-ended account at Gulf State Gas & Electric is real. The AJCongress is just one of the Jewish groups now intent on decoupling the American economy — and Israel’s security — from the West’s dependence on Persian Gulf oil.

Although only about 16 percent of our oil comes from the Gulf, every long-range forecast shows America needing the resources that the Gulf State regimes control — unless we significantly cut our consumption. That need forces us into geopolitical games that, given our addiction, we find impossible to walk away from.

“It really is all about the oil,” said Richard Ziman, CEO of Los Angeles-based Arden Realty, the largest landlord of office buildings in Southern California and the state’s leader in energy-efficient commercial construction. “It dumbfounds me that a country with our technical talent can’t develop a way to get rid of this issue.”

There may not be a technical fix — yet — but there is a growing political pressure for it. A coalition of 29 Jewish environmental groups across the country has launched a multifaceted outreach campaign — including the installation of solar panels on local synagogues — to increase awareness of the impact of energy consumption on national security and environmental policy. “People ask, ‘What can I do for Israel?'” said Lee Wallach, Southern California chair of the Council on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). “Well, one of the things you can do is look at the kind of vehicle you drive.”

On Nov. 20, COEJL and the National Council of Churches launched a national letter-writing campaign to CEOs of automobile companies asking them to raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, the minimum average fuel economy that a manufacturer’s fleet of cars must meet. Along with pressing Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, the 100 religious leaders are calling upon their congregants to weigh fuel efficiency more heavily when they buy a car.

Just this week, COEJL descended on Santa Monica Pier and ticketed gas-guzzling SUV’s with faux citations. “For Jews to be driving these big SUVs that provide billions to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq and make us beholden to these countries is a disaster,” Wallach said. “Now we can make a direct link between war and terror and oil.”

This Chanukah, COEJL began distributing educational packets linking the holiday, with its imagery of burning oil and the miracle of light, to the need for oil conservation. Energy efficiency, said COEJL Director David Rosenstein, is a Jewish moral obligation, the “stewardship of God’s creation.”

Unlike in years past, such sentiments are not solely the province of hemp-wearing men and women with composting toilets. For one, bottom-line capitalists have joined the fray. Acres of advanced photovoltaic panels are in operation on the roofs of the 302,000-square-foot office centerbuilding in Fountain Valley, which is owned by Ziman’s Arden Realty, Inc. This year, Arden earned the federal government’s highest energy efficiency and environmental conservation designation — the “Energy Star” label. Cost was only one factor, Ziman said, in his decision to invest more than $20 million in energy retrofits this year — the biggest variables in commercial real estate development are wages and utilities. The other factor was geopolitical. “I’ve always been concerned about our dependence on foreign oil,” he said.

Ziman is an unabashed liberal. But his concerns are echoed across the political spectrum, all the way to the Republican Jewish Coalition and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who will chair AJCongress’ first ever Cooperation for Energy Independence of Democracies in the 21st Century held in Jerusalem from Jan. 21-23, 2003. The debate might be over solutions — whether drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will decrease our oil dependence substantially or not at all, for instance — but not over the basic problem.

One unlikely prophet to this gathering tribe is Lovins, energy guru extraordinaire. He has been saying what they are saying, but he’s been saying it since 1975. That’s the year he published a landmark article in Foreign Affairs arguing that if the market were allowed to pick the cheapest way to provide a given use of energy — say a warm house or a cold beer — it would always pick renewable resources or conservation.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, I spoke with Lovins, who had been my professor for a term in college two decades ago. At the time, Lovins’ research was groundbreaking, but hardly mainstream. Osama bin Laden changed that. Although I had completely lost touch with Lovins, what he taught back then suddenly struck me as painfully relevant.

And, when I reached him by phone, he acknowledged that my instincts were correct. Pursuing energy efficiency, he once again said, would be the fastest way to decrease our addiction to Mideast oil.

Before I could ask the obvious first question, Lovins repeated something he’d found himself telling a lot of journalists lately. During the six years after the 1979 oil embargo, U.S. oil imports from the Persian Gulf fell 87 percent. Lovins referred to those years as, “The last time we were paying attention.” That difference was due, largely, to new fuel-efficiency standards that increased vehicle output by some 7 miles per gallon (mpg). The result: OPEC got the message that the United States could separate our economic health from Persian Gulf oil — gross domestic product grew by 16 percent during the period. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan relaxed vehicle-efficiency standards, and oil imports skyrocketed. “If we had continued at the same pace,” Lovins said, “we’d have needed no Gulf oil by now.”

But that’s not what happened. The advent of the SUV, which has been exempt from new fuel-efficiency standards, has proven catastrophic for efficiency. Today, new cars average 24 mpg, a 20-year low. (Two weeks ago, a Transportation Department study found that the average gas mileage of new vehicles in the 2001 model year had slipped back to the level of 1999, which was the lowest since 1980.)

It is possible, Lovins said, to take OPEC out of the equation again, with the same old tools: efficiency and renewable resources.

Lovins never uses the C word: Conservation was so 1970s. What will set us free from oil dependence, he stressed, is oil efficiency. “There is a stark difference between efficiency and conservation. Conservation is a change in behavior based on the attitude, ‘Do less to use less.’ Efficiency is the application of technologies and best practices to eliminate waste based on the attitude, ‘Do the same or more with less.'” To replace Persian Gulf oil imports, Lovins said, would take a 2.7 mpg increase in the automobile fleet. Making the light vehicle fleet more efficient by 0.4 mpg would save enough gasoline to save as much crude oil as we’ll ever pull out of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “In 1991, the United States deployed 0.56-mile-per-gallon Abrams tanks and 17-feet-per-gallon-equivalent aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf because we hadn’t deployed 32-mpg cars at home,” he said.

Do such voices have a chance of being heard under an administration glutted with oil company executives, focused on war with a major oil-producing nation and eager to expand domestic drilling? Lovins, ever analytical, is cooly apolitical. His Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a “think-and-do tank” on energy issues he runs out of an energy-efficient home near Aspen, Colo., spearheaded a non-partisan National Energy Policy Initiative which outlined an alternative to the Bush Adminstration energy program that has found support among Democrats and Republicans.

Doubt him if you will, but Lovins credibility puts him in a league no tree-sitter can match. Admitted to Harvard at age 16, he was named a don in physics at Oxford University at 21. The author of 27 books, he received a MacArthur genius grant, and was named “A Hero for the Planet” by Time. Lovins regularly earns upward of $20,000 per day in consulting fees for major corporations, a source of financing for RMI. (The Web site www.rmi.org is a model of efficiency and design in and of itself.)

“If people had listened to Amory 20 years ago on making the [energy] infrastructure more decentralized and resilient,” ex-CIA director Woolsey told Fortune magazine, “the country would be in a lot less dangerous shape.”

Lovins, instead of doing the I-told-you-so dance, is offering yet more ways out. One, he told me enthusiastically, could involve Israel.

Lovins started Hypercar, Inc. to build an SUV that could go from one end of America to another on a single fill-up and emit nothing but drinkable water. Made of lightweight carbon fiber — think fighter planes and tennis rackets — it would be powered by a fuel cell that cleanly converts hydrogen into electricity. BP Amoco has invested in the Hypercar start-up, and former executives from Shell, Fiat, Jaguar and GM sit on Hypercar’s board of advisers. And there’s room for others to get involved: Lovins asked, if you were to pick a country to develop and manufacture a car that used alternative hydrogen fuel cell technology, light and strong materials often found in military aircraft manufacture, and relied on an educated and motivated workforce, which country would you choose? “Israel,” he said.

And indeed, part of the AJCongress conference in Jerusalem this January will be devoted to involving Israel in the Department of Energy’s “Freedom-Car” initiative, a $150 million-a-year program aimed at improving gas-electric hybrid cars and developing cars running on hydrogen, which use zero gasoline.

That Lovins’ words echo in the Jewish state should surprise no one these days. Terrorism, oil policy, national security and Israel have become inextricably linked since Sept. 11, 2001, and the people who proclaimed the miracle of the oil, celebrated every year at this time, are now hoping to have to burn, buy and be beholden to much, much less of it.

Differing Views on European Anti-Semitism

The talk here in Los Angeles — about anti-Semitism and Europe — is by turns angry and cynical. And not just from the proverbial “Jewish man on the street,” so quick to respond both to real and imagined slights. It is almost as though the suspicion that Europeans could not be trusted, that they were fundamentally bred to the bone as anti-Semites, had finally been confirmed.

A Jewish leader here, with considerable professional experience working with European organizations, is bitter: The Europeans need oil, he tells me, and the Arabs have it. The rest is conversation.

A local Holocaust scholar’s voice is resigned. After 2,000 years of history, of expulsion or religious and national hatred, why should we be surprised at the reaction of Europeans?

There is almost no disagreement here. “What’s there to disagree about?” a journalist friend asks me. He is referring, of course, to the attacks on synagogues and the assaults on individual Jews the recently in France, Great Britain and Belgium, among other nations. Germany, which has been Israel’s staunchest friend these past 50 years and has maintained the severest laws punishing expressions of anti-Semitism, has also been the scene of attacks against Jews; today German police are guarding the synagogues.

Even Hollywood is alarmed. Last week, a film producer called on the French government to oversee the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, ensuring that there would be no demonstrations or discrimination against Israeli films. French officials scoffed at the charge: There is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic policies in France or at Cannes, came the reply.

That sentiment — neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic behavior is rampant in Europe — to my surprise, has been echoed with some modification by responsible observers abroad. It is, of course, the modifications that bear looking at — and make most of us uneasy. Nevertheless, how to explain the different perceptions here and abroad?

In Great Britain, for example, two of the leading newspapers, the Guardian and the Independent, have been particularly strident on Israel’s policies in the Middle East. Coupled with what a longtime (British) Jewish journalist calls the BBC bias in favor of Arab nations, it seems to suggest a public opinion debacle for Israel.

But on closer examination, it appears that it is the British left that opposes Israel’s policy. The Times of London and the Telegraph are supportive. Moreover, the authoritative leading British weekly, The Economist, has adopted what might be defined as a balanced but sympathetic attitude toward the Jewish state.

In a recent editorial (May 4-10), The Economist reported that, yes, criticism of Israel had increased in Great Britain and throughout Europe. Part of the criticism reflected an increase in the Muslim population — particularly in France — and part had to do with a general disapproval of colonial policy throughout Europe. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and its treatment of Palestinians, was viewed as “colonial action” by many Europeans. In any case, argued The Economist, criticism of Israel did not mean a society was anti-Semitic.

The facts on the ground in Great Britain were hard to refute. Its 300,000 Jews have moved these past 30 years into the professions, the universities and the government — especially under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, who headed the government when it was controlled by the Conservatives. Many Jews in Great Britain had, in fact, shifted from Labor to the Conservative Party; though at present, Labor Prime Minister Blair is viewed as philo-Semitic and an ally of Israel by English Jews. The House of Lords, itself, not a body known for its enthusiasm toward Jews, is 10 percent Jewish today.

Compared to Arabs, Pakistanis and blacks living in Great Britain — many of whom feel like outsiders — Jews are much closer to being part of the establishment. Although, it should be added, many claim they are perceived first as Jews and only then as British subjects, or so they feel.

In France, where today there are 6 million Arabs (and about 600,000 Jews) matters are different. The Arabs are congregated, for the most part, in rundown slum housing projects at the outer edges of Paris and other French cities. Often they live in close proximity to poor Jews — especially from North African countries. And it should be clear that the Arabs are furious at the French government and at Israel, as well. They — the Arabs living in France — are the culprits primarily responsible in the attacks against synagogues and individual Jews.

But Arabs in France are also the targets of widespread animosity toward immigrants. Le Pen’s National Front Party, which is known for its anti-Semitism, has been fierce in its cries against Arabs in the recent elections. You would scarcely know the party was critical of Jews and/or Israel.

In France, as in Great Britain, journalists will tell you that Jews are part of the mainstream. Maybe not always included in “society,” but certainly part of the worlds of government and the professions. Yes, the journalists will explain, many French officials are critical of Israel, as is most of Europe. But that is because Israel has become a colonial power (not unlike the French in Algeria 45 years ago) and is in the wrong. It is not that YasserArafat is right; just that Israeli policy and Ariel Sharon’s government are considered the culprits here.

The French and the British journalists (and the Germans, as well) ask: Who is right, the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress or the rest of the world? Is Israel the victim here or the Palestinians? And why can we not be critical of Israel without being labeled anti-Semitic?

It’s a question that non-Jews in the United States have begun to ask, and one for which we tend to answer by falling back on our feelings. Invariably, we are so closely identified with Israel, that attacks against the Jewish state become attacks upon us. And while anti-Semitism has been on the wane in the United States the past half century, and in Western Europe, as well, feelings of rejection and victimhood have become almost atavistic among Jews. It does not take very much to revive them. And that is something the Western Europeans have still to learn.