Trump vs. Tu B’Shevat


When I think of Tu B’Shevat, I think of my childhood.

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, and went to elementary school in the Hollywood Hills. At 3 o’clock, we’d get driven home, and as we started down the San Diego Freeway, we would see a layer of brown gunk on top of the Valley. It was just the way it was. During the summer, our eyes would sting, and sometimes we couldn’t even see the hills. “First-stage” smog alerts were common, and sometimes we would have second-stage alerts. I got asthma, as did many of my friends.

That doesn’t happen anymore: the Valley hasn’t had even a first-stage alert in years. No one would mistake the air for that of a national park, but it is a lot cleaner than it used to be. Seniors can walk outside now. Meanwhile, popular songs about contaminated water (like Tom Lehrer’s “Pollution” or The Standells’ “Dirty Water”) have become relics of a past age.

There is a reason why things have changed for the better: the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA wrote the rules that cleaned up the Valley’s air and healed my lungs. It created and enforced the regulations that saved rivers around the country. And Donald Trump wants to destroy it.

This is not hyperbole. Trump’s choice to head the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is currently suing the agency, and has expressed contempt for its work. Trump’s initial budget indicates that he will seek to cut the EPA by 50 percent — purposefully eviscerating its capacity and crippling it in the future. Within hours of taking the oath of office, the administration placed a gag order on all of its personnel, and began to alter content on its website. The agency’s scientific reports must now be vetted by political appointees before being made public. And last week, Trump issued a probably illegal executive order mandating that for every regulation enacted, two must be withdrawn — with no attention to whether any of the regulations are beneficial, or even crucial. It essentially enshrines ignorance as a matter of national policy.

The president embodies this ignorance. When asked by Fox News host Sean Hannity which federal departments he wanted to eliminate, Trump replied, “The Department of Environmental… I mean, the DEP is killing us environmentally.” No one bothered to tell him that the “DEP” does not exist, and it is not clear whether he knows now. But he knows he wants to kill it.

For Jews to support these policies represents a repudiation both of Tu B’Shevat and the values it stands for. Tu B’Shevat is not simply “the birthday of the trees” (as I also learned growing up). Rather, it celebrates humanity’s relationship with nature, and thereby with God. The rabbis declared it as an important day because it established the day on which produce counted for a new year for sacrifices. Later, Kabbalists constructed a Tu B’Shevat seder, now becoming more popular. Some ultra-Orthodox writers argue that we celebrate it because humanity is the “tree of the fields” — a purposeful and creative misinterpretation of a passage from Deuteronomy chapter 20.

Tu B’Shevat’s genius relies in no small part on its recognition that the spiritual humanity/nature relationship is also empirical. When the environment is destroyed, so is human health. We cannot detach ourselves from nature. Thus, the Hebrew name of Israel’s leading environmental advocacy organization, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (on whose U.S. supporting board I serve), is Adam Teva V’Din — Humanity, Nature, and Justice.

The Trump administration’s war on the EPA, then, is a war on Tu B’Shevat. People who support Trump’s and the GOP’s efforts to gut and incapacitate the agency aren’t stopping some faceless bureaucrat: They are helping to destroy ecological resources and thus guaranteeing that thousands of children, maybe theirs or others, will get respiratory diseases or waterborne illness. That’s what these actions are: the Make Children Sick Act of 2017. And that is profoundly un-Jewish.

That’s what these actions are: the make children sick act of 2017. And that is profoundly un-jewish.

This is not a standard policy debate about the amount, character or pace of regulation. Reasonable people can disagree about such things. Indeed, environmentalism began as a conservative impulse and contained deeply sacred aspects. The great conservative writer Russell Kirk noted that:

“If men are discharged of reverence for ancient usage, they will treat this world, almost certainly, as if it were their private property, to be consumed for their sensual gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the prosperity of future generation…. The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining … is evidence of what an age without reverence does to itself and its successors.”

Reverence. Destroying nature destroys humanity, in both its physical and its spiritual aspects. Both Judaism and conservatism properly understood have always known this.

The administration’s program, however, represents a rejection of the entire enterprise of environmental protection — not conservatism, but rather the materialistic philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand’s “Fountainhead” hero, Howard Roark, expresses contempt for nature, saying that when he looks at mountain peaks, all he thinks of is tunnels and dynamite. Not surprisingly, the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein suggested that the most un-Jewish philosophy was Rand’s. And, not surprisingly, Trump and many members of his Cabinet are big Rand fans.

The administration’s policy on climate change — or lack thereof — reveals its deepest contempt for the Jewish idea that humanity’s and nature’s fate are intertwined. Climate change represents the greatest ecological threat the planet has ever faced, but the White House home page was scrubbed of all climate change-related material a few hours after inauguration, and Trump has made clear that he will attempt to withdraw President’s Obama Clean Power Plan. There is no pretense of repealing and replacing — it is repeal outright. Again, this is not a difference of degree: It rejects the entire concept of wanting to know about the problem. Science, and truth, are to be subordinated to political needs.

No one with a commitment to Judaism can accept this. The rabbis knew it thousands of years ago. A midrash noted that when, in Genesis, God tells Adam to rule over the earth, the word used — radah — is equivocal: It can mean either “ruling” or “descending.” The message was clear: Unless humanity accepts genuine stewardship over the planet, it will “descend” to a lower level and betray its calling. But it required a stronger statement, and so they provided it, connecting our dependence upon nature, and the consequences of forgetting that dependence. As the midrash to Ecclesiastes relates:

“When God created the first human beings, God led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

My lungs saved by the EPA remember this statement daily. Does anyone else?

Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Holy to half of humanity – the polluted water of the Jordan River


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

When US Naval officer William F. Lynch became the first Westerner to sail the lower Jordan River in 1847, he traversed the Sea of Galilee down the Jordan to the Dead Sea over current so strong that, according to his journal, he required four metal boats, one of which was smashed on the rocks of the powerful rapids. Lynch goes on the recount the broad and forceful flow of the then-mighty river.

Today, though, the Jordan is barley a trickle – just four meters wide and two meters deep in some parts. Its color is an opaque brown; and despite being holy to the world’s three major religions, a mouthful of the river’s water would most likely lead to a variety of rather unpleasant effects.

Throughout the years, successive governments in Syria, Israel and Jordan have redistributed the water supply for various reasons. Sewage has been leaked or directly pumped into the river; while a variety of overflows from agricultural and fish farming add to the flavor. A variety of plants and wildlife, including willow trees and otters, which had formerly followed the banks of the meandering river can no longer be found along its shores.

If you had told William F. Lynch that a rejuvenation program costing billions of American dollars would be required to restore an adequate flow to the Jordan River within a mere 150-years, it is a fair guess to say it’s unlikely he would have believed you.

EcoPeace, a non-governmental organization formerly known as the Friends of the Earth Middle East, sees the restoration of the Jordan River as a problem for all people of the region: especially Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. Not only is the degradation of the water supply harmful to the environment and the communities which rely on it, but it is wasting the huge financial potential of the valley which could improve the living standards of many.

The successful transformation of the river would lead to huge economic and environmental advantages, argues Gidon Bromberg, the organization’s director in Israel. He told The Media Line that EcoPeace believes that if its proposals were enacted, the number of tourists and pilgrims visiting the Jordan Valley would increase to as many as ten million each year –a tenfold increase that Bromberg called “a game changer” for the region’s economy.

EcoPeace has put together a series of policy proposals which it has termed the “Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley.” A variety of measures ranging from pollution control, water resourcing and ecological management; to the development of tourism and cultural heritage sites make up the organization’s wish list, forecasted up to the year 2050.

The benefits would be felt in agriculture and industry as well as in the tourism and environmental sectors, Bromberg said, while explaining that changes in perception would need to be made. “It requires that we treat the river differently – as a livelihood source, as the healthy economic engine, instead of seeing the river as the sewage canal and as the dumping ground.”

“We feel that the Jordan Valley is part of the common cultural heritage of this region and it is being shared between three parties here: the Palestinians, the Jordanians and the Israelis,” Lars Faaborg-Andersen, the European Union’s ambassador to Israel, said, keen to show that the EU was a partner to the Master Plan.

The benefits of cooperation and of sustainable development when living in a well-populated compact area were clear to see, the ambassador said, suggesting that this is true in Europe and in the Jordan Valley as well. Bottom-up cooperation, as evidenced by EcoPeace’s past work, could lead to peace building, Faaborg-Andersen said, adding, “We hope that the (local) governments will take inspiration from this.”

Europe’s economic and political integration following the Second World War, and the decades of relative peace which have followed since are a model to follow according to Bromberg, who argued that just as steel and coal, the continent’s two most important resources, were were able to form ties in Europe, water and energy could do the same in the Jordan Valley.

Yet, inevitably, as with everything in the region, the discussion devolves into a political one. “Water is not a problem, it is not a zero sum game. Some people, especially in Israel, have a surplus of water,” Dr. Nader Al-Khateeb, EcoPeace’s director in the Palestinian Territories, told The Media Line. Politics, and not a shortage of water, was causing the pollution and lack of economic resourcing seen in the area, he charged. According to Al-Khateeb, it is for this reason that the NGO EcoPeace weighs in on politically-charged issues and debates and is “very clear about our political position, [supporting] a two state solution, within the international (consensus) on recognized 1967 borders.”

A stance on politics is not unnatural Bromberg said, “Our name is EcoPeace: ecological peace – we are an environmental organization at heart but we are also a peace organization.” In order to move forward on the environmental agenda, Bromberg argued, such issues have to be touched on and therefore EcoPeace advocates for a two-state solution.

“We don’t think that this is particularly radical – our Israeli Prime Minister says he’s in favor of a two-state solution,” Bromberg pointed out.

But he did acknowledge that EcoPeace is not without its detractors. Activists in the Palestinian Territories and in Jordan have received threatening phone calls and activities by the organizations have been disrupted by individuals aligned with the “anti-normalization campaign”[Editor’s Note: a movement in the Arab world opposing all efforts to “normalize” relations with the state of Israel or institutions located inside the Jewish state.] In Israel, EcoPeace has found itself labelled as traitorous.

Extremists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are hostile to EcoPeace’s work, Bromberg said. Such individuals believe that any cooperation with the other side prior to a resolution of the conflict is an attempt to maintain the status quo or is collaboration against your own people, the Israeli Director said. “We think that has no analytical or practical basis what so ever,” Bromberg concluded.

A pro-Israel think tanks maintains that water has increasingly become a politicized weapon in the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is being used as a tool to delegitimize the Jewish state. NGO Monitor, an organization which aims to expose anti-Israeli sentiment among many of the groups working in Israel, listed a number of NGOs it felt were using water as a political tool. EcoPeace was not among the list, reinforcing its assertion that “it focuses on the environment and not on the conflict.”

In the meantime, while the politics is debated, the Jordan continues to trickle by and thousands of pilgrims come to be baptized in its sickly beige water each year. If environmentalists are able to get their way, within a few decades the water such visitors bathe in might even be clean.

Waxman will play key role in putting Obama agenda into action


Henry Waxman is a combination of toughness and gentlemanliness, qualities that helped raise him from the fratricidal politics of West Los Angeles to the pinnacle of power in President-elect Barack Obama’s Washington.

Through it all — from battles as a leader in the California Young Democrats in the 1960s to the Washington, D.C. Capitol meeting room where last week the Los Angeles Democratic congressman unseated John Dingell (D-Mich.) to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — he has retained an idealism and interest in intricate public policy unusual in a political world, where victory too often goes to the superficial and cynical. He is also serious about his religion. He and his wife, Janet, are practicing Jews.

Waxman’s toughness was on display when he beat Dingell, Washington’s great defender of the auto industry and opponent of mileage, safety and pollution standards. Waxman had long fought for such standards, often clashing with Dingell.

He strongly made the point to his colleagues that his policies represent the change Obama brings to Washington and some of the most important portions of the president’s agenda will have to pass through the committee.

But there was more to Waxman’s victory than strong words and promises, as John M. Broder and Carl Hulse reported last Sunday in The New York Times. They quoted Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Dingell supporter, as saying many new members had received direct campaign contributions from Waxman: “You bumped into a lot of freshmen who said Mr. Waxman had been very good to them.” Waxman’s supporters carried lists of prospective supporters to contact in the climactic meeting and watched the doors to talk to those leaving for a break.

Waxman honed his talent for careful planning in the ’60s, when, as a young lawyer and UCLA graduate, he began his political career in the liberal volunteer organization, California Young Democrats.

Emma Schafer, a public affairs consultant who runs the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, recalled meeting with other Young Democrats, including Waxman, at the West L.A. home of Howard Berman, who also later went on to Congress. “We plotted and planned campaigns,” Schafer said. “We were the anti-Unruh, anti-money crowd.”

By Unruh, she was referring to the late Jesse M. Unruh of Los Angeles, the longtime Speaker of the California Assembly, who, unlike the Berman-Waxman crowd, supported the Vietnam War, although he turned against it later in the decade. He was also a prodigious political fundraiser, whose efforts offended the reformist Young Democrats who opposed the war.

The fights between the Unruh followers and the anti-war group became legendary. They fought on every level, battling fiercely for even fairly obscure posts known only to political insiders.

When Waxman became president of the Young Democrats, Rick Tuttle, the former Los Angeles city controller, met up with him at an East Hollywood meeting hall. Tuttle was there for a complex four-way fight for political power, an event typical of Young Democrats’ political life.

He listened to Waxman speak, and later they chatted. “He was friendly, engaging, very down to earth,” Tuttle said. And he remembered that Waxman “spoke in complete paragraphs.”

By this time, Waxman was ready to challenge the Democratic assemblyman in the West Los Angeles area, Lester McMillan, an Unruh loyalist.

McMillan was well-liked by many Los Angeles liberals, mainly because he introduced a bill abolishing the death penalty every year. It never passed, but it made McMillan something of a hero among some Westside liberals, and Waxman’s decision to take him on represented a huge escalation of the Young Democrats’ assault on Unruh.

McMillan had the name and Unruh backing, but Waxman had a brilliant young political strategist in Howard Berman’s brother, Michael.

Most politicians at that time saw the Westside as a typically amorphous sprawl, difficult to fathom. Michael Berman saw it for what it was, a distinct collection of Jewish communities, centered on synagogues and community organizations.

Waxman reached them by traditional means, traveling from synagogue to synagogue, from one organizational coffee to another.

But Michael Berman brought a technique to the campaign that was revolutionary for the 1960s: using computers to analyze census tracts and voter records to identify voters in the district. A much more sophisticated version of this technique is now common in political campaigns, but when Berman unveiled it some 40 years ago, computerized politics brought about a radical change.

Berman sent out direct mailers to each group. Some addressed the concerns of older people. Others were targeted toward younger families. Some were about Israel, others about homeowners’ concerns.

Waxman beat McMillan, became a leader in the Assembly and moved on to Congress in 1974. His district reaches as far north as Calabasas and Agoura Hills, and includes portions of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, as well as Beverly Hills and the Fairfax district.

In Congress, Waxman has dug into complex issues, including health care and pollution. He is the author of a major revision of the Clean Air Act of 1990, a major step in efforts to control pollution.

When the Democrats lost control of Congress, Waxman, no longer a policy-making committee chair, turned to investigating abuses by industry and the Bush administration.

Now, as chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Waxman is poised to play a leading role in putting the Obama agenda into law, particularly in health care and in pushing the auto industry into manufacturing energy-efficient and minimally polluting cars.

In a phone conversation on Monday, Waxman told me that health, the environment and energy — all within the committee’s jurisdiction — will be his top priorities.

“The energy issue is one of national security,” he said. Americans must “wean ourselves from depending on sources” in nations hostile to us. And he said millions of jobs will be produced by industries created by a new energy policy, and they “will transform our economy.”

On health care, he said he favors something along the lines of what Obama has advocated, where people can retain their own health plans or move into a form of government-backed health insurance.

I asked him what it felt like to take on a tough old vet like Dingell.

“I felt the next two years offered historic opportunities, and I didn’t think John Dingell was up to it,” he said.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

What really happens to all those plastic bags?


Plastic or paper?

Lior Alkoby was never asked that question during a recent Sunday morning trip to Super Sal Market in Encino. He checked out, wheeled a cart brimming with plastic bags half-filled with fruits, vegetables and canned goods to the parking lot and loaded them into his SUV. For Alkoby, the lack of choice was a non-issue.

“I throw the bags away, just like everyone else,” he said.

Super Sal Market, like many small stores, offers only plastic bags. And Alkoby, like most Americans, tosses them in the trash.

In fact, of the estimated 92 billion plastic bags consumed in the United States annually — 19 billion in California and 6 billion in Los Angeles County alone — less than 5 percent are recycled, according to the nonprofit environmental organization Californians Against Waste.

“I don’t have time,” Alkoby said.

Millions of these bags, unlike Alkoby’s, don’t even make it to a trash bin and eventually a landfill. As a result, plastic bags can be found clogging gutters and storm drains, billowing out from tree limbs, blighting neighborhoods and choking off birds and marine life.

“Plastics are bad,” said Lee Wallach, president of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California (CoejlSC). “As with most other things, we have to start thinking about the lasting impact.”

And for non-recycled plastic bags, which are made from non-renewable resources such as petroleum, natural gas or other petrochemical derivatives, the lasting impact translates to a life expectancy of a thousand years or more.

But paper, surprisingly to most people, is not the answer either.

“Paper bags are an enormous user of natural resources. They take four times the energy and emit over 70 percent more global warming gases than plastic bags,” said Lisa Foster, founder of the reusable tote company One Bag at a Time.

In addition, paper bags are more costly to produce and are responsible for considerable deforestation, using 14 million trees to make the 5 billion paper bags that Americans use each year. Less than 20 percent of those are recycled.

And while paper bags do biodegrade, that can’t happen in a landfill, which lacks the necessary oxygen, sunlight and water. In fact, a municipal solid waste landfill, which receives household waste and other non-hazardous materials, is not meant to promote biodegradation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site. Rather, federal regulations require that these landfills have impermeable barriers to contain the waste and thus protect surrounding areas.

“A landfill is really just a big garbage bin,” Foster said.

So what’s the solution?

For California Assemblymember Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), it starts with recycling. He sponsored Assembly Bill 2449, which went into effect July 1, 2007, and requires grocery stores with more than $2 million in annual sales and pharmacies with more than 10,000 square feet of retail space to establish at-store recycling programs for plastic carry-out bags. Those retailers must also sell reusable bags. The bill, however, precludes local governments from assessing a fee on plastic bags though individual retailers may impose one.

Building on the success of that bill, Levine introduced Assembly Bill 2058 on Feb. 19, which would require retailers to reduce plastic bag usage by 35 percent by July 2011 and by 70 percent by July 2013. If those objectives are not met, those businesses will be charged a mandatory 15 cents fee per bag.

“The goal is to reduce litter, not produce revenue,” Levine said, explaining that people need education and time to make lasting behavioral changes.

San Francisco, however, became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags outright when the Board of Supervisors passed the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance in March 2007.

Effective November 1, 2007, for grocery stores with more than $2 million in annual sales and March 1, 2008, for large chain pharmacies, plastic bags made from petroleum products are outlawed. These retailers can distribute only compostable plastic bags, paper bags made of 40 percent recycled materials or reusable bags.

According to Dave Heylan, vice president, communications for the California Grocers Association, member stores in San Francisco that are subject to the ban on noncompostable plastic bags, representing a majority of grocers, have all opted to go straight to paper rather than to offer compostable plastic, which can cost upwards of 15 cents per bag.

As for the higher price of paper bags, which cost 5 to 9 cents per bag while plastic bags cost 1 or 2 cents each, “We haven’t seen any numbers, but retailers typically don’t share those,” he said. “But we have not heard any complaints.”

Santa Monica is moving in the same direction. On Feb. 26, the Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously to instruct the City Attorney to draft an ordinance banning single-use plastic carryout bags, including biodegradable plastic bags, at all retail outlets within Santa Monica and to explore imposing a fee on single-use paper bags.

But in Los Angeles, on Jan. 22 of this year, the County Board of Supervisors adopted a voluntary ban on plastic bags for large retail stores. A mandatory ban kicks in only if stores cannot coax customers into reducing their plastic bag usage 30 percent by July 2010 and 65 percent by July 2013.

Many environmentalists criticized the County Board of Supervisors for adopting what they considered a weak ordinance.

“It’s too little too late,” CoejlSC’s Wallach said. “They ducked the issue. This is the time for bold action.”

One Bag at a Time’s Foster, however, applauded the collaborative effort, as she is not a proponent of banning plastic bags.

“It’s a great sound bite, but not a great solution,” she said.

Neither does she favor recycling, which she believes is more “to assuage our guilt over over-consumption.”

Foster suggests that people become educated about the true cost of a bag — be it plastic, paper or a reusable material — by assessing the total costs of manufacturing, usage and disposal.

L.A. displays eco efforts to Israeli delegation


While visiting from Israel last week, Gil Yaakov got a lesson in Los Angeles’ generosity.

“The city gives away free trees to residents, which is great in fighting air pollution and at the same time helps with shading and beautifying the city,” said Yaakov, director of Green Course, a student environmental organization in Tel Aviv.

He said that this concept of giving away green items, such as ultralow-flush toilets, energy-efficient refrigerators and energy-saving lightbulbs is unheard of in Israel.

“Israel can’t think in the long run,” added Sagit Rogenstein, national project director of Israel’s leading environmental nonprofit, Zalul. “They see such an investment as an extravagance, an unnecessary investment. We need to change this way of thinking. The [Department of Water and Power] (DWP) calculated that they have saved more money than they put into this project.”

Yaakov and Rogenstein arrived in Los Angeles on March 2 to address an awakening among American Jews to the environmental threats to Israel. The two were among a group of 18 academics, environmentalists and politicians participating in the Friends of Israel’s Environment exchange program.

The goal of the exchange, which is sponsored by the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, is to share solutions for environmental problems that plague both cities, such as air pollution, wastewater treatment, recycling and planning green spaces.

For decades, environmental education and solutions were on the back burner of Israeli politics, but in the last few years, environmental projects have attracted some national attention in Israel. Recently, Israelis received monetary encouragement to recycle when trash fees were raised, and a clean air bill — something that passed in California 37 years ago — is now working its way through the Knesset.

However, Israel also has much to teach Los Angeles about water issues. The country is both the birthplace of drip irrigation and home to the world’s largest desalination plant.

Last week, the Israeli group met with officials from the DWP, as well as city planners and developers who use green building techniques. A Thursday visit to Warner Bros. demonstrated how businesses can save money while thinking green.

Shelly Levin Billik, the Burbank studio’s manager of recycling and environmental resources, has recruited a recycling crew; designed waste prevention, reuse/donation and recycling programs, and changed over to energy-efficient light fixtures.

“Our energy program began in 2002, and we now save over 9 million kilowatt hours of energy and over $1 million through conservation annually,” Billik said. “We are also investing in clean renewable energy through carbon-offsetting and the construction of a 72-kilowatt solar power project.”

Warner Bros. also operates the first green building in the entertainment industry.

Tami Gavrieli, head of the Strategic Planning Department in Tel Aviv, hopes to adopt the similar construction methods in Tel Aviv.

“The materials used in green buildings are not cheap,” she said, “but in the long run, these green buildings save a lot in energy. It has great insulation, and reduces the need to use air conditioners and heaters. We are building our new offices in the Tel Aviv Municipal Building using these methods.”

Gavrieli hopes to see more developers in Israel using green building materials.

“I’m going to stay in touch with people I met here, and we’ll get new ideas how to promote green building in Tel Aviv,” she said.

While Gavrieli believes Tel Aviv has a lot to learn from Los Angeles, she said Angelenos don’t know enough when it comes to water conservation.

“We use our wastewater, after it goes through a cleaning process, for agricultural purposes,” Gavrieli said. “People here don’t have much awareness of these things. Maybe because we have such serious water problems in Israel we are more conscious of them, and we are more advanced in preserving water in any way we can.”

While the environmental situation in Israel has improved somewhat with new laws and fines, Zalul’s Rogenstein is worried that Israel still has a long way to go until it fully adopts all environmental issues and acts upon them.

“Everything in Israel takes time to happen,” said Rogenstein, a Valley native who made aliyah a decade ago. “You know, like the laws to ban smoking in public places. It is years since this law was instigated in L.A., and in Israel it was only passed recently.”

She said that the Al Gore environmental documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” has caught the attention of Israelis.

“They are more aware of the importance of recycling, of global warming, of energy conservation, using solar energy and so on,” she noted. “So, I’m hopeful that we’ll catch up with the green wave, sooner, rather than later.”

Evan J. Kaizer, past president of Friends of Israel’s Environment and committee chair for the exchange, said he is pleased with the visit and looks forward to the Los Angeles delegation’s visit later this year.

“We share the same problems like Tel Aviv, and we can learn how they are fighting for the same open spaces like we do, and we can learn a lot from their city planners,” he said.

Is the Dead Sea dying?


It sits at the lowest spot on earth, is fed by one of the world’s most significant waterways, and served witness to humanity’s passage out of Africa. And it’s dying.

The Dead Sea, among the most remarkable natural phenomena on the earth’s face, has lost a third of its surface area over 50 years, and continues to shrink three or more feet annually — entirely because of human behavior.

For decades, visitors to Israel have flocked to the sea’s shores, whether to tour the historic sites along its western edge, enjoy its health-giving properties, or simply bob like a cork in its mineral-rich waters.

Most have no idea, though, that each time they visit, the shore has moved. That the Dead Sea’s single source, the Jordan River, has been reduced to little more than a sewage canal, with less than 10 percent of the flow it had 60 years ago — about half of which is raw human waste. And that, furthermore, between the reduced flow and the work of the Israeli and Jordanian mineral industries, the Dead Sea is now actually two distinct bodies of water — the northern basin and southern basin, separated by a land bridge.

“We are watching the sea vanishing,” Kibbutz Ein Gedi member Merav Ayalon told the BBC. “I feel like the sea is a dying man calling out for help.”

Moreover, the past 10 years have seen an alarming new development: sinkholes, spots where the land, once covered by water, collapses in on itself. A decade ago, there were 10; today there more than 1,600, some of which are dozens of yards deep.

The mud flats around what is left of the sea are now pock-marked; Mira Edelstein, resource developer for the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian NGO Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), reports that new holes open and yawn wider from week to week. The first sinkhole ever recorded, on Kibbutz Ein Gedi, opened under a woman as she walked through the kibbutz campgrounds.

Thus, local resorts regularly move their beach chairs in pursuit of the ever-receding shore, even as they block access to areas in which sinkholes have gobbled up their land. The single road leading along the sea to Israel’s south has seen only one sinkhole crack through so far, but many lie just yards from the pavement — and for long stretches, the only thing on the other side is a sheer rock wall.

Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME’s Jordanian director, says that the sinkholes point to an especially banal problem: “We don’t want to keep saying the Dead Sea is an historical site, a religious site…. Let’s talk about its economic value.”

“The lower the level of the sea, the more dramatic the problem of the sinkholes…. Tourists will stop coming if they think they’re going to sink in a hole.”

In purely financial terms, Mehyar says, “it’s a risk that nobody can afford.”

The Dead Sea’s dire situation is the result of a dizzying array of factors: Israel’s over-pumping of the Sea of Galilee; Syria and Jordan’s over-damming of the Yarmouk River, the Jordan’s major tributary; industrial pollution, sewage dumping, and mineral extraction on all sides, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which leaves most of the lower Jordan River Valley a closed military zone.

Rather than address these issues, however, or reconsider water allocation habits (Israeli agriculture gets 30 percent of the country’s fresh water, for instance, but creates less than 3 percent of the gross domestic product; 70 percent of Jordan’s fresh water goes toward agriculture, for some 6 percent of the GDP), the governments of Israel and Jordan, with the backing of the World Bank, are currently considering a drastic solution: a 125-mile conduit from the Red Sea.

Known as the Red-Dead Canal, the idea is to pipe water from the Red Sea to the Dead, producing hydroelectric power, providing water for desalinization, and dumping the salt-heavy remains in the Dead Sea, raising its level. The cost would be astronomical — anywhere from $1.5 billion to $5 billion — and in spite of the fact that environmentalists, scientists and residents of the area have raised crucial questions that remain unanswered, it’s currently the only solution being considered.

For one thing, FoEME’s Edelstein said recently, standing at the Dead Sea and pointing north toward the river, “we already have a canal.”

FoEME is spearheading efforts to convince the World Bank to study reviving the river as an alternative to the conduit, citing concerns for the well-being of the seas on both ends, as well as hidden costs and ecological concerns such as the expense and carbon output involved in transporting desalinated water to Jordan, uphill, in trucks.

“You can’t make a decision that changes the face of the earth,” says FoEME’s Israeli director Gidon Bromberg, “without looking at an alternative.”

Israeli geologist Eli Raz is among the scientists who question the project. In a 2007 report for the Dead Sea Institute, he warned of damage to the “limnology, microbiology and the chemical industry … by mixing the water of the two seas,” and stated that the Sea of Galilee, Jordan River and Dead Sea “should be regarded as one system; stabilizing the Dead Sea level by the recovery of the Jordan River is the closest to the original situation and hence the most proper one.”

In a phone interview, Raz reports that Egypt also opposes the canal’s construction, for fear that water extraction will do lasting damage to the Red Sea, which the country shares with Jordan and Israel; he also references a petition that has been widely circulated among Israelis living in the Arava, the area through which the conduit would pass.

“It’s one of the most dangerous points [on earth] in terms of seismic activity,” he says bluntly, citing decades of geological research. “The residents are completely unwilling to take the chance.”

If the world is interested in saving the Dead Sea, Raz says, “the worst possible option is the one from the Red Sea.”

Arava Institute boosts hopes of environmentalists in Middle East


Ilana Meallem and Mazen Zoabi left a morning meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II last spring smiling. The king had just proposed the formation of a regional science fund, and they were certain they would have access to that fund.

The two Israelis, project managers at the ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ alt=”students of the Arava institute”>

“Will the funding from Jordan follow?” Zoabi wondered. “I don’t know, honestly, but I think it is in everyone’s interest that they fund us.”

Programs at the institute include examining pollution levels in transborder rivers touching Israel, the West Bank and Jordan; probing air pollution in Jordan, and a special two-year project with Morocco to cultivate argan almond trees that until now have grown wild only in southern Morocco.

Meallem, originally from London, and Zoabi, a Technion graduate from an Arab town near Nazareth in the Galilee region, were to go to China for three months after the conference. The purpose of the trip was to bring back technology to turn small-scale organic waste into energy for use in Bedouin villages in Israel and later in Jordan and possibly the West Bank. The technology, known as biogas energy, is not uncommon but reportedly has been best developed for small-scale use in China.

We don’t yet have a partner for this with the Palestinian Authority,” Zoabi said.

“Perhaps we could do projects with you and get more Palestinians involved in your institute,” Sari Nusseibeh, a leading Arab moderate and the president of Al Quds University outside Jerusalem, told Zoabi and Meallem. “Maybe your generation can go beyond the politics that have dragged us all down.”

In the air-conditioned, temporary conference hall not far from the path leading to the spectacular Nabatean ruins that have put Petra on the map, Nusseibeh was busy chatting with Yigal Carmon, the head of the widely read MEMRI: The Middle East Media Research Institute and a counterterrorism adviser in the administration of the late Yitzhak Rabin.

“These environment projects are great for everyone because it is a win-win situation for all sides,” Carmon said. “You see here that Jordanian politicians and various prize laureates and funders are very quick to speak with Ilana and the others because it gives them a sense of doing something good for people in a concrete way. I think we have seen enough sessions on conflict resolution; the answer is more real projects.”

Wiesel, the conference moderator and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, said his foundation was ready to put up or raise $10 million for the regional science fund that was proposed by Abdullah. The fund would sponsor projects proposed by groups all over the region.

“I think the Arab countries are taking scientific cooperation with Israel very seriously,” Wiesel said. “His majesty the king is a true associate in this endeavor with the young people. He knows, and I know that some of them will be the leaders of tomorrow.”

Kholouel Al Dorghan, who is in her 20s and works in the Bank for Trade and Finance in Amman, said she was excited by the possibility of working in Israel.

“I met Israelis for the first time in my life here at this conference, and I felt a real buzz in the air here from the young people and the delegates,” she said. “I would be happy to do research in the Arava Institute or anywhere in Israel.”

Still, several young people who had been invited as individuals from other countries in the region preferred to remain anonymous.

“I would love to work with Israelis,” one said, “but my government would not like that at all and would harass me and my family. There must be a way for us to participate, as well. I am angry about this, but what can I do?”

Israeli pollution control unit offers breath of fresh air


Not only is pollution dirty, smelly and disgusting, it can also kill.

The World Health Organization estimates that each year more than 3 million people die worldwide due to causes directly linked to air pollution, mostly due to vehicle emissions and industrial pollution.

Controlling industrial emissions is not an easy task. Pollutant gasses and particles emitted in industrial processes can flow at different rates, with different particle sizes and at high temperatures. A pollution control system can be effective for cleaning medium-size dry dust particles, for example, but will not be effective in dealing with fine particles captured in steam mixed with pollutant gases.

” target=”_blank”>Vortex Ecological Technologies, which cleans both pollutant gases and fine particles, is being touted as a breakthrough.

Many scientists note that carbon dioxide emissions are the leading cause of global warming, and the issue has been raised to prominence by former Vice President Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

According to CEO Avi Harel, Vortex can neutralize 99 percent of the sulfurous gas particles emitted by the burning of fossil fuels and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent to 15 percent.

“That’s enough to make a difference,” he said.

Harel explained that Vortex’s pollution control systems manipulate the physical forces created by the rapid spiral motion of gas and liquid inside a special, patented compartment called the Advanced Vortex Chamber (image, right), which separates fine particles and gases.

When gas enters the chamber it is accelerated and twirls into a vortex manipulated by various blades and air funnels — and without moving parts. This separates pollutants out without the risk of wear or clogging the machine and cleans industrial emission and liquid from particles and gas pollutants inexpensively and efficiently.

These aren’t particles that just pollute the air, Harel explained.

“You can use our system for very fine particles that may otherwise lead to cancer,” he said.

Not only does the Vortex solution create results that improve the environment, it enables otherwise-polluting businesses to continue operating. A lime plant near Zichron Yaakov in the north of Israel was forced to close due to excessive pollution when the area around the plant became covered with white impurities. After the installation of Vortex’s system, the plant was able to re-open.

“We cleaned the air and the water,” Harel reported.

Founded in 1996, Vortex has always attempted to combine the “green” motive with business practicality, Harel said.

“The idea is to deal with pollution from both a business point of view and the green ideas point of view,” he said. “We provide an affordable means to deal with pollution. A lot of companies complained that the cost of dealing with pollution was unaffordable, and so we went to the market with something that is more efficient and low maintenance.”

The lime industry has become a primary recipient of Vortex’s expertise, with its solution installed at many lime companies, a major concrete company and pipe production operations. Vortex also hopes that medium-sized power plants will use the system.

“Any industry that has pollution can use our system,” Harel said, citing its flexibility.
“It’s relatively easy to apply and integrate the system to existing plants, because of its small size and high speed,” Harel said. “Up to now, [other air pollution control systems] required building new plants. Our system is much smaller and can be put in the existing buildings.”

The systems are not only useful in factories and industry but also can be used in ships, which produce 5 percent of the world’s pollution. In Europe alone, pollution from ships is greater than the pollution of all the cars, trucks and factories.

As a result, Vortex has been conducting tests for the MAN Diesel company, a major international manufacturer of diesel engines for ships. In the latest tests, MAN reported that Vortex’s systems had proven the best in reducing pollution.

In addition, Vortex’s unique technology allows for the reclamation of pollutants — many of which remain useful in industrial production. For example, shipping companies can reuse gasoline and save millions of dollars each year in potash, an essential manufacturing element. In mining, as well, the material that is captured can be reused.

“If you capture material that can be reused or if you sell it, you can pay back the cost of the system pretty quickly,” Harel said.

Beyond the reusability, the simplicity of Vortex’s system helps to reduce maintenance costs — thus making it a more economical choice for industry. By lowering the price, industries that may not otherwise want a pollution-control system would be more likely to use one, even though it may not be required.

“When you have filters you have to clean and replace them,” Harel said. In our case, you don’t have to do it. There are no moving parts in our system; it is static,”
Harnessing the potential to allow for industry to continue producing in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way, Vortex Ecological Technologies seems poised to make a difference in curbing industrial pollution.

“We have a proven technology, a proven product and we are looking for partners,” Harel said.

“We are looking to cover more and more applications worldwide for the benefit of the environment and for business. I hope that the green ideas and green solutions we are developing can help people and help the world.”

The River Jordan’s survival is at stake as pollution peril grows


Standing at Israel’s Alumot Dam, a 30-minute walk south from the Sea of Galilee, it’s a typical midwinter day: deep blue sky, birds everywhere and a brisk breeze that carries a nauseating stench. Reduced to a thin stream by this point, the Jordan River stops. A few feet south of the dam, untreated sewage gushes directly into the riverbed.

In 1948, the lower Jordan carried 1.3 billion cubic meters of fresh water. Today, it’s less than 10 percent of that — and it’s hardly fresh. About half of what’s left comes from small tributaries, springs and Syria’s Yarmouk River. The other half is runoff from farms, diverted saline water and raw sewage.

The blame lies on all sides. Israel reroutes 60 percent of the Galilee’s water for its farms and kitchens; Jordan maintains a major canal that diverts from the Yarmouk; upstream, Syria has more than 40 dams. Jordanian septic tanks allow untreated sewage to seep into the water basin, while Israel turns a blind eye to local authorities’ direct dumping of waste.

It’s all aggravated by decades of war. Most of the valley is a closed military zone along both banks, its misery effectively concealed, and in spite of the long-standing Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, both countries find it hard to cooperate while conflict remains between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians.

Such deterioration would be alarming anywhere, but there’s something particularly disturbing in a place that resonates so profoundly in human culture. As Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) exclaimed: “Half of humanity sees this river as holy!”

The Tanakh and Christian scriptures often reference the valley. In Deuteronomy, Moses is shown the Promised Land from the eastern side before he dies and is buried there; the New Testament describes Jesus’ baptism in the river. Both books are also revered by the world’s billion Muslims.

“The Jordan is one of the few wild rivers left in Israel,” commented Los Angeles-based Rabbi Michael Comins, author of “A Wild Faith” (Jewish Lights Publishing, due out in April). “It’s no coincidence that the Torah was given in the wilderness, that the Prophets heard God in the wilderness and that we do, too.”

Yet, if visitors of any stripe were to enter this wild river’s lower reaches, Bromberg said, “[they’d] be likely to come out with a rash.”

FoEME is fighting to reverse the downward spiral. A tri-national nonprofit, with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian directors, FoEME is a rarity: a joint Arab-Israeli body acting to address vital shared concerns.

Both Nader Khateeb and Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME’s Palestinian and Jordanian directors, say they’re mindful of those who oppose cooperation before a resolution is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that they’re equally aware that time is short.

“The ecosystem is so small, any action effects the others,” Mehyar said. “You can’t say that you won’t talk to the other side — you’re hurting yourself.”

“Ironically,” said Mira Edelstein, Israeli coordinator of FoEME’s river rehabilitation project, “the cooperation on polluting the Jordan has been fantastic.”

Meandering about 125 miles south along Earth’s lowest point, the lower Jordan represents the meeting point of all three peoples and the ecological intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. Approximately 500,000 birds migrate through the valley annually, and many flora and fauna find their northern and southern limits here. Early humans emerging from Africa moved through the valley, and just outside biblical Jericho, archeologists have found evidence of humanity’s first farms.

In the eyes of FoEME’s activists, the valley’s unique environmental characteristics and central role in history make its survival an issue that reaches beyond the region. “We’re losing it,” Khateeb said. “And it’s not important only for us, it’s very important for the whole world. We want to see it on the world agenda.”

In order to grab international and local attention alike, FoEME has initiated a number of creative projects, but the obstacles these often face demonstrate the expected complications of Middle Eastern life. An ambitious journey down the entire lower river valley was planned for November, for instance, but had to be drastically curtailed when the IDF limited it to the last mile and a half of clean water before Alumot.

Ultimately what FoEME proposes is a limited restoration of the river: controlled access, sustainable management plans, providing farmers with recycled water and returning fresh water to its source. “Nature is a legitimate consumer,” Edelstein said. “It’s not wasting the water to let it run down the river.”

At minimum, Bromberg believes, the Jordan needs at least 300 million cubic meters of clean water. “Without it,” he said, “the river will no longer live.”

Though reclamation can seem prohibitively complex, in California, Inyo County and the city of Los Angeles recently witnessed a successful restoration that highlights the possibilities. Sixty-two dry miles of the Owens River — arguably in worse shape than the Jordan — now flow again after nearly a century of its water being diverted to Los Angeles.

“It’s expensive, and it’s hard,” Edelstein conceded, “but we have to do it, if we want to build a sustainable life here.”

Comins agreed, saying, “When I go to Israel, I don’t want to see a plaque that says ‘The Jordan River once flowed here.’ I want to see it as David and Amos did.”

As with all things in this part of the world, much depends on the grinding of diplomatic wheels. Acknowledging this uncertainty, the leaders of FoEME maintain a certain white-knuckle optimism.

“Conflict actually increases our strength,” Mehyar said, “because we can see the foolishness of it.”

“In our area you cannot give up,” Khateeb said. “Because if you give up, you’re finished.”

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer who has been covering the Middle East since the early 1990s.

Broke but hopeful, one survivor says it’s ‘better than Auschwitz’


Last Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, Walter Essinger did not attend any community vigils or synagogue commemoration services. Instead, the 73-year-old survivor spent that day, April 26, being interrogated by Ventura County detectives. He was then arrested, handcuffed and eventually booked into the Ventura County Jail.

During the night, unable to sleep and “treated like a common criminal,” Essinger was transferred to four different cells before he was released on bail the following morning.

“There was absolutely no reason to arrest me,” said Essinger, a materials scientist who otherwise has a clean record and who claims the incident stemmed from an unwarranted eviction and a rushed move from the 5,000-square-foot laboratory in Simi Valley he rented for his semiconductor manufacturing business.

But despite his protestation, Essinger was indicted in August by the Ventura County Criminal Grand Jury on five counts of “knowingly and unlawfully” disposing of chemicals such as acetone and sulfuric acid. On Nov. 3, he was sentenced to three years probation, 200 hours of community service and fines totaling just over $17,000. He barely escaped a 90-day jail sentence.
“They were after me,” he said. “There’s a rat here.”

Essinger, who lives on a Social Security pension of $1,180 and who was represented by a public defender, doesn’t know how he’s going to pay the fine, with $300 due every month. Meanwhile, he is continuing to seek the services of an attorney to help him.

But for this Holocaust survivor, adversity and close calls are nothing new.
Born in 1935 in Munich, Germany, Essinger spent his first three years living on Bienerstrasse, across from Hitler’s offices. His mother, Selma Salomon, who was third-generation Jewish Dutch, witnessed the comings and goings of Nazi soldiers and feared for their future. In 1938, she packed a small valise, gathered up 3-year-old Walter, who never saw his father again, and boarded a train for Holland.

“My mother was brilliant. If not for her, I would have died in the gas chamber,” Essinger said. But while this lively, bon vivant from a wealthy textile family may have saved his life, she filled it with fear and abuse, beyond that of the Holocaust, leaving a legacy of paranoia and nightmares and a belief that money is evil.

After leaving Germany, Essinger spent four years in Holland. But in 1942, he, his mother and his new common-law stepfather, Walter de Beer, were on the run again. This time they escaped by bicycle, with Essinger riding on the handlebars of his stepfather’s “green, high-tech” bike, across the border into Belgium.

There they threw away the bikes and, taking refuge under a bridge, ripped off their yellow stars. Essinger recalls his mother rubbing his jacket with a stone to erase the star’s outline.

After that, they traveled from city to city, making extended stops in Brussels; Paris and Nancy, France; and Bern and Montreux, Switzerland. They were always one step ahead of the Nazis, always sitting separately on buses and trains in case one of them was captured. Essinger carried the money, diamonds and other jewels that were sewn into his jacket.

“I was like a little dog, doing whatever my parents told me,” he said.
Essinger remembers many close calls. Once they traveled by bus to Besancon, France, a place they heard was safe. When the bus stopped in the town center, however, three Nazi soldiers with machine guns and German shepherds greeted the vehicle. But while the other passengers exited the front door of the bus, Walter and his parents escaped out a side door, abandoning their belongings on board and running into a nearby hotel, where they found shelter.

“It was unbelievable luck, like God looked after us,” Essinger said.

But much of the time he was left to fend for himself, hanging out on the streets of unfamiliar cities and scrounging for food. Also, he remembers being berated and physically abused by his parents. He says his mother was a “very evil woman,” and his stepfather was an amateur boxer who used to beat him and who, several times, chained his hands together and forced him to stand with his arms raised.

“What saved me was my love for radios,” Essinger said.

He found them in hotel rooms, and in Switzerland his mother bought one for him.

After the war, Essinger returned to Amsterdam, where he finished the lyceum and studied radio repair and electronics. But by then, his mother had borne two more children with De Beer, and he was “in the way.” In 1952, his mother dropped him off in Israel, where he served three years in the army and then ran a radio store in Haifa. After 10 years, he immigrated to Los Angeles with a wife and two young children.

In the United States, he repaired radios for a living and then returned to school, earning two master’s degrees in electrical engineering at UCLA. He worked for several electronics companies. He then helped develop the idea for flat-screen laptop monitors, co-founding Sigmatron Nova, a technology company headquartered in Santa Barbara, in 1982 and creating several components that were patented.

“I was living the American dream,” said Essinger, who resided with his wife and three children in a 3,000-square-foot house on a quarter-acre in the hills of Thousand Oaks. “I also owned a couple Cadillacs,” he added.

But life again took a series of unfortunate turns.

Leaving Sigmatron Nova in 1986, he worked for another company that subsequently went bankrupt. In 1990, he divorced and sold his house.

A year later, he and a partner began a new electronics company, called Elume, manufacturing semiconductors for biomedical and life-sciences applications.

But one morning, he awoke not feeling well. It turned out he needed coronary artery bypass surgery, and, because of what he believes was an allergic reaction to iodine, a subsequent valve replacement. All told, he spent 30 days at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, to the tune of $248,000. He said he had no insurance — “I’m a dreamer,” he said in defense — and paid $175,000, essentially his entire net worth.

By 1997, he became the sole owner of Elume, moving to the Simi Valley facility. He had six employees and gross income over $500,000 a year. But in 2005, he discovered that a part-time business manager was embezzling money from him — about $150,000 total, Essinger estimated — and secretly selling equipment.
As a result, Essinger couldn’t pay his rent. And through a series of what he characterizes as misunderstandings, he was evicted, even after trying to pay the back rent with a cashier’s check.