When businessman Evan Kaizer traveled to Israel with his wife in 1999, it had been almost 20 years since his last visit, and much had changed, but that wasn't what threw Kaizer for a loop.
"Traveling in the Galilee used to give way to majestic views of the Golan; [this time] we could barely see the Golan through the haze," he said. "Trash was everywhere. Traffic was gridlocked, and at the Dead Sea ... we could not see Jordan, just a few short miles away." When he asked his guide why that was so, the man brushed his question aside by saying it was just a dust storm.
"Being from Los Angeles, I didn't buy the answer," Kaizer explained. "What we learned [later in the trip] was deeply upsetting. Israel's environmental problems were not merely 'concerns,' they were a national calamity."
For those 20 years that Kaizer was away, Israel's government and most of its citizenry were caught up in the complicated job of security, pushing Israel's rivers and water supply, air pollution and traffic congestion under the country's sun-baked carpet.
Today, security remains foremost on everyone's mind, but lately, environmental problems have been seeping through the desert cracks.
With increases in population, a severe drought at Lake Kinneret, and unenforceable health standards, other news centers on the fact that Israel is on the verge of running out of potable water. According to international standards, 40 percent of the country's water supply is unfit to drink.
This summer, one of the lead news stories was on the Shamgar Commission's report on one of the world's most polluted waterways, the Kishon River, where the Israeli navy held diver training in polluted water from the 1960s until the mid-1980s.
Kaiser didn't know any of this at the time of his travels. All he knew was that Israel's environment was in trouble, and he wanted to help. The turning point came when he discovered that Israeli citizens were not entirely sleeping on the environmental front; there was a small group of activists calling for change. Leading the way was Adam Teva V'Din -- The Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED).
Founded 10 years ago and headed by the Harvard-educated attorney Philip Warburg since 2000 the IUED is Israel's leading environmental advocacy organization, staffed by lawyers and scientists specializing in air- and water-quality concerns; about 3,000 citizens are members.
By using the courts to counter governmental and industrial indifference, the IUED has been highly successful in bringing attention to four key areas of Israel's urban environment: air pollution prevention; drinking-water safety; solid waste management; and protection of public open spaces, including the coastline.
In the past few years, the IUED has garnered a number of impressive legal accomplishments:
- IUED-drafted Clean Air Act, presented to Knesset and the Cabinet in 2001.
- Israel's first bottle deposit law.
- Coastline protection, now under active Knesset debate.
- Environmental protection provisions in Israel's Freedom of Information Act.
- IUED criminal suit against Haifa Chemicals, resulting in a new agreement with the company to accelerate clean up of pollutant into the Kishon River.
- The new Knesset Environmental Scorecard, recording voting records of Knesset members on their environmental performance, updated on an annual basis.
By focusing on the urban landscape, instead of protecting Israel's rural areas or preserving biodiversity, the IUED has found its unique contribution is in Israel's highly populated areas, or as its annual report so matter-of-factly states: "Our organizational niche is the human environment, the lived-in environment."
After his initial return from Israel, Kaizer set out to learn as much as he could about Israel's environmental problems and to become involved with the IUED. Working tirelessly at home to bring attention to the environment, Kaizer and his wife, Pam, held parlor meetings in Los Angeles to educate people about what was happening in Israel. He was able to network successfully for the IUED, contacting influential people on behalf of the organization. Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-West L.A.) was impressed with the group's work, he consulted with them on legislative strategy for their IUED-drafted Clean Air Act. Last year, on Passover, Kaizer visited with Warburg in Israel to discuss IUED's policy initiatives. At that meeting, Warburg asked Kaiser to become the National Chairman of American Friends of the IUED (AFIUED). Kaizer could not have been more pleased.
"The organization had existed in the past, but more as a depository of funds rather than an active American board," Kaizer said. "[Starting this year] AFIUED will focus on fundraising, technical exchange, educational outreach and joint American-Israeli programs."
Kaizer has already begun discussing his concerns with a network of Jewish activists, philanthropists and communal leaders around the country to form a National Board, with Waxman already slated to help.
"I am convinced that our community has untapped expertise in dealing with many of the critical environmental issues that Israel faces," Kaizer said.
"Israeli people are going to continue living in Israel during times that are less secure, like now, and in times that will, hopefully, be in long-lasting peace. Critical health and environmental issues -- let's call them quality-of-life concerns -- will always be important. Why should Israel and Diaspora Jewry be concerned about these quality-of-life issues now? Because, we are in it for the long haul."
Or as Warburg explained, "Citizens are beginning to realize we can't afford to wait for peace."
For more information about the AFIUED, call Evan Kaizer at (323) 721-0100, ext. 308, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.