Israel’s top environmentalist cleans up

Alon Tal is the type of intense personality that can be easily perceived as intimidating. His isn’t the power suit and tie eating a power lunch type of intensity. Instead, his icy, blue/gray-eyed gaze, quick movements, and dissemination of complicated, …

Alon Tal is the type of intense personality that can be easily perceived as intimidating.

His isn’t the power suit and tie eating a power lunch type of intensity. Instead, his icy, blue/gray-eyed gaze, quick movements, and dissemination of complicated, scientific information come pouring out in a near stream-of-consciousness stream, forcing the listener to register and comprehend all in one go.

His rapid-fire manner is an indicator of Tal’s overtime-working, mental cogs that have placed him at the forefront of Israel’s environmental scene. An expert in his field; professor, lobbyist, activist, researcher and family man, Tal’s most recent achievement has been to garner the prestigious Charles Bronfman Prize for advancing Israel and the Jewish world’s environmental movement.

“This award gives me a sense of motivation to go out and find what’s next to change the world,” Tal told ISRAEL21c after receiving the award last month. “There is… still a huge amount to be done. The award makes me a little bit more eager with a little bit more alacrity for embracing the next challenge that comes through.”

Established by philanthropist Charles Bronfman’s children in honor of his 70th birthday, the $100,000 prize honors recipients who are “emblematic of the Jewish values and regard for humanity that provide inspiration to the emerging generation.”

Inspiration is clearly the wind pushing Tal along a driven and successful path. Born in North Carolina, he immigrated to Israel at 20 and served as an IDF paratrooper during Israel’s Peace for Galilee campaign in the early 80s.

Despite a dual degree in political science and economics, it was during his 2-year, army stint that, upon seeing trash strewn about Israel’s landscape, Tal realized environmental work might be his calling.

“We are willing to die for it, but not keep it clean,” he admonished.

Post-army, Tal went on to earn an additional degree – this time in law – from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University while working at the Environmental Protection Service, a government agency which eventually became the Ministry of Environment. His work there cemented his future.

“He was a person who could move things,” recalls Ruth Rotenberg, his then-mentor who encouraged Tal to get in on the policy end of Israel’s environmental scene. Now head of the legal department at Israel’s Ministry of Environment, Rotenberg works in tandem with Tal as he advocates continued upgrade of Israel’s environmental laws.

“It is so critical that we retain our traditional appreciation for material humility in the face of the world’s pervasive obsession with conspicuous consumption,” Tal told attendees of the Bronfman Award Ceremony last month. “The radical amazement and awe at the natural wonders – the miracle of life – are so fundamental to the Jewish perspective and need to be with us as we, as a society, define our priorities.”

Those priorities are what pushed Tal to return to the US after law studies to earn a doctorate in environmental health policy from Harvard. He then came back to Israel and founded the watchdog organization Israel Union for Environmental Defense (UED) in 1990.

The first American style, legal advocacy group of its kind in Israel, the UED petitions government development policies endangering the environment and public health.

Considered Israel’s most effective environmental organization, it has won countless legal actions, garnered more stringent regulations, tougher enforcement policies, and increased environmental initiative.

Legal victories have included halting Red Sea sewage dumping and installing a multi-million dollar, purification system in Northern Israel’s Kishon River offsetting toxicity created by nearby factory waste.

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 says.

Joint cooperation was a key theme when Tal went on in 1996 to found the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies based at Kibbutz Ketura, a half hour north of Eilat. Offering Master’s degrees in desert and environmental studies, the Institute’s growing international student body includes budding representation from neighboring Jordan.

“It’s the most logical combination one can imagine,” says Tal, “since environmental challenges recognize no borders and any solution to this region’s problems can only come from an international cooperative approach.”

“When I first told my family I was coming to Israel to study, they asked me: ‘Are you crazy? We fought Israel many times and you’re going there!?’” reports student Said Saleh Abu Ghosh of Amman, Jordan. “I wanted to see these people with my own eyes. The Arava Institute, isn’t only about the environment – they use the environment as a Middle East peace-building program. It and Dr. Tal have been really good for me.”

Mentoring and political activism are Tal’s specialties: He served as chairman of Israel’s umbrella group for environmental organizations between 1999 and 2004, is currently a board member of the Jewish National Fund and recently joined Ben Gurion University’s Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research and the Mitrani Department of Desert Ecology.

He sits on several, desertification related, international committees and is currently researching water management and stream restoration, evaluation of environmental education and desertification policies.

“I like this very, very much,” he said, regarding his multiple roles as researcher, advocate and professor. “I can conduct research but I have a lot of flexibility without all of the bureaucracy.”

And what of Israel’s policies and ranking in terms of awareness and advocacy?

“We’re not there yet,” Tal admits. However, he cites history as the impetus for urging continued efforts towards progress.

“Thirty years ago, you’d go swimming in the sea for five minutes and clean the tar off your feet for another half hour from the filthy water. Today the Mediterranean is basically tar-free. Twenty years ago, sulfur dioxide used to suffocate the good people of Ashdod and Haifa. Today it is hardly on the Ministry of Environment’s radar screen. Even sewage treatment, long the Achilles heel of Israel’s environmental problems is getting better. And if we stick with the program and standards that the Ministry of Environment has set out for us, in ten years we could have the cleanest effluents in the world.”