Climate change, Jerusalem and Shmita

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Rabbis throughout the ages make it clear that God charges mankind with the care of Creation.

“When God created Adam, He took him and showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him … be careful not to spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, he will not there will be no one after you to fix it. “(Midrash Kohelet Rabba, 7/13)

As we enter the Shmita Year (sabbatical), especially with climate change and the cascade of natural disasters happening around the planet, we can take a closer look at the environmental issues in Jerusalem. Massive construction projects overshadow the city’s environmental preservation and impact the health and sustainability of our city. While everyone is aware of the need to build housing in the city, some projects seem to pose a threat to the city’s green lung and the health of its inhabitants. Many trees are sacrificed for construction and infrastructure. Despite some environmental successes, such as the cancellation of the construction project on the Mei Naftoah and Rehavia tracks, or the development of Messila Park and the Gazelle Valley, there is still a lot to do.

The sabbatical year which begins is an opportunity to reconsider some of these construction projects and to realize the need to protect our environment. Who should lead these plans? Should it be an initiative of the official establishment or should it emanate from the inhabitants – or perhaps both, in a harmonious joint effort? Besides, what does the Jewish tradition say about these questions? Could Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions be part of this vision that it is our duty to protect our environment?
“The Shmita year, when the planting is supposed to cease, the debts must be canceled and the land rests, has deep environmental and social significance. However, in Jerusalem, with massive construction and transport infrastructure projects on the table, it will result in the death penalty for tens of thousands of trees that hamper “development”, while no trees will be planted. Said Naomi Tsur, founder and president of the Jerusalem Green Fund. Tsur, who was deputy in charge of environmental affairs under former mayor Nir Barkat and director of the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature, notes that with the challenge of the climate crisis, trees and spaces greens play an increasingly important role in sustainable urban planning.

“Could this be a year to rethink our policy for ancient trees in Jerusalem, each of which tells its own story while contributing to the shade and comfort of the entire public domain? They deserve our protection and care, and do us a lot of good in return, ”she said.

ONE of these interesting initiatives is that of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, which explores the connection between religion and ecology and mobilizes religious communities to take action. ICSD, based in Jerusalem, operates worldwide, with current engagements in Africa, the Middle East, North America and Europe.

ICSD’s work in 2020 focused on the Faith and Ecology Seminar Project, exploring the links between different traditions and contemporary environmental issues. ICSD published the Ecological bible (Volume I), an ecological commentary on Genesis and Exodus. ICSD Founder and Director Rabbi Yonatan Neril together with ICSD Director of Programs Leo Dee offers answers to the fundamental question related to the year of Shmita: hurricanes, floods, fires and plastic pollution ? Ecological bible delves into this question, showing how the Bible cares about God’s creation as a foundational, living message.

Considering the strong presence of faith and the importance of biblical messages in this region, ICSD President David Marom believes this approach is a good way to attract residents to environmental activism.

A number of Jerusalem nonprofits are working to protect nature in this city and improve living conditions, presenting environmental needs as no less important than housing projects. At a recent meeting organized by the Movement for Public Journalism with the Jerusalem Press Club, a dozen of these local groups presented their activities for nature and the environment across the city, including in the areas haredi and arabic.

MPJ founder and director Yair Tarchitsky says Jerusalem has an impressive list of such organizations because many residents from different sectors care enough about the environment to become activists. The movement is working to raise awareness of these initiatives and encourage more residents to join. Save the forest of Jerusalem; Protect the Darga River in Har Choma; activists from Mitz Petel to Talpiot Mizrah; Residents of Har Nof Forest; and residents of Pisgat Ze’ev for the protection of neighborhood gazelles are some of the groups that attended this meeting. Lianna Kianni, an activist from East Jerusalem, works with families and children in the Arab sector to raise awareness of the need to recycle. Activists of all ages and backgrounds from across town are dedicated to planting and protecting trees.

In a related case, the controversial project to build luxury homes in the abandoned village of Lifta will ultimately not be implemented. In a surprising move, the Jerusalem Municipality informed the city’s district court last week that it preferred to cancel the construction plan there. The announcement follows a petition from a group of Jerusalem residents against the plan promoted by the Israel Land Authority. The municipality maintains that the project would destroy green and historic spaces.

“The plan is incompatible with public interests from an urban point of view,” the representative of Safra Square told the district court, adding that they had told the ILA years ago that this project did not did not meet the real needs of the city, but the ILA nonetheless promoted it, ignoring the position of the municipality, a true representative of the Jerusalemites.

Will Jerusalem adopt the key ideas of the year of Shmita? Will we see new trees on our streets? Will old trees be better treated and ultimately saved instead of being hastily cut down? Will the municipality’s decision to firmly oppose a prestigious project carried by an authority as high as the ILA in order to preserve a historic and natural site will it become a precedent or will it remain an isolated case?

It may be too early to tell, but the action of the locals who in Shmita’s mind are aware of the dangers resulting from disregard for nature is certainly one of the most important keys to safeguarding nature.


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