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Green rabbi: Environment key to Mideast peace
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Green rabbi: Environment key to Mideast peace

Rabbi Michael Cohen of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura, explains the environmental problems threatening Israelis and Palestinians during a program in Highland Park sponsored by Central New Jersey J Street. Photo by Debra
Rabbi Michael Cohen of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura, explains the environmental problems threatening Israelis and Palestinians during a program in Highland Park sponsored by Central New Jersey J Street. Photo by Debra

One day after what would have been the former Beatle’s 70th birthday, Rabbi Michael Cohen quoted the late John Lennon: “There are no problems, only solutions.”

Nevertheless, the Israel-based environmental activist portrayed a disturbing picture of the country’s ecological challenges, including a region straining natural resources in an effort to come up with sources of energy and drinkable water, and a growing glut of vehicles spewing pollutants into the environment.

Ecosystems that have been a part of the region for many centuries are threatened by pollution and land development, he said.

“The River Jordan is neither very mighty, deep, or wide,” he said in an Oct. 10 talk in Highland Park. “It is more like a trickle and a sewer.”

A founder and the development director for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura on the Israeli-Jordanian border, Cohen spoke at the home of Joyce Leslie on behalf of the Central New Jersey chapter of J Street, “the pro-Israel, pro-peace” group.

In keeping with that agenda, Cohen, also cofounder of the Green Zionist Alliance, spoke of the ways that the institute is encouraging peace by helping Jews and Arabs cooperate on environmental issues.

“Air knows no boundaries and rivers know no borders,” he said.

The Dead Sea is retreating at an alarming rate, surrounded by sinkholes so severe that several communities have had to be relocated. A highway in Ein Gedi had to be reinforced with plates to prevent vehicles from being swallowed up.

“The rate of death in Israel from air pollution is skyrocketing,” said Cohen. “But as bad as the problems are there, the environmental situation in Gaza is absolutely appalling,” threatening the lives and health of not only its citizens but others in the region.

Through the Arava Institute, affiliated with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, environmentalists and scientists throughout the Arab world are working jointly with Israelis on desalinizing water, growing plants and trees in salty soil, and tackling pollution.

“The environment doesn’t know political lines,” said Cohen. “The environment doesn’t just invite us in, but forces us to work together with Jordanians and Palestinians. It therefore presents an area of cooperation…. You can’t clean half a river.”

Cohen, a native of Ewing whose father was a professor at Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey, splits his time between Vermont and Israel.

“Just as with Ireland, a groundwork of understanding must be laid before there can be lasting peace,” said Cohen. “The truth is Jews and Arabs live very separate lives. They can participate in these weekend programs and have these wonderful ‘kumbaya’ experiences, but at the end of the day, they go home to their separate lives.

“When they are forced to live in a dorm room together or eat together, they have to work out their problems, and I think that is the most important key. A transformation and friendship takes place and at the end of the day they can at least say, ‘I got to know my neighbor.’”

For more information, go to arava.org.

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