Israel's Most Serious Threat?

Richard H. Schwartz

The greatest threat to Israel's survival may not be terrorism or Iran, as serious as these threats are, but a variety of environmental problems, especially global warming.

Jews are properly concerned about the well-being of Israel and wish her to be secure and prosperous. But what about security, wealth, and comfort of another kind -- the quality of Israel's air, water, and ecosystems? What about the physical condition of the eternal Holy Land? While not discussed frequently enough, these and other environmental dangers and degradations have increasingly become serious issues that will greatly affect Israel's future.

The State of Israel has accomplished amazing things in its few decades - in agriculture, education, law, social integration, technology, Torah study, human services, and academics. But simultaneous (and sometimes related) neglect and ruthless exploitation of its land, water, air, and resources have left Israel ecologically impoverished and endangered.

Like other countries, Israel is increasingly threatened by climate change, arguably the greatest current threat to humanity. There are almost daily reports about present and future effects of global climate change, including severe droughts, storms and floods, wildfires, endangered polar bears, melting glaciers and polar ice caps and much more. While this has occurred due to an average temperature change of little more than one degree Fahrenheit in the past 100 years, climate scientists are projecting an increase of from three to eleven degrees Fahrenheit in the next 100 years. Some climatologists are warning that global warming could spin out of control, with catastrophic consequences, within a decade, if major changes do not soon occur.

Israel is especially threatened by global warming, as indicated by a 2007 report from the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED; Adam Teva V'Din). According to the report, “The Forecast is in Our Hands,” unless major changes are soon made in Israel and globally, global warming could have catastrophic consequences for Israel, including:

* Temperatures will rise an average of 5 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and there will be an increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves. In the spring of 2008 there were several major heat waves, with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Tel Aviv on at least three days.

* The number of rainy days will drop and annual rainfall will decrease by up to 30 percent. Since Israel is already a semi-arid area with limited rainfall, this decrease will be very serious at a time of population growth and increased demands for water from industry and agriculture. Uri Shani, the director of the Israel Water Authority, said in July, 2008 that Israel's water situation is facing "the worst crisis in 80 years." The Water Authority plans to cut the allocation of fresh water to
agriculture from 450 million to 300 million cubic meters a year.  Shani notes that this step will lead to the drying out of large cultivated areas, especially the Hula Valley, the Golan and the Galilee that depend on fresh-water irrigation. Prices of fruit and vegetables will
continue to rise as a result,

* There will be an increase in the number and severity of storms, causing major flooding and other disruptions.

* In the worst-case scenario, global warming could cause the Mediterranean Sea level to rise by 5 meters (about 16 feet), causing major flooding of low-lying areas. In such a case, Haifa's coastal highway could be inundated, and Tel Aviv's shore could reach as far as Ibn Gvirol Street, a main thoroughfare. Even an increase of half a meter (about 20 inches) in the Mediterranean Sea could flood residential areas and damage ports and power plants and other coastal infrastructure.

* Israel's water resources would be threatened by a decline in groundwater replenishment, an increase in groundwater salinity due to rising sea levels, pollutants penetrating drinking water reservoirs and a decrease in the quality of water in the Sea of Galillee and other water resources due to reduced rainfall and increased evaporation caused by higher temperatures.

* Israel's agriculture will suffer due to decreased rainfall, intensive heat waves and an increase in other extreme weather conditions.

* Israel's flora and fauna, already widely affected by human activities, are especially vulnerable to the effects of major climate changes. Some species may disappear, while others that are sensitive to lower temperatures may proliferate, resulting in changes in Israel's flora and fauna beyond recognition.

* Increased erosion of gravel cliffs in coastal cities, including Hadera, Netanya, Herzliya, Tel Aviv, Rishon le Zion and Ashkelon, and other coastal cities will put nearby buildings at risk of collapsing.

* The southern desert would expand significantly northward from Beersheba where it is today, potentially reducing land necessary to grow food and meet other human needs.

* The warming and rise in heat waves could cause wider distribution of disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes and ticks.

* The economic cost to Israel due to global warming effects could be as high as $33 billion annually, a major price in a country striving to reduce poverty and improve its health, education and other societal programs while maintaining its security in the face of many threats.

According to Friends of the Earth Middle East's report, “Climate Change: A New Threat to Middle East Security, “climate change is likely to act as a “threat multiplier” in the Middle East - exacerbating water scarcity and tensions over water within and between nations linked by hydrological resources, geography, and shared political boundaries. Poor and vulnerable populations, which exist in significant numbers throughout the region, will likely face the greatest risk. Water shortages and rising sea levels could lead to mass migration in the Region. Economic unrest across the region, due to a decline in agricultural production from climate impacts on water resources, also could lead to greater political unrest, which could threaten current regimes, thereby affecting internal and cross-border relations. These factors place greater pressure on the entire region and on already-strained, cross-border relations, and potentially foster more widespread heightened tensions and/or conflicts.  However, addressing the projected climate impacts provides opportunities for local, cross-border and international cooperation to ameliorate the problems that are already occurring and that are projected to intensify. Improving local demand- and supply-side water and energy management policies is essential.  Israel as a developed economy must join OECD country commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Israel could play a leadership role in developing technological solutions domestically to help mitigate and adapt to projected climate impacts.  Technologies, such as dry toilets, compost toilets, and household rainwater harvesting systems already are being used in other parts of the world. 

The Israeli and Jordanian governments should play leadership roles in providing pricing reforms and reducing the subsidies for agriculture.  More recycled wastewater should be used for agriculture throughout the region, rather than fresh water, and less water-intensive crops must be produced.  The governments also should provide incentives to households for household harvesting systems that collect rainwater that can be used for flushing toilets and other purposes, or for other water-conserving technologies.  In addition, far greater public awareness is needed.  The governments could facilitate media campaigns on a range of possible individual water conservation efforts.

Friends of the Earth/Middle East (FoEME) is a group that operates in Jordan, Palestine and Israel to implement cross-border water-related projects in an effort to facilitate environmental problem solving and peace building. Through one of its projects, “Good Water Neighbors,” the group is implementing rainwater harvesting systems at schools in Palestine and Jordan.  The collected water is used for bathrooms that particularly enable girls to attend school, because without operational bathrooms, they cannot attend school at all. FoEME also is implementing reconstructed wetlands to provide a "low-technology" method to treat sewage and return it to rivers to extend water supplies in these bodies.  These cross border efforts will help address water resource impacts that could result from climate change as well as facilitate peace building efforts. 

Israel also suffers from other environmental threats. According to the IUED, 1,100 people die annually from air pollution in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area alone, and about 20 percent of Israeli children suffers from asthma or other breathing difficulties due to air pollution. Most of Israel's rivers are badly polluted and the country lacks sufficient open spaces and areas for garbage disposal.

In addition to alerting Israelis to the great threats they face from global warming and other environmental problems, IUED and other Israeli environmental groups, including the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), Friends of the Earth Middle East and Green Course, a university-based group, are initiating campaigns to respond to the threats. They are calling on the government of Israel to generate a national response to global warming without further delay.

IUED believes that there are compelling moral, environmental, economic and national security justifications for Israel to join the global effort. “IUED believes that Israel has a moral duty to join the ranks of responsible nations rising to the global challenge,” notes Tzipi Izer Itzik. Executive Director of IUED.  “Israel had led the field in innovations in irrigation technologies, desert agriculture, forestation in arid regions, and solar energy. We should be using this expertise to advance global solutions instead of behaving as if the global climate crisis is nothing to do with us.”

IUED is calling on the State of Israel to take steps to develop a national response to climate change that consider all aspects of Israeli life. Among their many recommendations are: steps towards energy independence, energy efficiency and reduced consumption in public and private sectors; a switch to an efficient mass transportation system and the use of cleaner fuels; an advanced waste management policy that promotes reduction, reuse and recycling of resources; sustainable agriculture and water use geared towards energy saving and re-use of water resources; and development of economic incentives for technologies to reduce emissions and aid carbon capture and storage (CCS).

“Israel needs to respond to the challenge of climate change by providing a legislative framework and economic incentives that will put Israel at the forefront of the global struggle,” says Iser Itzik. “IUED believes that a timely national Israeli response will provide new business opportunities, encourage new technologies, and provide new jobs. In parallel, a concerted program will improve local environmental conditions.”

IUED's report recommends that Israel should adopt the European Union's approach and commit to reducing carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, using 2000 as a baseline, and by 60% by 2050, taking into account the anticipated growth in population, rising standard of living and the steps required to adapt to projected warming. She also stresses that speedy responses are essential: “There are a few short years in which we can work with the global community for the benefit of all. We need to start tackling climate change right now.”

There is one important response to global warming that is generally being ignored. A 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report indicated that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (18 percent, in CO2 equivalents) than the entire transportation sector (13.5 percent), and that the number of farmed animals is projected to double by mid-century. Therefore, what we eat is actually more important than what we drive and the most important personal change we could make for the environment, as well as for our health and the lives of animals, is to switch to vegetarianism. Such a change would also improve the health of Jews and others, and be more consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, preserving the environment, conserving natural resources and helping hungry people.

As the above factors indicate, Israel, the U.S. and, indeed, the entire world is endangered today, as perhaps never before by global warming and other environmental threats. Hence, it is essential that tikkun olam, the healing and repair of the world become a major focus in Jewish life today and that Jews play our mandated role as “a light unto the nations” in helping the world's people know about the seriousness of the threats and the need for speedy actions in response. This would help revitalize Judaism by showing the relevance of eternal Jewish teachings to current threats and help move our precious, but imperiled, planet to a sustainable path.

Friends of the Earth/Middle East contributed material for this article.

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island
Author of "Judaism and Vegetarianism," "Judaism and Global Survival," and "Mathematics and Global Survival," and over 130 articles at
President of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA)
and Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV)
Associate Producer of A SACRED DUTY (

Back to the Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights