Profile: Alon Tal
Israel’s leading environmentalist remains as busy as ever, founding one ecological group after another in his singleminded pursuit to save the country’s natural treasures.
Alon Tal has just finished his early morning run and he is wearing shorts, T-shirt and sneakers. We sit and talk on a bench in New York’s Central Park, but everything about the balding, bearded and trim Tal points to his kinetic nature, from the rapid-fire rhythm of his speech to the energy with which he has infused Israel’s green movement.
He is in the United States to attend the annual conference of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.
You couldn’t choose a better name for an environmentalist—in Hebrew, alon means oak and tal means dew. In fact, Tal was born Albert Rosenthal 48 years ago. He became Alon as a 20-year-oldoleh, before his career path was clear. When his parents made aliya in 1985, his father shortened the last name to Tal.
Maybe it was destiny,” says Tal, but any inherent symbolism takes a back seat to the practicalities of fulfilling Tal’s vision of a better world. He has just cofounded, with Eran Ben Yemini, a new green political movement in Israel, Yisrael Yeruka, and expects to participate in future elections; his hope is to be the next minister of the environment.
“We are privileged to have access to the Land of Israel after 2,000 years of history and, tragically, we seem to be missing the boat,” notes Tal. “We have not met our responsibilities as stewards of the land.” Israel has contaminated its aquifers; polluted its air (resulting in asthma and cancer epidemics); abused pesticides; and littered “with pitifully little reuse and recycling,” adds Tal. “The laundry list of environmental maladies goes on and on.”
Tal is well schooled in initiating pioneering projects. At age 29, with an initial grant of $12,000 and subsequent monies totaling $60,000, he founded Adam Teva V’Din (the Israel Union for Environmental Defense), now the leading public-interest environmental law group in Israel. In 1996, he created the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, a graduate center that brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to research and study the region’s challenges. “Here, the idea that nature knows no political borders is more than a belief,” declares its brochure. “It is a way of life.” The kibbutz was founded in 1973 by Young Judaea graduates.
In the presentation entitled “What’s Jewish About the Environment?” at the CAJE conference, Tal urged, “Let the land be your Rashi. Land can teach us Torah.” Jewish environmentalism, he said, is rooted deep in the authenticity of antiquity, in an agrarian ethic, the impulse to social justice and the need for Shabbat as a time to return to the Garden of Eden. (In Israel, air pollution rates drop drastically in observant neighborhoods on Shabbat.) The notion of being partners in creation is a Jewish concept, he said, quoting a line in the Aleinu prayer, “le-taken olam” (to repair the world). Even if Jews are not—or no longer—the biggest tree-huggers, he said bluntly, we have been good environmental technicians, transforming arid land with drip agriculture and solving water crises with desalinization.
He also quoted writer Amos Oz: “Nature is not a museum. The object is not nature preservation. One is allowed to touch, draw closer, to change and leave our stamp. But on one condition—with love.”
In 2005, tal received the $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize for environmental leadership; with it, he established the Tal Fund to help grass-roots ecological efforts. Last year, he was one of 12 recipients of a lifetime achievement award from Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Tal is currently professor of desert ecology at the Blaustein Institutes of Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. But he is once again venturing beyond academia and into activism, this time with the Yisrael Yeruka Party. Fresh and expert leadership, he believes, can help pull Israeli democracy out of its current mire.
Tal is an “absolute dynamo,” says Nigel Savage, founder of the American Jewish environmental organization Hazon. “It would be remarkable to have founded one of Israel’s leading environmental organizations, but he’s…on the way to founding three.”
Eilon Schwartz, the director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Jerusalem, has known Tal since they were teenagers together in Young Judaea and credits him as a mentor in his own growth as an environmental leader. “His passionate drive to make a difference, his unique combination of political savvy and idealistic naiveté have led him to be…the true father of the Israeli environmental movement,” notes Schwartz.
Tal represents the Conservative movement on the board of the Jewish National Fund and chairs its Committee for Land Development, which oversees forestry and water projects. He serves as gabbai of the Masorti synagogue Shalhevet HaMaccabim in Modi’in, where he lives with his family—Robyn, his wife of 21 years, and their three daughters, Mika, 18; Hadas, 14; and Zoe, 8.
He recently edited Water Wisdom: A New Menu of Opportunities for Resolving the Water Conflict in the Middle East (Rutgers University Press), which reflects the perspectives of Israeli and Palestinian environmentalists who have team-written chapters on 18 water-related topics. His previous books are Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel (University of California Press) and Speaking of Earth: Environmental Speeches That Moved the World (Rutgers University Press), a collection of speeches accompanied by his commentaries.
Tal gravitated naturally to an environmentally grounded life. His father, David, headed the analytical chemistry lab at the Research Triangle Institute and dealt with water and air quality concerns that he often expressed during family dinner conversations. “I reckon that has something to do with [my career choice],” says Tal. His mother, Yonina, was a professor of education and sociology at North Carolina State University.
Though Southern grammatical patterns still inflect Tal’s speech (“He done it”; “I come back”), he traces his “I reckons” to two sabbaticals and many teaching stints at Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand. “If Israel is my first love, New Zealand is my mistress: It’s the most compassionate and physically astonishing country,” he says.
It was Tal’s parents who instilled in him a love of Israel, Judaism and social justice. He graduated at 19 from the University of North Carolina with degrees in political science and economics. After he moved to Israel, he served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces, then earned a law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and returned to the States for his master’s and doctorate in environmental health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite his degrees, when he founded Adam Teva V’Din, he took the same salary—$1,000 a month—as his young, idealistic staffers and commuted by plane to his Tel Aviv office from Kibbutz Ketura, where his family lived for 11 years. He weathered death threats, bribery attempts and lawsuits, saving many environmental treasures in the process. “This was the new Zionism,” he explains. “It still is.”
His efforts have spanned the local and the international, from a recycling program at Ketura to serving on Israel’s permanent delegation to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and helping convene the first international conference at Sde Boker on desertification in December 2007.
Tal loves to hike and bike, runs or plays tennis every morning and still plays bluegrass guitar with the Arava Riders. His parents now live in Haifa; his sister Gabriella Tal is a musician and massage therapist in North Carolina; his brother, Oren Rosenthal, works in high technology in Austin, Texas; and another sister, Aliza Stark, is a biochemist on the faculty of Hebrew University’s nutrition department.
Environmental literacy is crucial, warns Tal, who foresees synagogues and Jewish organizations bubbling with ecological activity. Beyond that, he observes, “I’d argue that the real contribution of Jewish environmentalists is…to address the religious crisis facing our youth. Their whole reality is virtual. We need to get out into nature and bring adults and children back to our sacred places.”