The central story commemorated on Hanukkah comes from books 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tells of a small group of Jews in the land of Israel that fought to liberate their community from the increasingly oppressive reign of the Seleucid empire. Under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the empire had imposed their Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish community; in 167 BCE, Antiochus intensified his campaign by defiling the temple in Jerusalem and banning Jewish practice. The Jewish band known as the Maccabees subsequently waged a three-year campaign that culminated in the cleaning and rededication of the temple and ultimately, the establishment of the second Jewish commonwealth.
The meaning of Hanukkah has historically been understood and interpreted in many different ways by Jewish communities throughout the centuries. For the rabbis of the Talmud, who sought to downplay the militarism and violence of the story, the holiday is emblematic of God’s miraculous power, symbolized famously by the Talmudic legend (quoted above) of a miraculous cruse of oil in the rededicated Temple that lasted for eight days. The Zionist movement and the state of Israel celebrate Hanukkah as a nationalist holiday, glorifying the Maccabees’ military struggle for political independence. In many nations throughout the Jewish diaspora, the festival is often understood as an expression of Jewish minority pride and a celebration of religious freedom.
More recently, some American Jewish religious leaders have been reinterpreting Hanukkah as a holiday of sacred environmental concern, framing the legend of the oil as a lesson about the importance of energy sustainability. Jewish environmental activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow, for instance, has proposed observing “Eight Days of Environmental Action” during Hanukkah, suggesting that the legend “is a reminder that if we have the courage to change our lifestyles to conserve energy, the miracle of our own creativity will sustain us.” The website of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) now devotes an entire section to “Green Resources for Hanukkah.” The Jewish environmental organization Hazon also offers extensive resources for the holiday, including “10 Ways to Make your Hanukkah More Sustainable.”
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While these new approaches are certainly meaningful as far as they go, it is worth questioning why the environmental dimensions of Hanukkah must begin and end with green personal behaviors. Given that the festival celebrates a struggle for liberation, Hanukkah also offers us a powerful opportunity to highlight and celebrate the emergent global movement for environmental justice.
This connection is particularly relevant since this struggle is unfolding in critical ways in the land where the Hanukkah story actually took place. In fact, the state of Israel has a well-documented history of monopolizing and exploiting the natural resources of historic Palestine — all too often at the expense of the Palestinian people themselves. If we are truly serious about celebrating Hanukkah as a “green holiday,” we should also use these eight days to shine a light on the myriad environmental injustices being committed in Israel/Palestine — and further, to rededicate ourselves to the movement for environmental justice there and around the world.
“Green Colonialism” in Israel/Palestine
Environmentalism has always been central to the myth of Zionist pioneers who described themselves as having “greened the barren desert” of Palestine. Like many of my generation who came of age in American Jewish religious schools, I well remember being taught that helping the Jewish National Fund (JNF) plant pine trees in Israel was an act of almost sacred significance. Like generations of Hebrew school students before and after us, we were encouraged to regularly put coins in the iconic blue-and-white JNF collection boxes and were given certificates as gifts whenever a tree was planted in our honor or for a special occasion.
The reality beneath this mythos, however, reveals a much more problematic and troubling history. We didn’t learn the crucial colonial goal behind the JNF’s forestation policy throughout Palestine — that the widespread planting of pine groves and forests was instrumental in the dispossession of Palestinians. We certainly didn’t learn about Yosef Weitz, director of the JNF from 1932 to 1948, who was a primary architect of the Zionist policy of Palestinian Arab “transfer,” often advocating for this policy openly and unabashedly.
At a meeting of the Transfer Committee in 1937, for instance, Weitz stated:
The transfer of Arab population from the area of the Jewish state does not serve only one aim — to diminish the Arab population. It also serves a second, no less important, aim which is to advocate land presently held and cultivated by the Arabs and thus to release it for Jewish inhabitants.
It is now known that pine forests planted by the JNF were widely used as national and recreational parks to hide the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages and neighborhoods that were depopulated by force in 1948. According to scholars Ilan Pappé and Samer Jaber, “covering ethnic cleansing with pine trees is probably the most cynical method employed by Israel in its quest to take over as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as possible.” The Israeli organization Zochrot estimates that “more than two-thirds of [JNF] forests and sites — 46 out of 68 — conceal or are located on the ruins of Palestinian villages demolished by Israel.”
In a recent conference call sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), journalist/activist Naomi Klein referred to this practice as “green colonialism,” pointing out that “the use of conservation and tree planting and forest protection as a tool of settler colonialism is not unique to Israel” and that “the creation of state parks and national parks (in North America) are seen by Indigenous people in these settler colonial contexts in similar ways.” According to Klein, “there is a long and ongoing history of conservation … where the land is declared a park and the traditional inhabitants and users of the land are locked out.”
The cumulative environmental impact of nonindigenous pine trees throughout historic Palestine has been devasting. European pines, which were consciously planted to evoke the memory of the forests familiar to Zionist settlers, have largely failed to adapt to the local soil, requiring frequent replanting. As they have aged, non-native pines also have demanded more and more water, rendering them more vulnerable to disease. Moreover, falling pine needles have acidified the soil, inhibiting the growth of native species.
This practice, coupled with the steadily soaring temperatures in the region, has increasingly led to devastating forest fires such as the Carmel wildfire in 2010, estimated to be the worst in Israel’s history. Given its grievous environmental impact, the 2010 fire subsequently precipitated a widespread reassessment in Israel of early Zionist tree-planting policies. In 2011, Yisrael Tauber, director of forest management for the JNF, grudgingly admitted, “Planting is still important, but in many cases we have to make a kind of change in our consciousness.…We are now building sustainable forestry after these pioneering pines did a wonderful job for the first generation.”
Of course, given the rising threat of the global climate crisis, this admission arrives as too little, too late. Increasingly dangerous conflagrations are now a regular occurrence throughout Israel; this past summer, three simultaneous wildfires necessitated the evacuation of hundreds of residents across the country. This trend is particularly ominous given that this region is among the hardest hit by the climate crisis. At the UN Climate Conference in Madrid this month, the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection issued a report listing a number of devastating projections, including an expected rise in the risk of natural disasters.
“Water Apartheid” in the West Bank
The struggle over water resources is another important example of historic and ongoing climate injustice in Israel/Palestine. Israel has almost complete control over water sources in the region, a monopoly the human rights group Al-Haq refers to as “water apartheid.” According to Amnesty International, Palestinian consumption in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is about 70 liters a day per person (well below the 100 liters per capita daily recommended by the World Health Organization) whereas Israeli daily per capita consumption is about 300 liters. In some rural communities, Palestinians survive on 20 liters per day.
Those who visit the West Bank cannot help but be struck by the sight of Israeli settlements, with lush, well-watered lawns looming over Palestinian towns and villages surrounded by rocky soil and sparse vegetation. This is largely due to the fact that Israel uses more than 80 percent of the water from the Mountain Aquifer, the only source of underground water in the West Bank, as well as all of the surface water available from the Jordan River, which is completely denied to Palestinians.
As a result of this inequitable system, some 180,000 to 200,000 Palestinians in rural communities have no access to running water. In towns and villages which are connected to the water network, water rationing is common, many Palestinians have no choice but to purchase additional supplies from mobile water tankers which deliver water of often dubious quality at a much higher price. (The Mountain Aquifer, one of the most valuable natural resources in the region, is situated almost completely east of the Green Line, a key factor in Israel’s inexorable annexation of the West Bank.)
Over the years, Israel’s over-pumping of underground aquifers has lowered the groundwater table below sea level and caused saline water intrusion in many areas. The average flow of the Jordan River has been decreasing dramatically and has become so polluted by Israeli settlement and industry run-off that it was declared unsafe for baptism by Friends of the Earth Middle East in 2010 (known today as EcoPeace Middle East). The Dead Sea has shrunk into two separate and rapidly evaporating bodies of water, increasingly polluted by Israeli companies that pump out its salts for cosmetic products.
Environmental Injustice in Gaza
When it comes to Gaza, Israel’s crushing 12-year-old blockade has almost completely depleted the supply of drinkable water for the nearly 2,000,000 Palestinians who live in this small strip of land. Gaza’s only water resource, the Coastal Aquifer, is insufficient for the needs of the population, and Israel does not allow the transfer of water from the West Bank to Gaza. In the meantime, the aquifer has been steadily depleted and contaminated by over-extraction and by sewage and seawater infiltration, and 97 percent of its water has been contaminated and unfit for human consumption.
Stringent restrictions imposed in recent years by Israel on the entry into Gaza of material and equipment necessary for the development and repair of infrastructure have caused further deterioration of its water and sanitation situation. For the past several years, sewage has been flowing into the Mediterranean at a rate of 110 million liters a day. At present, 97 percent of Gaza’s freshwater is unsuitable for human consumption and only 10 percent of Gaza’s residents have access to safe drinking water.
However, as is invariably the case with issues of environmental injustice, what goes around comes around. This past June, EcoPeace Middle East reported that the collapsing environmental situation in Gaza was creating a “national security risk” to Israel, warning that “the collapsing water, sewage and electricity infrastructure in the Gaza Strip pose a material danger to (Israel).” In a particularly perverse example of victim-blaming, the Israeli military recently urged the World Health Organization to condemn the “ecological catastrophe” caused by the burning of tires by Palestinians on the border during the weekly Great March of Return protests.
In addition to water pollution, there have also been reports of rapidly increasing soil contamination due to Israel’s regular military assaults on Gaza. According to a report by the New Weapons Research Group, Israeli bombings in Gaza Strip have left a high concentration of toxic metals, such as tungsten, mercury, molybdenum, cadmium and cobalt in the soil. These metals can cause tumors and problems with fertility, and they can have serious and harmful effects on newly born babies.
Hanukkah and Global Climate Justice
What does this current environmental reality bode for the future of the Jewish state? British journalist Robert Cohen powerfully concludes that the climate crisis, coupled with Israel’s steady over-exploitation of resources, has functionally rendered Zionism “obsolete.”
“How,” writes Cohen, “can Israel present itself as a Jewish safe haven from a hostile world when its water security is at high risk, crop yields will soon be falling and fires will be raging all year round…? When it comes to climate change, national borders will offer no protection from antisemitism. Climate has no interest in faith or ethnicity or in historical or religious claims to a particular piece of land.”
Cohen’s point can certainly be applied to the world at large. The climate crisis clearly knows no borders. But while no one will ultimately be safe from its devastating effects, we can be sure that the more powerful will increasingly seek to safeguard themselves and their interests at costs at the expense of the less powerful. Such is the harsh reality of “green colonialism”: as the climate crisis renders more and more of the world uninhabitable, we are clearly witnessing increased state efforts at border militarization, population control and the warehousing of humanity.
What then, is to be done? In a recent op-ed for The Nation, journalist Ben Ehrenreich offered this compelling prescription: “it is time to shout, and loudly, that the freedom of all the earth’s people to move across borders must be at the center of any response to the climate crisis.… If we are to survive as a species, we must know that no boat can save us except the one we build together.” In her JVP presentation, Naomi Klein echoed this challenge in similarly powerful terms:
What is clear is that the space for humanity to live well is contracting…. So, the core question is what kind of people are we going to be as we live in greater density? And if we look to Israel/Palestine, we see a really terrifying example of how to lose your humanity and how to fail to share land — and the monstrousness it requires to fail to share….
This is a global process that is happening now … so we’re going to have to start practicing solidarity and mutual aid. And we’re going to have to practice love and show each other what love looks like in public more and more. Because a lot of people have lost faith that they can do it.
There can be no better Hanukkah message for the 21st century. Given the realities of our current age, the nationalist dimensions of the holiday are not merely irrelevant, but dangerous. In the words of poet/liturgist Aurora Levins Morales, “this time it’s all of us or none.” If Hanukkah is to be a true celebration of environmental justice, it must become a “rededication” to fight for a more universal vision of liberation, for a world of solidarity, mutual aid and open borders.
Or to put it another way, the Maccabees’ struggle must now be broadened to represent the universal struggle of all who are committed to showing what love looks like in public, for the sake of all humanity. For the age of global climate crisis, the stakes could not be higher.