Shortly before we left Palo Alto to spend a year in Israel, I attended a discussion at the Oshmann Family JCC in Palo Alto with a leader of the Israeli environmentalist movement. She was remarkably deferential to American environmentalists, seeing Israel as trailing in America's footsteps.
It is true, on a public policy level Israelis are far less green than Americans. But on the level of local communities and personal practices, I'm not so sure.
Most of the Israelis I know line-dry their clothes. Only in the dead of winter do they resort to clothes driers. While in Israel, I did the same. Sure, our clothes were a little more stiff and wrinkled, but everyone was doing it! I had the best of intention of continuing with line-drying in Palo Alto, but it's harder than you think to purchase a reasonable drying rack in American hardware stores. And our clothes drier here is a heck of a lot more powerful than the one we had in Jerusalem. And, I confess, don't underestimate peer pressure.
Large cars are very uncommon in Israel. Big families crowd into compacts -- baby in the front seat, four kids crammed into the back. It may be a little more dangerous in the short run, but in the long run our children will all inherit a healthier planet as a result. Admittedly, these choices may be driven by poverty rather than ideology, but does it ultimately matter?
Many years ago, I briefly dated an Orthodox man who, like me, had spent extended time in Israel. He was surprised when I told him that one of my greatest pleasures in life is hiking in our (American) National Parks. He said: "I only think of hiking as something to do in Israel, as in קום התהלך בארץ", get up and walk the land (Genesis 13:17) -- quoting God's words of assurance to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel.
Israelis are very connected to their land. On a mythological level, God's promise has come true, though perhaps not in the ways our ancestors might have envisioned it: every place Abraham tread is now steeped in meaning for his descendants. A day hike in Ein Gedi would be incomplete without reading the stories of the future king David's escapes from King Saul; a day hike in the Gilboa requires a retelling of Saul and Jonathan's deaths on the mountain.
Israel is also a small country, where farms and nature preserves and cities are packed close together. And the Zionist ideology ennobles the working of the land: החלוץ נאמן לעבודה, "the pioneer is loyal to his work." For all these reasons, Israeli children all over the country do far more hiking, and have far more direct contact with commercial farms, than my own kids ever had in America.
Fifteen years ago, after a visit to the chicken coop of an Israeli friend's farm, I swore from then on to buy only free-range eggs. Of course, we all know that farm chickens live their lives in boxes barely larger than their bodies. But it's one thing to read about it, another thing to see it. And how many American suburbanites actually get to visit a farm like that?
This past year, on a visit to our cousin's kibbutz, my daughter and I paid our regular visit to their dairy farm. The kibbutz is one of the supplier's of Tenuva, a large-scale dairy company. In the past, nothing about the dairy was particularly disturbing. The cow's don't exactly live luxuriously, but they do not seem mistreated either. This time, we happened to witness the final 20 minutes of a birthing. That entire time, the mother's sides were heaving with exertion but not a sound uttered for her lips. Her silence was almost frightening, and my daughter and I were both swept up in empathy with this laboring mother. Finally, with a tremendous push from the mother, out came the calf, collapsed in a heap in the dirt. The calf seemed blue and lifeless, but soon life's colors came into her face and we saw she was fine. Eventually, the supervisor on duty came into the pen to see how the birth was progressing. He was pleased to see a healthy calf, and then -- he gave the mother a solid kick in her side with his heavy farm boot. The mother shuddered.
"Why did you do that?" I almost cried.
"She needs to start licking the calf," he said. He gave the mother another hard kick, and then left the pen. Five minutes later, in her own good time, the mother turned around and started licking her calf. Ten minutes after that, the supervisor returned with a cage on wheels, hauled off the calf, and mother and baby never saw each other again.
Nowadays, I only buy free range eggs and I don't eat beef. I've also mostly switched from dairy milk to soy.
And if one of these days you start noticing my clothes have become more wrinkled, you'll know why.