Choose life: Jews and climate change

March 2019
Miriam Sager

This last summer and fall have seen an increase in scientific and public understanding that we are facing a climate crisis and that urgent, decisive action is necessary if we hope to avoid the worst of its consequences for organized human life on earth. 

While of course Jews everywhere will be affected along with the rest of humanity, we are also guided by calls for tikkun olam and bal tashchit —do not destroy or waste. In this case, the world needs an actual physical, not just spiritual, halt to destruction, and repair of the damage already done. As well, the impacts of the climate disruption will be - and already are - profoundly unjust, with the most destructive impacts falling on those who have contributed to it the least: the young and the unborn, indigenous nations, the poor, and impoverished nations that have been most heavily exploited by the developed countries.  

As a people who have not shied away from taking on the largest issues facing humanity such as the class society, one might wonder where is our Jewish voice on what is being named the biggest challenge and moral issue to have ever faced humanity. 

We humans have been slow to rise to the challenge. For a small minority of people who make huge profits by pouring the largest amounts of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, it is about greed - for fortune and power.  But for the rest of us it may be because of lack of awareness, addiction to convenience, or denial of what feels too unbearable to face. Many feel powerless, discouraged and  incompetent. Indeed, no one really has a firm grasp of the whole picture or knows quite how to fix it. 

But some specific reasons might be making it particularly difficult for us as Jews to look squarely at the problem, to own it, and to organize against it. 

The alarmist nature of some of what we hear about climate change and, indeed, the actual looming threat of extinction, can sound much like the holocaust. Terror and powerless can overwhelm and paralyze us when faced with a threat that sound so similar to the repeated genocide attempts we have experienced. And at least for me personally, these feelings of doom and gloom can be confusingly familiar: what is real? what is just "in my head"? It can be all too easy - and tempting - to dismiss real present-day danger. 

For a people that have rarely been allowed to own and work the land, and who have been living out of suitcases between one expulsion and the next, it can be hard to feel connected to the environment, or to the rest of humanity, a connection which is crucial for us to be emboldened and energized to take the decisive action required to organize for swift, large-scale and unpopular change. It can be a stretch to even feel that our institutions are ours to influence, when much of Ashkenazi Jewish history has been about finding favour in the eyes of rulers in the hope of protection against anti-Semitism. 

And then, organizing with others in the general community can sometimes feel uncomfortable. Will we run into unaware anti-Semitism? Will we have to challenge it, which can be a scary thing to do, or painfully assign our own liberation to the back burner? A valid concern indeed.  We could organize as Jews on climate change, but we must collaborate with others in the broader movement. Given that isolation is a key component of anti-Jewish oppression, I am inclined to think that it would be good to work within existing groups, and, if presented with anti-Semitism, figure out how to take it on and train our potential allies. In either case, as an activist, I would love to have a safe Jewish space where we can support each other and look at what it's like to be doing this work - and to be adjusting to a rapidly changing (and possibly disintegrating) world. We must also prepare ourselves, and our allies, for growing expressions of anti-Semitism, which typically happens at times of social unrest. 

One way or another, we cannot afford to stay away from this climate tikkun olam work. The threat to human - and Jewish - life from climate breakdown is existential. "We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are w free to desist from it". And, to quote old Hillel, if not now, then when?

Miriam Sager works at the Hamilton Sexual Assault Centre, and organizes with hamilton350.org and Extinction Rebellion Hamilton. She can be contacted at mirsager@yahoo.ca.