JVL’s environment officer

The start of the Cop 26 Coalition 2,000 strong march for climate justice in Cambridge, 6th November 2021. Image: [email protected]

JVL Introduction

At the JVL AGM on Sunday 31st October, marking the first day of Cop 26, members voted for an Environment Officer to be on the Executive Committee and appointed Tony Booth to the role.

Here, he talks about the importance to JVL of action to reduce ecological breakdown and what he might start to do as Environment Officer.

Why the climate is right for a JVL environment officer

The August 2021 IPCC report, leaves no room for doubt about the seriousness of our predicament. There is a small chance that concerted efforts by peoples of the world, their governments and institutions, can avert catastrophic runaway global warming, unstoppable and unpredictable severe climate events and further dramatic biodiversity loss. We are in the period of the 6th mass extinction of life on earth, this time created by humans. It is a time characterised by ecocide, the wilful destruction of life and the conditions for life, and nepoticide – literally ‘grandchild murder’ – which is the sacrifice of future generations to the self-interest of present communities. The rapacious plundering of nature is fundamental to capitalism which views every aspect of nature including people who are seen as less than fully human, as assets to be given a value and then bought and sold.

JVL has taken its slogan from Marek Edelman’s: “To be a Jew is to be with the oppressed and never with the oppressor…”. This is a fine aspiration though many Jews do not define themselves, or direct their activities, accordingly, preferring instead to side with the forces of exploitation. But it is fine for me. Such a commitment makes the addressing of environmental catastrophes central to our identities as JVL Jewish Socialists since ecological breakdown disproportionally affects those who are working class, poor, ethnic minority, indigenous, disabled or female. Responses to environmental breakdown within hyper-capitalism will only exacerbate such inequalities. We have to join efforts for climate justice.

JVL stands with refugees everywhere, yet flooding, temperature rises, wildfires and land deterioration are precursors for large scale migration. We stand against the oppression of Palestinians who are hugely affected by brutal water shortages exacerbated by climate breakdown in an area with increasingly unbearable heat in summer and much colder winters. How can we side with the oppressed without integrating environmentalism into our activism?

We need to call out the “Global North greenwash festival”, the “Blah Blah Blah” Cop 26 in Glasgow. It is the exclusion Cop since the attendance of many from the global south has been prevented by a combination of the limited availability of Coronavirus vaccines and the hostile environment towards people of colour, particularly those from Africa, entering the UK. The “voices of the people most affected in the places most affected” are barely being heard.

To be a socialist in the 21st Century is to be an eco-socialist. Eco-socialism has a long history. Engels had noted in 1876: “at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature and exist in its midst”. An understanding that we are part of nature challenges centuries of philosophising the separation of mind and body and the privileging of the former over the latter. Such a distinction reinforces the destruction of our planet and promotes exploitation by class and gender.

Environmental activism is in a tradition of left-wing Jewish activism. Extinction rebellion activist Rabbi Jeffrey Newman writes that the Hebrew word, Churban (חורבן), referring to the destruction of the 2nd Temple, is used as a synonym for the holocaust and is also used by some Jewish environmentalists for impending environmental catastrophe which they feel called to avert as stewards of the earth. As a secular Jew, I feel that my brand of activism is part of my Jewish identity – to side with the oppressed – though I make no claims that activism is not as firmly integrated into the identities of others with different heritages. I feel a direct link between my parents fight against fascism, my dad’s four month prison sentence for his role in the Battle of Cable Street, and my less consequential direct action in blocking Whitehall to draw attention to the plight of nature and my court appearance for sounding the alarm and clearing the Intercontinental Hotel of the Oil and Money Conference consisting of representatives from all the major oppressor oil producing corporations and countries.

Socialist Jews, like any other group, view their identities in diverse ways. Some do not make a connection between their Jewishness and environmental activism though they may devote considerable time to environmental campaigns. Others in JVL are fearful that an expanded focus on the environment will weaken efforts on other fronts. I will work to prevent that happening but also suggest we use this opportunity in Jewish Voice for Labour to revisit our core purposes now that the Labour Party has moved away from us.

As environment officer, working alongside other officers, I will hope to broaden JVL’s appeal following the lead of the education and antiracism alliance groups. I may manage to help us shift towards a younger demographic. I will be inviting involvement in discussions from other environmental activists among the JVL membership, produce a regular blog, and suggest articles for the website. I plan to contribute to existing concerns alongside efforts to encourage dialogue about the relationship between Jewish identity, socialism and eco-activism and co-ordinate JVL’s efforts to address climate and biodiversity breakdown.

Tony Booth
7th November 2021

Comments (2)

  • John Bowley says:

    An excellent fighting declaration. Much of the problem is political: vanity, deceit, self-interest, the focus on farty issues and the political constipation.

    I do not agree with a notion that climate change aversion avoiders have to be patiently brought around. We no longer have the time. The oncoming disaster is obvious. It is everyone’s duty to comprehend the facts and act.

  • Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi says:

    Whether or not there is an explicitly Jewish angle on the fate of the planet – and I think Tony argues convincingly that there is – there certainly is an Israel/Palestine angle, epitomised by the involvement of the Jewish National Fund in COP26. To quote from a petition on the Stop The JNF campaign website, “The JNF is a relic of Europe’s colonial past, and today uses an environmental veneer to greenwash over 100 years of ethnic cleansing.

    The Jewish National Fund (JNF, also known by its Hebrew name Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, KKL) is an Israeli para-statal company established in 1901 in Britain for the sole purpose of the colonisation of Palestine by obtaining Palestinian land and, as ‘custodian for the Jewish people’, making it available solely for Jewish settlers.

    …. Throughout its existence, events demonstrate that it has practiced ethnic cleansing resulting in apartheid – expelling and segregating Palestinians – often in collaboration with the Israeli military and other Zionist militias. Its manifestation as an environmental organisation is a recently adopted greenwash for its real purpose.”

    See Keep the JNF out of COP 26

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