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Activist goes on hunger strike to press president on climate crisis

Michal Deutsch, 27, wants her protest to raise public awareness and convince Isaac Herzog to use his pulpit to put advancing a climate law at top of country’s agenda

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Fasting for climate outside the president's residence on September 10, 2021. From right: Michal Deutsch, Tamar Deutsch, Matanel Ciechanowski. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Fasting for climate outside the president's residence on September 10, 2021. From right: Michal Deutsch, Tamar Deutsch, Matanel Ciechanowski. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Alarmed by the lack of public awareness in Israel regarding the climate emergency affecting the globe, a young woman has begun holding a vigil outside President Isaac Herzog’s official residence in Jerusalem, while refusing any food in protest.

Michal Deutsch, 27, is hoping that her citizen action will push Herzog to raise a clarion call on the dangers facing Israel and the globe due to climate change.

“There are so many activists doing so many amazing things but they haven’t managed to break through the lack of public awareness,” Deutsch told The Times of Israel. “My hope is that the president, who cannot declare a climate emergency, as other countries have done, will use his status to stand up and say clearly how important it is and how we all have to unite around this issue and advance a climate law.”

Climate laws have already been adopted by 18 OECD countries and a draft for an Israeli version was unveiled in April by former environmental protection minister Gila Gamliel.

Deutsch, originally from Haifa suburb Kiryat Motzkin, is in Jerusalem, studying environmental science and law at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

She began her hunger strike (in which she is refusing food, but continues to drink water) on September 9, the day after Rosh Hashanah, on which many religious Jews have a tradition of fasting to commemorate the assassination of a 6th century BCE leader. Deutsch plans to break her hunger strike after Yom Kippur — another religious fast day — which ends on Thursday evening.

President Isaac Herzog speaking during a selihot ceremony at the President’s Residence on September 9, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Herzog, who became president in June and has discussed the climate crisis with US Vice President Kamala Harris, spoke briefly to Deutsch, she said. Others told her that reference to her campaign was made during a selihot prayer ceremony that Herzog hosted on Thursday.

“But, unfortunately, right now it’s simply not enough,” Deutsch wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “The issue has been important for decades. Now it’s urgent.”

A spokesman for Herzog confirmed that the president had spoken to the activists, but did not provide details or say whether more conversations were planned. He noted the president’s “firm commitment to the environment,” pointing out the phone call with Harris and the selihot service.

As president, Herzog’s role is nearly completely ceremonial, and he has little power to advance policy. However, his position affords him the unique ability to nudge the government, while remaining safely beyond the din of political squabbles

Deutsch’s protest has drawn the attention of Knesset members who could advance a climate law. On Sunday, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg visited, together with Knesset lawmakers Alon Tal (Blue and White), Yorai Lahav-Hertzano (Yesh Atid), and Mossi Raz (Meretz).

Israeli activists and demonstrators hold placards as they take part in a Global Climate Strike in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on September 27, 2019, against inaction on climate change. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Activists have held large, high profile protests, often including shock-inducing theatrics, to pressure the government and push for increased public awareness of the climate crisis. But the demonstrations have failed to spark a sustained reckoning with the issue or move climate change toward the top of the government’s agenda.

Several supporters have joined Deutsch’s protest and have also fasted for shorter periods, among them, her sister Tamar, and Deutsch’s partner Matanel Ciechanowski, who is also joining her in her vigil for the week.

“A lot of people pass by and ask what I’m doing,” said Deutsch, adding that various activities were being organized at the protest site. She is posting updates (mostly in Hebrew) about her protest on a Facebook page she created: Climate Soul Searching.

Deutsch, who on Monday said she was still feeling fine, added that she and Ciechanowski were putting off having children until they could be sure that they would be born into a world worth living in.

“The situation and the way it’s being managed is more dangerous for us and for me, physically, than the fast itself,” she said.

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