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Interview

Meet the US-born MK aiming to bring a sustainability ‘revolution’ to the Knesset

Longtime environmental activist Alon Tal also vows to tackle issues of religious pluralism and ‘heal the rift’ between Israeli and American Jews

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Alon Tal pictured standing above the Bokek stream near the Dead Sea. (Courtesy)
Alon Tal pictured standing above the Bokek stream near the Dead Sea. (Courtesy)

Two weeks ago, Alon Tal became the eighth member of Knesset born in the United States. And while his candidacy had looked like a longshot until very recently, he never lost faith.

Tal was 11th on the Blue and White electoral slate headed by Benny Gantz, which won just eight seats in the March 2021 elections. But when Gantz joined the unlikely eight-party coalition that unseated Benjamin Netanyahu, three of the party’s cabinet ministers resigned their Knesset seats to make way for the next three in line, paving the way for Tal to be sworn in on June 16.

“I like to say that in the Land of Israel, miracles happen every day,” Tal told The Times of Israel during an interview in the Knesset cafeteria less than two weeks after he was sworn into office. “Divine intervention, call it what you will, but here I am — and I’m very, very happy to be in the party that I’m in. It’s the party that most reflects my many, many passions and principles.”

Tal, 60, is best known in Israel for his decades of environmental activism. He is the founder of the influential Israel Union for Environmental Defense as well as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the co-founder of Israel’s Green Movement. In 2008 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Environmental Protection Ministry for his decades of efforts, joining his many other accolades.

As the head of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy and a longtime professor, Tal taught his final class of the semester via Zoom “and then drove directly to the Knesset to be sworn in,” he recalled.

While environmental concerns do top his legislative agenda, Tal laid out a platform of three key concerns he intends to focus on in office.

Blue and White MK Alon Tal at the Knesset on June 30, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

“The first is sustainability, and that’ll be most of my effort,” he said.

“The second one involves religious pluralism — and in that context, strengthening Israel’s relationship with the Jewish world, progressive world, progressive forces in the world… and the third involves the status of women,” he added. “I believe very strongly that if women’s issues remain issues for females, then we are never going to get beyond the disgraceful gap in pay, the astonishing and dramatic rise in domestic violence we saw during corona.”

Albert to Alon

Tal was born in New Jersey and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, as Albert Rosenthal. He moved to Israel in 1980, Hebraicized his name and joined the IDF as a paratrooper. It was then that he first encountered Gantz, then just a 22-year-old IDF commander, who led Tal’s platoon in the First Lebanon War. And the two continued to encounter each other throughout Tal’s 25 years in active and reserve IDF service.

Almost 40 years later, Tal — now a married father of three who lives in Maccabim — joined Gantz in his nascent Hosen L’Yisrael party in 2019. But when the party merged with Yesh Atid to become Blue and White, Tal was shifted low down on the electoral list and didn’t make it into the Knesset.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) and Alon Tal. (Courtesy)

Tal — who ran with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party in 2013 and also fell short — stuck by Gantz through four consecutive elections and finally entered the Knesset under his leadership.

“Benny Gantz was the most courageous and decent commander that I encountered in all my years of military service,” said Tal. “I’m very, very grateful that he gave me this chance.”

While a number of Blue and White lawmakers left the party ahead of the 2021 election, Tal remained steadfast in his loyalty.

“People say ‘oh he’s too honest, he’s too decent, he’s too nice a guy,’” said Tal of Gantz. “If there’s not room in Israel for him, then I don’t know what kind of country I can live in, that only crooks and cynics can be in politics. I don’t want to be in a country like that… Benny Gantz represents what I believe to be the best in Israel in terms of values.”

Tal said he feels perfectly at home in the centrist party.

“When I was in my younger days, I was more into sort of the Peace Now side of the agreement,” he said, referencing the well-known left-wing advocacy group. “But I think that I have become, over the years, more circumspect. No less committed to peace… but I also recognize that we’ve had 10 quiet years in Israel and I feel like the first thing the government has to provide is stability. But now we have it, we can’t waste this opportunity and we have to pursue peace dramatically.”

Tal, a lifelong vegetarian, is also optimistic that the diverse and unlikely governing coalition can make significant headway on the most pressing environmental issues.

“The number of green forces in this government and particularly in this Knesset are unprecedented,” he said. “And I think we are going to make history in terms of improving the harmony between Israel and the Land of Israel.”

Tal believes sustainability and environmental protection are issues that can rise above the political divisions and rancor — unlike the situation in the United States.

“I find it to be almost unimaginable the polarization around environmental issues that has taken place in the United States,” he said. “It’s absolutely axiomatic that we have to reach across the aisle and make this an issue which transcends the conventional divides that exist in the Knesset.”

Alon Tal at an environmental protest holding a sign that reads “An entire generation is demanding a future.” (Courtesy)

But Tal also recognizes that in order to keep the coalition intact, he may need to swallow some concerns. “And I accept that, that’s the deal,” he said. “And that is the advantage. I’d much rather be in the coalition and actually be able to do something than all the self-righteous people in the opposition.”

The first legislation Tal intends to introduce next week is a revision to the class action suit law that would allow environmental litigants to ensure that the benefits from any settlements be used for public interest and environmental activities.

Both new Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg and her predecessor, Likud’s Gila Gamliel, have spoken out against a deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to transport oil from the UAE through the controversial Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline.

It’s an issue that Tal — who previously served as a petitioner in a class-action suit after a 2014 oil spill in the Evrona Nature Reserve, north of Eilat — feels particularly strongly about.

“To expand the port, we know, is going to be an [environmental] disaster,” he said. “There are geopolitical forces at play here, and I’m as big a fan of the Abraham Accords as anybody else. But there’s absolutely no reason why Israel should — such a small country — should be making compromises in that regard. That is my own personal view. I trust that my voice is going to be heard at the highest levels of government.”

Healing the rift

Tal is also hopeful that the new government can improve ties between Israel and the United States and between Israelis and American Jews.

“I think that whole critical connection and solidarity has taken a big hit in the last decade,” he said, “and I think that I personally can help heal that rift.” He slammed the “insouciance” of Netanyahu’s infamous 2015 speech to Congress, without the approval of then-president Barack Obama, saying it was “like stabbing a knife in the back of the most important ally we have.”

And Tal, an active member and the longtime gabbai of his local Conservative synagogue in Maccabim, is almost as passionate about religious pluralism as he is about the environment.

“It is unimaginable that Israel, the Jewish state, discriminates against the largest streams of Judaism in the world,” he said. “That delegitimization has alienated millions of American Jews who otherwise love Israel.”

He slammed the ultra-Orthodox monopoly that has long reigned over issues of religion and state in Israel.

“The delegitimization of Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, to me, runs against everything that I believe as a Zionist that this country needs to do, and I believe that this is the Knesset that can change that,” he said. “I think the fact that a small or even a large minority of people believe they have a monopoly on what constitutes legitimate expression of Judaism is just wrong.”

He vowed to set up a lobby in the Knesset to work toward greater recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and religious pluralism in Israel.

“I want every American Jew to know that they have a place in the State of Israel,” he said.

Tal is also eager to pick up on the work of former Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh — who was born in Jerusalem but raised in Canada — to serve Israel’s English-speaking population.

“We’re going to be setting up an English-speakers department,” Tal promised. “Hopefully it’ll be almost an ombudsman for people who can have a direct line to the Ministry of Immigration, so that American immigrants — whether they voted for me or not — I’ll help anybody, but I have a special affiliation to the Anglo Saxon-speaking community… I haven’t forgotten where I came from.”

As required, Tal gave up his US citizenship, along with his US passport, upon entering the Knesset.

“I didn’t do it voluntarily, I’m not enthusiastic about it,” he admitted. “But I felt like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and responsibility… this is something I had to do for my people and for my country.”

Above all, he said, he has faith that his efforts will be worth it in the long run — and that his tenure in the Knesset will not be cut short.

“I consider myself a highly religious person,” he said. “I talk to God every day. I don’t think he’s going to let me down.”

He’s ready to continue to leave his mark on Israel’s environmental policies.

“With the help of the head of the coalition, and my own faction, we’re going to make a revolution,” he predicted. “We’re going to, absolutely I hope, make a quantum leap forward for Israel and for future generations in terms of the quality of environment we have in this country.”

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