Judaism & Global Survival
Like previous editions of Judaism & Global Survival, published in 1984 and 2002, this latest edition by longtime vegan activist and author Richard Schwartz, 88, is much more about the philosophy and practice of Judaism than about animals, ecology, and environmental health, though these topics focus the discussion of religious belief.
Most of the latter third of Judaism & Global Survival is, however, very timely and relevant to resolving the present and seemingly perpetual crisis between Israel and the various Palestinian factions, the most militant and best known of which appear to be suicidally hellbent on waging war, while most Palestinians, like most Israelis, are chiefly concerned with staying alive and trying to support their families.
Unorthodox thoughts from an Orthodox Jew
Schwartz, who is Orthodox, from New York City, emigrated to Israel in 2016, but first visited in 1957. He favors a two-state solution, as Judaism & Global Survival details, with arguments rooted much less in politics than in traditional Jewish teachings, making reference to environmental realities, in particular the probable effects of global warming.
Schwartz does not actually say in so many words that both Israelis and Palestinians will have a much better chance of surviving the likely very severe effects upon their shared habitat if they cooperate toward achieving a just, healthy future for all.
Schwartz does make clear, though, that he believes climate change is a more severe threat to both Israelis and Palestinians, collectively, than anything either is likely to do to each other through continued armed conflict, horrific as that is.
The major threats
Schwartz early in Judaism & Global Survival outlines what he believes are the major threats to world peace, beginning with hunger, continuing through “violence, terrorism, and war,” also including “deforestation, desertification, rapid species extinction, pollution, increasing poverty, soaring financial deficits in some countries, and the inability of many countries to meet the needs of their people.”
States Schwartz, somewhat overstating the situation as does Keith Akers in his recently published volume Embracing Limits (see Why the “green” prescriptions of 1970 have expired today), “Everything possible must be done to avert the potential catastrophes indicated above, since they threaten humanity and all life on the planet.”
Does not dwell on Jeremiad
One may agree that “everything possible must be done to avert the potential catastrophes” without agreeing that humanity, with all of our livestock constituting a tiny fraction of a percentage of the earth’s biomass, is really capable of annihilating all life on a planet that has harbored life for 3.7 billion years.
At worst, for example all-out nuclear war, we might be able to annihilate the 5% or so of life constituted by ourselves and other megafauna.
Schwartz, however, does not dwell on the portion of Judaism & Global Survival that is essentially an oft-recited Jeremiad. Instead, Schwartz turns toward what he believes Jews in particular should be doing about issues in the here-and-now.
“Protest against injustice & agitate for change”
“Judaism urges active involvement in issues facing society,” Schwartz argues. “A Jew must not be concerned only about his or her own personal affairs when the community is in trouble. Jews are required to protest against injustice and to try to agitate for change, even when successful implementation appears very difficult.”
Indeed, Schwartz argues, “There are times when a person must continue to protest,” knowing that the message of protest will not be heard, “in order to avoid being corrupted.”
Schwartz illustrates this point with a parable, one of many from traditional Jewish teachings that are quoted throughout Judaism & Global Survival:
“A man stood at the entrance of Sodom crying out against the injustice and evil in that city. Someone passed by and said to him, “For years you have been urging the people to repent, and yet no one has changed. Why do you continue?” He responded: “When I first came, I protested because I hoped to change the people of Sodom. Now I continue to cry out, because if I don’t, they will have changed me.”
“Smashed the idols”
Continues Schwartz, “Judaism has often protested against greed, injustice, and the misuse of power. Abraham, the first Jew, smashed the idols of his father, although his action challenged the common belief of the time. He established the precedent that a Jew should not conform to society’s values when they are evil.
“Later he [Abraham] even challenged God, exclaiming, “ Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Genesis 18:25). By contrast, Noah, though personally righteous, was later rebuked by the Talmudic sages because he failed to criticize the immorality of the society around him.”
“Evils of anti-Semitism”
Schwartz agrees with Jewish mainstream practice and belief that, “It is essential to educate all people to the evils of anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination,” but adds that, “In addition to openly confronting and opposing antisemitism and racism, it is also necessary to work to reduce and eliminate injustice, poverty, slums, hunger, illiteracy, unemployment, homelessness, and other social ills. Just, democratic societies will be far safer for everyone, including Jews.”
Schwartz mentions that “Judaism also stresses compassion for nonhuman animals,” citing “many laws in the Torah which mandate kindness to animals,” all of which are also part of the Christian Bible and of the Hadiths, or sayings, of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share an abhorrence of idolatry.
“In truth,” says Schwartz, again citing traditional Jewish teachings, “there is no one nearer to idolatry than one who can disregard the fact that all things are the creatures and property of God, and who then presumes also to have the right, because he has the might, to destroy them according to a presumptuous act of will. Yes, that one is already serving the most powerful idols—anger, pride, and above all ego, which in its passion regards itself as the master of things.
The Biblical ten plagues
“Today’s environmental threats,” Schwartz assesses, “bring to mind the Biblical ten plagues,” of which Moses warned in seeking freedom for the Jewish people from enslavement by Egypt.
“The Egyptians were subjected to one plague at a time,” Schwartz points out, “while the modern plagues threaten us simultaneously.”
Further, Schwartz writes, “It is we ourselves who are the causes of these modern plagues, though it is future generations who will be most severely afflicted.”
“Greatest threat is climate change”
“The greatest threat to humanity today is climate change,” Schwartz repeats several times. “Our human civilization is set on a path that could lead to a possibly uninhabitable planet by the end of the century—or one so torn asunder by climate disaster and its social, political, economic, and health consequences that few of us would want to inhabit it.
“Is this an outrageous exaggeration,” Schwartz considers, in view of “how many previous predictions there have been about an end to the world? Not according to some 97% of climate scientists, every major science academy, and virtually all peer-reviewed papers (thousands of them) on this issue in respected scientific journals.”
This again is an overstatement, presupposing that near-unanimity about the significance of the human contribution to causing global warming translates into similar unanimity about the outcome.
In truth, forecasts from climate scientists range from the extreme doom-and-gloom scenarios that tend to get the most attention to forecasts of climatic factors more-or-less regulating themselves eventually, albeit not necessarily to human benefit.
Irrespective of that, however, practically everyone , scientist or not, recognizes, as Schwartz summarizes, that “climate change will escalate the potential for instability, terrorism, and war by reducing access to food and clean water, and causing tens of millions of desperate refugees to flee from droughts, wildfire, floods, storms, and other disasters,” exactly as is already happening, with tens of thousands displaced at least temporarily by some sort of climate-related disaster almost every week.
Fighting climate change to prevent wars & genocide
“Drought and desertification due to climate change are causing chaos in many other countries in the Middle East,” Schwartz observes, “as well as in central and north Africa, fanning the flames of social revolutions and civil wars. Such unrest poses major security threats to Israel and the West, with drought-induced hunger leaving populations angry, frustrated, and vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment.
“Fighting global climate change,” Schwartz suggests, “may be one way to prevent future wars and genocides, simultaneously increasing energy security and physical security.”
Indeed, fighting global climate change may be the only effective way to prevent future wars and genocides. One need only look toward the bloodshed where Bangladesh and Myanmar meet, where rising seas have reduced much farmland to swamps, or in desertified Sudan, to see what happens when land truly is not big enough to feed two culturally very different peoples.
Wildfires & mosquitoes
Schwartz mentions “a United Nations report in early February 2022 that warned of a ‘global wildfire crisis,’ with worsening heat and dryness causing possibly a 50% increase in off-the-charts fires.”
The western U.S. and much of Canada have already been experiencing this for more than a decade.
“Climate change will lead to a significant spread of illnesses caused by extreme weather, heat stress, and mosquitos, including malaria,” Schwartz adds, echoing projections amplified often since 1994 by the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED].
“I have a personal stake”
“I have a personal stake in the future of Israel and the world,” Schwartz acknowledges, “brought home to me whenever I hear of a couple getting married or a baby being born.
“From 2016 when my wife and I moved to Israel until 2022,” Schwartz writes, “four of my grandchildren have married, and each has a child, making us great-grandparents. In 2100, these newborns will be almost as old as I am now. What kind of world will they inhabit? Will they look back at their ancestors and wonder how it was possible that they—we—didn’t do more, when the evidence was so stark and compelling, and when we had the means in our hands, and on our plates, to make a difference?
Several generations of Jews, as Schwartz is aware, have now asked similar questions about what they, their parents, and their grandparents might have done to avert the Holocaust. Schwartz in Judaism & Global Survival enlarges both the question and his perception of the stakes: the next Holocaust, though perhaps brought about by disturbed nature rather than anti-Semites, may engulf everyone.
“Israel is especially threatened by climate change”
Before moving on to discussing issues of war and peace, Schwartz takes a closer look at environmental issues specific to his own surroundings.
“The State of Israel has accomplished amazing things in its few decades—in agriculture, education, law, social integration, technology, education, Torah study, human services, and academics,” Schwartz concedes.
“But simultaneous neglect and ruthless exploitation of its land, water, air, and resources have left Israel ecologically endangered.
“Israel is especially threatened by climate change,” Schwartz perceives. “Rising seas could cause the coastal plane, where much of Israel’s population and infrastructure are located, to be inundated. Climate experts project that the Middle East as a whole will become significantly hotter and drier, and military experts believe that this makes instability, terrorism, and war more likely.
“One of the world’s most densely populated countries”
“Israel is one of the world’s most densely populated countries,” Schwartz continues. “With over nine million people in a country about the size of New Jersey, Israel’s population is denser than most other countries, and most of its population is concentrated in a few urban centers. A major national challenge is safeguarding precious land resources. Because of continued rapid population growth, poor planning, and improper development, gardens, parks, and play areas that are essential to health and quality of life are becoming increasingly scarce.
“Because of Israel’s small land area and increasing amounts of garbage from its rapidly growing population,” Schwartz adds, “the country faces a solid waste crisis. Solid waste disposal may result in significant and irreversible damage to Israel’s groundwater, air, soil, and overall quality of life. Some Israeli environmentalists regard garbage disposal as Israel’s number one environmental problem.
“Many species are threatened”
“Many species in Israel are threatened,” Schwartz notes, “mainly due to pollution, tourism [in ecologically sensitive areas], and urban sprawl.
“Among the problems are that there is less land for migrating birds to forage on, habitats for many animal species are being replaced by houses, highways, and other development, and many coral reefs near Eilat are threatened with extinction.
“The Dead Sea has been shrinking rapidly,” Schwartz warns. “It relies on the fresh water of the Jordan River, but that once major flow has become just a contaminated trickle because water has been diverted for agricultural and other uses. Due to the major drop in the level of the Dead Sea, large sinkholes have been created that make some nearby areas dangerous.”
Dust & sand
Finally, Schwartz mentions, “While seldom considered, an increasingly serious problem for Israel and other countries in the Middle East are dust storms and sandstorms.”
Dust storms and sandstorms gradually buried the once lush forests of the Sahara beneath the present desert. That ecological disaster, early in the history of civilization, was probably not entirely a consequence of human activity, but tilling the soil of a lost river valley now visible only in satellite images almost certainly contributed avoidable erosion to the effects of nature.
“Hundreds of millions of people are hungry today,” Schwartz restates from his opening chapters, “not because of insufficient agricultural capacity, but because of the proliferation of unjust social systems and wasteful food production methods, including the widespread use of crops to fatten farmed animals.
What if every Jew became vegan?
“Hunger and undernutrition are much worse when conflicts are prolonged and institutions are weak,” Schwartz observes. “The number of conflicts is on the rise, some worsened by severe climate events. As indicated previously, severe droughts have sparked civil wars in the Sudan and in Syria. In 2020, conflict was the main cause of hunger for 99.1 million people in 23 countries.
“Since Jews are a small minority of the world’s population (about 0.2 percent),” Schwartz concedes, “even if every Jew became vegan (a very unlikely scenario), the effect on the climate and other environmental crises would be negligible. However, as Isaiah 49:6 declares, Jews are mandated to be a ‘light unto the nations,’ and being vegan is one way to carry this out.”
Vegan advocacy is culturally controversial within Judaism, as in Christianity and Islam. Even more controversial within Judaism, especially in Israel, is population reduction through birth control and voluntarily limiting family size.
Schwartz gently yet extensively explores this cultural conflict, discussing traditional admonitions in favor of raising large families.
Schwartz also considers the influence of the Holocaust on survivors and their descendants who feel a duty to replace the lost six million Jews who were exterminated, and fear the consequences of becoming outnumbered by Palestinians, who have a much higher birth rate.
“The ever-dying people”
“Israel’s population is growing at a rate of 2% annually, which is four times the average 0.5% rate of other developed countries,” Schwartz calculates. “If that rate continued, Israel’s population would double in about 35 years and quadruple in 70 years—clearly an unsustainable situation.
“It should be pointed out,” Schwartz says, “that there have been many false prophecies in the past projecting Jewish disappearance. The late Professor Simon Rawidowicz pointed out that Jews are ‘the ever-dying people,’ with each generation since early in Jewish history believing that it might be the last one.
“It is interesting to note,” Schwartz counters, “that the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac each had only two children, and in each case one of them (Abraham’s son Ishmael and Isaac’s son Esau) left the faith.
“Perhaps what the world needs today,” Schwartz postulates, “is not zero population growth (ZPG), but zero population-impact growth (ZPIG). For it is not just the number of people that is important, but how much they produce, consume, and waste.”
Schwartz then takes that thought in the same direction as Akers in Embracing Limits, and many others before Akers, including Barbara Ward in Spaceship Earth (1966) and E.F. Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful (1963).
“Affluent nations have an impact on the environment extremely disproportionate to their populations,” Schwartz mentions, but––like Akers––fails to note that affluent nations also produce vastly more food, energy, and the other material used to enjoy more affluent lives, with also vastly greater efficiency relative to resources used.
Most of the nations whose human population have the least environmental impact can barely feed themselves. Most of those at the opposite end of the spectrum are net food exporters.
The gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots,” however, can be markedly reduced by the export and adoption of rooftop solar electrical generation, slow drip irrigation (most advanced in Israel), internet access to improve education, and many other technologies developed by the “haves” yet often more applicable to the circumstances of the “have nots,” who––for instance––typically are rich in sunlight but not in fossil fuels.
“The concept of Jews as a ‘chosen people’ has often been misinterpreted as an expression of exclusivity,” Schwartz acknowledges. “But the prophets remind the people that being chosen does not mean divine favoritism, nor does it guarantee immunity from punishment; on the contrary, being ‘chosen’ means being held to a higher standard and thus being more intensely exposed to God’s judgment and chastisement.”
“An element of the Ten Commandments, ‘You shall not steal,’ along with the subsequent prohibition of coveting,” Schwartz suggests, “is a reminder not to make material gain the purpose of our lives.”
Concerns of the day
The concluding portion of Judaism & Global Survival at once has the least to do with the usual topics of ANIMALS 24-7 and most directly addresses the concerns of the day.
“I am fully and painfully aware of past intransigence in the Arab world,” Schwartz begins. “I know that hatred of Jews and Holocaust denial are taught in many Muslim schools, and that some governments and violent groups like Hamas refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. The many outrageous acts of terrorism by Palestinians must be condemned and steps to prevent them must be continued.
“However,” Schwartz continues, “since I am a Jew speaking primarily to fellow Jews, I want to focus on what I believe we, as Jews, should be doing to work for peace. Instead of each side demonizing the other, we need to seek common ground and ways to overcome obstacles to peace.”
“More die from air pollution than from terrorism”
After extensively discussing how this might be done, with extensive reference to traditional Jewish teachings that have parallels, though Schwartz does not mention them, in traditional Islamic teaching, Schwartz points out that, “Israel faces many environmental problems that are not being adequately addressed, largely because so much attention and resources are devoted to security concerns. Far more people die annually from air pollution in Israel than from terrorism and traffic accidents combined.”
Hopes Schwartz, “A resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict would serve as a model for other trouble spots in the world. If Israelis and Palestinians—two peoples who have been at war for decades—can make peace, it could demonstrate that peace is possible everywhere.”
Rambling toward conclusion, Schwartz again argues, restating the major theme of his work for more than 30 years, that “Veganism and related issues should be put on the Jewish agenda since animal-based diets violate basic Jewish teachings on health, compassion, sharing, justice, environmental sustainability, and other values.
“Is it good for the planet?”
“Judaism is in many ways a radical religion,” Schwartz summarizes, but laments that “our Jewish schools and synagogues seem to be creating mainly conservative graduates, people unwilling to apply Jewish values to help shake an unjust status quo.
“Consistent with our prayers to a God of compassion, shouldn’t we feel more compassion toward all of God’s creatures?
“Shouldn’t the preservation of the global environment be given greater priority on the Jewish agenda?
Finishes Schwartz, “It is no longer enough to ask, ‘Is it good for the Jews?’ We must now also ask, ‘Is it good for the planet?’”
ANIMALS 24-7 hopes other elders of other cultures on the opposite sides of the world’s many war zones are having similar thoughts.