Several years ago, Stephanie Firestone, an urban planner and environmental activist from the nearby Reform community Har Halutz, founded the Link Foundation ("linking land and neighbors"), to promote grassroots environmental action projects uniting Jews and Arabs in the Galilee. This effort is based on the assumption that we all breathe the same air and drink the same water, so environmental conservation is a challenge that unites us. Originally, Link operated out of our office as a project of our foundation, until it "grew up" and became an independent entity. I have remained active as a "founding member." Link has been active on a number of local fronts, especially in the area of promoting recycling, and environmental education.
Last week, at its annual general meeting, the Link Foundation hosted a guest speaker: Shlomo Shoham, the "Commissioner of Future Generations of the State of Israel." Some title! It was a fascinating evening. It turns out that a year ago, as a somewhat unintended consequence of internal institutional political maneuverings in the Knesset, this position was created and granted a small budget and staff. The first Commissioner is a young retired judge, who had previously served as legal advisor to the Knesset. Shoham is eloquent and learned, and while the picture he painted of the challenges he faces was certainly daunting, the very existence of his position -- which had been unknown to me and to everyone else to whom I have mentioned it -- does ignite a faint glimmer of optimism.
The Commissioner and his staff have the task of reviewing all proposed legislation, examining its impact on future generations. This can include any area, from highway budgets to education to welfare policy. They have the authority to send a bill back to committee for reconsideration, though their power is only advisory, not an actual veto. They can also try to get Knesset members to initiate legislation that they deem important. The Commissioner emphasized his view that he must tread very carefully; any attempt to confront powerful people head-on will simply lead to the elimination of his office; thus, he must see himself as an educator, quietly raising the consciousness of the legislators regarding their obligations to long-term, communal interests as opposed to short-term political and ideological machinations.
For example, a current issue that is of concern to all those who worry about the environment, about justice, and about good government, is the decision to give the Prime Minister's office the authority to override Planning Commission decisions, when it decides that a particular project has national importance. The examples, and potential, of abuse of this provision boggle the mind. Yet Shoham chose not to join the fray, as he realized, especially in his new and uncertain position, that his first battle could well become his last.
On the other hand, he has made the development of rail transportation a high priority, and is working with various Knesset members to develop and pass legislation that will facilitate and speed up the expansion and modernization of the rail network in Israel. He pointed out that not only are traffic accidents a much more lethal phenomenon than terrorism, but that the death rate from air pollution far exceeds that from accidents and terrorism together. And yet public awareness of -- and investment in -- alternatives to the private car are not serious. Shoham is convinced that unless we take major and rapid action, the country will become unlivable within a decade.
While his role is a bit like David facing a Goliath of commercial and political interests, Shoham seems to be politically smart, committed to his task, and even has a sense of humor. While no one in Israel is aware of his existence, he has been invited by the European Union to explain his work, as the idea of establishing such a commission has attracted attention there.
It's nice to get a little good news now and then...