Area men aim to protect Israel's environment

Area men aim to protect Israel's environment

The cranes flew in in squadrons, Leon Sokol recounted with awe — "30,000 birds in about ‘0 minutes, with wingspans of 6 feet."

That was Sokol’s first experience, some 15 years ago, of the spectacular migration that delights bird-lovers from all over the world. He and his wife, Marilyn, sat in Israel’s Hula Valley and watched the birds, who were migrating from Scandinavia to Africa, land along the lake to rest for the night.

"Approximately 500 million birds fly from Europe and Asia to Africa," noted Sokol, a Teaneck resident who is the new co-chairman of American Friends of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. "In the spring, they fly back. They fly over Israel because the African rift, which separates the two continents, runs right through the middle of Israel."

From left at the Ashdod Sand Dune Park during an ASPNI trip to Israel last year are Leon Sokol, Edward Geffner, Yair Farajun (SPNI guide), Russell Rothman, and Rosalee Davison.

But the extraordinary migration was also creating a hazard for commercial and military aircraft, Sokol told The Jewish Standard in a recent interview.

Russell Rothman of Oradell, ASPNI co-chairman for 15 years, said in a separate interview that "when you have a half billion birds migrating through the country twice a year, you’re talking about a lot of competition for air space. If a plane hits one of those migrations, there’s not just the loss of human life but millions of dollars of damage."

Rothman said that Dr. Yossi Leshem, a zoologist working with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, for which ASPNI raises funds and awareness, "studies bird migrations and was instrumental in helping the air force in Israel understand the comings and goings of birds…. He showed [the air force] how to avoid them."

In fact, said Rothman, under Leshem’s guidance, students from Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories have been banding the birds, following them on their computers, and exchanging information. Leshem and Imad Atrash, his counterpart in the Palestine Wildlife Federation, have even traveled together in the United States to raise awareness about and get more funds for nature conservation in the Middle East.

That’s how SPNI — which Sokol described as "sort of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society combined with the National Environmental Defense Fund" — operates, Sokol said. It works to "protect the environment through education and advocacy."

Rothman, who became active in ASPNI when he was doing doctoral research in the Negev on wolves, used a homier metaphor for SPNI: "a watchdog for the country. It transcends political boundaries," he said, with "friends on the left and the right…. It’s an organization looking to preserve the health of the country so it doesn’t become a parking lot."

Sokol offered another example of SPNI’s work: "It’s well-known that the original settlers in Israel had a serious malaria problem in the Hula Valley and nearby and that the swamps were drained." But less well-known is the unintended consequence of that effort, the destruction of many birds’ habitats. "So SPNI and Jewish National Fund … reintroduced water into the Hula Valley Preserve," Sokol said, "in a way that was both environmentally sensitive as well as recognizing the health issues."

Israel, he added, "is in a similar position to where New Jersey was a couple of years ago," when it was the butt of jokes about overdevelopment and toxic waste.

An increasingly industrialized society without adequate controls is prone to such environmental ills as water and air pollution. Sokol, an attorney whose practice has largely focused on environmental law, has wide experience fighting these modern scourges. In fact, he said, his Hackensack-based firm, Sokol Behot & Fiorenzo, has a Princeton office "devoted almost entirely" to the issue.

Sokol learned about SPNI from a friend working in Israel, and, "given my involvement in environmental law in New Jersey, I thought they were doing good work."

Clean water, Sokol points out, "is not just an academic issue; it directly impacts on the health of the community, and certainly clean air is a health issue…. I believe in preserving the environment as part of Israel’s future."

Echoing the concerns of environmental activists in this state, SPNI has successfully fought one "proposal to put in a big development between Haifa and Acco, on the beach, to keep the [site’s] natural beauty," Sokol said, and it is involved in "an ongoing matter where the law is supposed to give people access to the Kinneret, and many private owners have blocked the walkways to the sea."

Rothman noted that the owners are willing to provide access for a fee, which he called "shocking for such a [natural and national] resource." SPNI has been fighting in the courts, he said,"looking to develop a pathway around the lake so that everyone can enjoy it." The organization is winning, "but things take time, even when you win."

Sokol, who served on ASPNI’s board for 1′ years before becoming co-chairman, said the group raises about $1.’ million for the parent organization. (He is also a member of the executive committee of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.) "About 90 percent goes to Israel; the rest pays for an office in Great Neck." But the American branch gives more than money. "We share our experience in the United States," he says, and help to organize "a lot of ecotourism…. If [people] want to have a different experience or add to their experience of visiting Israel, they should contact us to see some marvelous natural wonders that most people who go to Israel don’t see — meteoric-like craters, wonderful sand dunes, interesting animal life."

SPNI has 14 field service centers around Israel, and during the recent war against Hezbollah, Sokol notes, "the northern field centers were used as respite areas for soldiers leaving Lebanon." Also, the organization "moved about ‘0,000 kids from ’00 to 300 families from the north to the south. They were put up in the field service centers, where they lived for several weeks in dormitories." SPNI employees, working without pay, took them on hikes and provided lectures for them about nature. It was a way, says Sokol, to mitigate "a very traumatic experience for kids who had been shelled up in the north."

SPNI’s most pressing current concern, both men agreed, is the fate of a forest just below the Old City of Jerusalem. Some years ago, the famous Israeli architect Moshe Safdie designed a plan for a coalition of developers to build a ‘0,000-home gated community in the hills just outside Jerusalem. But, Rothman said, a coalition of environmental groups, including SPNI, felt the so-called Safdie Plan "would interrupt a green corridor for wildlife." What SPNI did, he said, "was inventory the city for available space where this kind of development could be put together."

The environmental groups organized mass rallies, including one this summer that drew ‘0,000 demonstrators, and lobbied Knesset members with the findings of the land inventory "and the weight of public opinion."

Last Thursday, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski announced a freeze on the Safdie Plan, and according to The Jerusalem Post, "voiced support on Sunday for a plan to construct high-rises in the center of the city and to develop the remaining open spaces on the periphery of the capital instead of expanding the city westward."

Naomi Tsur, director of SPNI’s Jerusalem branch, was quoted as saying, ""We were completely taken by surprise. It seems there is such a thing as a good surprise."

Whether the freeze will last or the project will thaw, Rothman called this "a very big victory, even if it delays it, because a lot of big money is being thrown at this effort to develop this property .

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