College students campaign for environmental change

The S.F. transit agency Muni amazes Gil Yaacov, but perhaps this is because he is Israeli, not a jaded San Franciscan who has suffered bus or train tardiness one too many times.

“In Israel, we sometimes don’t even have a bus schedule, but here, you have the next bus’ arrival time on the bus shelter,” he said, his eyes bright behind wire-rimmed glasses.

This is exactly why Yaacov came to San Francisco. As the director of Israel’s leading collegiate environmental organization, Green Course, or M’gamah Yerukah, Yaacov recently visited Los Angeles and the Bay Area to gain some insight and perhaps borrow best practices.

“We can’t wait for the conflict to be over” to begin funding and fixing the environment, said Yaacov, who met with environmental students groups in both regions.

Green Course was started 10 years ago, and today has 6,000 members at 26 colleges and universities across Israel. Yaacov first got involved while studying Mideast history at Haifa University. Without Green Course, he said, he would not have found the environmental movement, nor would he have gained the skills to be a leader within it.

While in California to learn about what works here, he also had the opportunity to educate others about Israel’s environment. Yaacov spoke to a small group at the San Francisco Moishe House on March 10.

“Other NGOs take data and report on it — we make that information accessible to the public and translate the information into action,” he said.

That action often manifests itself through shocking or entertaining protests on campus, in surrounding communities or in the nation’s capital city of Jerusalem.

For instance, students showed up at a protest in Haifa — one of Israel’s most polluted cities — wearing plastic bags tight over their faces, to emphasize how suffocating the dirty air is to Haifa residents.

They repeated the protest when an electric company announced it wanted to build another coal plant in Ashkelon. The city already has two coal plants, and respiratory disease is common among residents. Green Course organized a rally with 300 college students, filling shopping carts with coal and walking through the city pushing the carts and holding signs that read, “We’re giving back the coal.”

“The key issue is that if people connect an environmental issue to something in their daily life, they’ll want to

do something about it,” Yaacov said. “And then we help them see that they can make a change.”

He recounted other successes, such as when in Kiryat Shmona, the city’s only park (named Golden Park, an appropriate name for a park in San Francisco’s sister city) was threatened by a contractor’s plan to build a 24-unit apartment building on the park’s grounds.

Green Course students rallied, camped out in the park and got thousands of people to sign a petition protesting the construction.

Six months later, Israel’s national building and planning committee rejected the plan, which Yaacov recalled as “an amazing success.”

Green Course also forced a change when towns along the Kinneret began charging for lake access, constructing fences and developing around the shore, even though the land is designated as public space.

The organization launched a campaign called “The Sea Belongs to the People.” Students showed up lakeside in bathing suits and snorkels. The action helped put an act on the floor of the Knesset that would add the Kinneret to a list of protected coastlines (which includes the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea).

“What I found really impressive about Green Course is that these student activists were involved in campaigns that resulted in real changes,” said Lyuba Wolf, a Stanford University graduate who met with Yaacov. “I don’t think U.S. students feel as empowered that they can change the course of policy decisions.”

Wolf helped found an international environmental student group called Energy Crossroads, which is why she and Yaacov met to discuss ways Green Course and Energy Crossroads could collaborate in 2009 during the U.N. Climate Summit.

Next week, she’s visiting Israel, and has made room in her schedule to meet with Green Course students.

“We want to create a cohesive global movement based on secure, clean energy,” she said.

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Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.