Thursday, October 19, 2017

Russia’s Environmental Issues

By: Hayley Harding
Produced and Edited by: Sarah Wagner

Russia’s Environmental Issues

Russian diesel locomotives expel carbon emissions, adding to the widespread pollution.
Photo courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons
In the north, much of Russia’s notorious permafrost is melting. In many of the country’s biggest cities in the west, air pollution has Russians breathing dirty air. In the Russian Far East, industrial development has led to illegal logging and poaching along with other problems.

The country — the largest in the world, spanning 11 different time zones — faces a diverse range of environmental problems, but amid limited resources for activists and an increased crackdown on NGOs, it can be difficult for activists to feel like they have any impact.

Those looking to take action may find that it’s hard to know where to even begin.

“It’s really hard to generalize,” Angelina Davydova, a freelance journalist covering environmental issues, said. “It’s really hard to come up with just two or three sentences describing the (environmental) situation because it’s very varied.”

During much of the Soviet era, the government did not regulate many pollution-creating activities on the grounds it would slow down economic development and business growth. The country has not been quick to remedy the resulting problems or to counter current ones.

Yakimanka District, Moscow, Russia.  Photo Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons

Generally agreed upon is that in big cities, traffic, manufacturing and other air pollution-producing activities have led to diminished air quality, although “it’s better than it used to be in the latest years of the Soviet Union,” Davydova said.

Other problems include fewer forests for legal logging, smaller habitats for endangered species and, perhaps most crucially of all, limited governmental support for those working to protect parts of the environment that are most at risk. In some places, NGOs working to protect the environment feel government agencies could be working against them.

“Provincial officials often do not support and understand the importance of conservation work by NGOs,” said Sergei Bereznuk, director of Phoenix Fund, a non-governmental dedicated to biodiversity recovery. “Instead, such work, especially when funded from abroad, can be considered as subversive activities. On the other hand, it is almost impossible for independent NGOs to receive governmental funding so there is no cooperation and support.”

2017 is Russia’s “year of ecology,” according to a decree signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2016, but Human Rights Watch reports it to be one of the worst for environmentalists, declaring environmentally focused NGOs “an endangered species.”

The government audited Bellona, a Norwegian-based international environmental group, and declared it a “foreign agent,” a label that indicates a group works with or accepts money from foreign governments, which is not allowed under Russian law. The tag has connotations of Cold War-era espionage and comes with a heavy stigma for the groups to which it is applied.

Such a label makes it harder for a group to work within the nation’s borders and makes it subject to more extensive restrictions and audits. It is often a kiss of death, forcing an organization to close its doors. Seven environmental groups have been shuttered since the law came into effect in 2012, just a few of the dozens of organizations to get the label.

Financial support from overseas, even when not from government agencies, can be tricky to come by. For instance, the recent tensions between the United States and Russia coupled with the Russian financial crisis has hurt Phoenix Fund’s fundraising efforts.

“For the last few years, Phoenix (Fund) has lost support from a number of donors in the US and the UK,” Bereznuk said. “We are hoping that the economic crisis will end soon and people and businesses will be able to go on giving their donations for nature conservation efforts.”

The government does not often provide resources or solutions to act in response to such groups once they are gone, creating ever more problems for those still working to help with conservation and other environmental efforts.

“Russia’s state institutions are very weak in terms of working for real solutions, and to avoid public disapproval, they prefer to hide the real problem behind false official reports,” Violetta Ryabko, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Russia, said. “Greenpeace Russia’s role is to be a source of reliable information, provide … expertise and share the experience of educational work.”

In some cases, though, the government helps with preservation. In a statement from World Wildlife Fund Russia press officer Daria Kudryavtseva, the organization says some general progress has been made.

For instance, Russia signed the Paris climate accord (although it has not yet ratified it), a move the United States also made but then reneged. The Russian Federation also increased the number of specially protected areas and “introduced a temporary moratorium on issuing new licenses to companies to develop oil and gas fields on the Arctic shelf,” Kudryavtseva said.

While these small steps serve to benefit the country as a whole, the repercussions from governmental actions can mean “the moment (for conservation efforts) can be missed,” Bereznuk said.

Many experts, however, agree that environmental activists in Russia face significant challenges.

“Some environmental activists are facing pressure, political pressure, social pressure, sometimes even violence, but that’s not the universal case,” Davydova said. “There are some regions where environmental activists are super successful and super proactive, and then there are others where they are being oppressed or not being heard. … There are many dimensions to this story.”

Messianic Jews - minorities in the Jewish state

By: David Lee
Produced and Edited by: Sarah Wagner

Messianic Jews - minorities in the Jewish state

In the United States, Christians, Muslims, and Jews have shown the ability to share a common identity as an American. In Israel, having Jewish familial roots is the only direct passage to citizenship. Messianic Jews – Jews who unconventionally believe in Jesus – share in the Jewish heritage, but have been an outlier within the Jewish establishment for decades.

Jew, but not Jewish

“Basically, the only group of Jewish people who can show clear Jewish heritage but not permitted to immigrate to Israel,” said Jamie Cohen, a founder of the Israeli law office Cohen, Decker, Pex & Brosh.

“They’re either rejected out of hand by one of the Jewish [immigration] agencies or there’s no movement [in the application process],” said Cohen.
He and his partners assist individuals or families who get “stuck” in their immigration to Israel.

The Israeli statute called the Law of Return allows any person with a Jewish father or grandfather to immigrate to Israel. However, there is another law that terminates Jewish citizenship if one makes conversion from Judaism to another religion. Messianic Jews usually end up “stuck” between these two laws.

“Our lawyers set up meetings with the ministry [of immigration] and we throw petitions, and if we can’t get a satisfactory answer from the ministry we take it to the high courts,” said Cohen.
Precedentsin the Israeli Supreme Court have shown a reluctance to side with Messianic Jews in cases ranging from immigration to marriage – what Cohen calls “gross injustice.”

Messianic Jews in today’s Israel

Photo Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons
Idan Pinhas is a Messianic Jew who grew up in a traditional Jewish family in Israel. As a manager of a museum in the Old City of Jerusalem, he attends an Anglican church in the same area.

“My dad became a Christian when I was young; my mom divorced him for that,” said Pinhas.
He describes the divisions in his family as a typical consequence for Orthodox Jews who have converted to Christianity.

“You do get some pressure from the family. They don’t want to talk to you, they don’t want to invite you to family events,” said Pinhas.

He also mentioned situations where people would slap, spit, or curse at Messianic Jews advocating their faith in the streets. Yet, the injustices that Cohen mentioned are more extensive.
MessianicJewish houses of worship are picketed or blockaded by ultra-orthodox communities, and police are reluctant to intervene,” said Cohen. “When you try to bring a case against [the offenders], the police won’t cooperate even if the Messianic Jews were hurt,” continued Cohen.

Pinhas emphasized that groups like Yad L’Achim meddled with the Ministry of Interior – which handles immigration to Israel – to discourage the population of Messianic Jews in Israel.
“These [Orthodox Jewish] parties basically have a monopoly over the Ministry of Interior,” said Pinhas. “These non-governmental groups inform the ministry about Messianic groups in Israel, and the ministry takes action,” continued Pinhas.

Yad L’Achim refused to comment, but another orthodox group shared its counter-missionary work. 

The Preservation Movement

“It’s an educational organization that starts with children and schools,” said Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz, the American Liaison for Lev L’Achim.
Meaning “Heart to Brothers,” Lev L’Achim has the goal of transferring Jewish children in secular schools to religious schools that teach the Torah – the Hebrew bible. Other objectives include preventing intermarriage and “saving” Jews from missionary work and assimilation to non-Jewish groups.

“I do not believe every Jewish person has the right to choose their own religion,” said Malinowitz. “I don’t think God left it up to us to decide if we should follow the rules and guidelines found in the Torah and the Bible,” continued Malinowitz.
Outreach Judaism – founded by Rabbi Tovia Singer – works outside of Israel and, also, has its focus on discrediting the Messianic movement.   

“What the Messianic movement is doing is keeping superficial traditions and customs that are not biblical, but are very visible and striking,” said Singer. “So, they jettisoned the core tenant of the Jewish faith and they’re lighting Hanukkah candles and wearing a kippah.”
Likewise, Messianic Jews have become a controversy in that their existence brought out a fundamental question about Jews: can you be Jewish without the Jewish religion?
“Israel walks a very strange line: Israel is a democracy – it has a justice on the Supreme Court who is Arabic; but, it is a Jewish state. So, it’s a very difficult balancing act,” said Singer.

Can you be Christian, and a Jew?

Professor David Randolph, the Director of Messianic Jewish Studies at the King’s University, explained why Messianic Jews would want to keep their Jewish identity even when they abandoned the Jewish faith.
Israeli people praying at the Western Wall.  Photo Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons

“In the New Testament [of the Bible], Jesus, his apostles, and his first followers were Jews; Jesus’ ministry was almost entirely in the land of Israel,” said Randolph.
Centuries later, Jesus’ movement of replacing the Jewish doctrine for the Christian counterpart made Jews the minority and the non-Jews the overwhelming majority. Here, Rudolph describes two different purposes for today’s Messianic movement: missionary purposes and an emphasis on Jews as God’s chosen people.
“The maintenance of the Jewish identity is important because of evangelism purposes – Greeks to the Greeks and the Jews to the Jews,” said Pinhas.

In addition to orthodox groups accusing the Messianic movement to be a deceptive Christian cult, the political status quo of Israel also does not make life easier for Messianic Jews.
“I hate to say it, but to battle with the religious establishment – especially this establishment which tends to be ultra-orthodox – you’re just not going to win [cases for Messianic Jews],” said Cohen.

Still, ordinary citizens like Pinhas have seen changes throughout their time in Israel, which they hope will bring a different Israel.  “The people have changed so the court decisions might have to change as well; and there is a strong pool in our society to go against [further discrimination],” said Pinhas.