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The Pathology of a Polluted River
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1. The Pathology
of a Polluted River

An Introduction to
Israel's Environmental Crises

The bizarre clinical symptoms bewildered even the seasoned veterans of the emergency room medical team. Although the Israeli doctors were well accustomed to grisly disaster situations, no prior experience prepared them for what they encountered on that warm summer evening of July 14, 1997, at the Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva.

The athletes had been making their way across the Yarkon River, the second of fifty-six national delegations marching into the Ramat Gan Stadium for the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games, often called the “Jewish Olympics.” To the dismay of organizers and athletes alike, the newly (and shoddily) constructed bridge collapsed. Unable to withstand the weight, the beams snapped. The athletes, packed together in parallel rows of six, toppled eight meters into the waters below.[1]

Only one, Gregory Small, a thirty-seven-year-old bowler from Sydney, reached the hospital dead on arrival, apparently as a result of injuries sus-tained during the fall. Once they were pulled out of the river by rescue teams (Figure 1), the other sixty-six athletes seemed to be on track for a reasonable recovery. Shallow enough to stand in (1.6 meters under the bridge), the Yarkon River hardly seemed to pose a serious health hazard.[2] The term “river” in fact is a misnomer. Like almost all Israeli rivers, the Yarkon is more precisely a stream—generally a languid one, especially in July after four months without rain. Most of the injuries seemed routine. But then something went wrong.

Within an hour or two of arriving, patients who initially tested healthy for respiratory function were tottering on the edge of asphyxia. Some unidentified organism was devouring their respiratory systems and pul-monary blood vessels. “We inserted a tube into the heart,” explained Dr. Patrick Surkin, who ran the intensive care unit at Tel Aviv Medical Center. “We saw that the heart muscle had been directly damaged. There was a lack of air supply and a steady drop in blood pressure. These aren't

the symptoms in drowning cases.”[3] When news reports around the world hit the stands the next morning, of the 373 members of the Australian delegation, thirty-five remained hospitalized, seven in critical condition.[4]

Sensing that he was witnessing a toxic incident, Dr. Surkin immediately sent a physician on a motorbike to the site of the accident to take water samples. By midnight he roused David Pargament, the burly head of the Yarkon River Authority, to hear whether there was cause for particular suspicion regarding toxic discharges into the water. Pargament explained that thirty-six hours prior to the collapse, the River Authority had sprayed the waters with MLO (mosquito larvicide oil), a combination of jet fuel and oil, to prevent mosquito infestation. Subsequent lab reports found no traces of the substance.[5]


It took some time for the Israeli press to pick up the disaster's environ-mental angle. Initial attention remained focused on the criminal liability of the engineers and the construction company as well as on the controversial decision to continue with the festive opening ceremony in the face of the massive injuries.[6] On July 16, for example, the Jerusalem Post published a scorching editorial entitled “A Sense of Shame.” It did not even refer to the pollution that was the actual cause of the Australians' medical problems.[7]

The public's response seemed a mix of embarrassment and wistful re-gret that yet another symbol of Zionist achievement was marred by in-competence and negligence. The opening ceremonies were especially staged to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the first Zionist Congress, which launched the movement that ultimately produced the State of Israel. The Maccabiah Games were created to be a centerpiece of this “Zionist revolution.” Established in 1932 as the Jewish Olympics and held every four years in Israel, the Games offered Jews around the world the opportunity to join together and shed the age-old stereotype of the frail and intellectual Jew through the demonstration of athletic prowess. By 1997 the Maccabiah was billed as the third largest sporting event in the world, with fifty-three hundred participants from around the world and thirty-eight sporting events ranging from ice hockey to rugby.[8] Many Israelis cynically perceived the games as more of a tourist opportunity than a serious sporting competition, a cynicism reflected in the relatively modest press coverage of the sporting events; for most citizens, though, the Maccabiah still held sentimental significance.

The notorious bridge was specially built, as one is every four years, to herald the dramatic entrance of the athletes into Israel's largest stadium. As

the subsequent investigation revealed, the construction of the bridge was riddled by a litany of irregularities, presumably to reduce costs. Ultimately, the head of the Maccabiah Committee, the contracting engineer, and the construction companies were convicted of negligence.[9] But no expense had been spared on the opening ceremonies themselves. There were hundreds of dancers, high-tech sound and light displays, and the obligatory torch lighting by the Israeli basketball legend Mickey Berkovich. Ironically, the opening ceremonies were the only part of the games to receive live national television coverage. And so it was that households tuning in from around the country saw a show that bounced back and forth between chaotic res-cue efforts along the river and festive performances in the stadium. The juxtaposition captured a schizophrenic mix of the tragedy and euphoria that have characterized so much of Israel's emotional history.


Even six months later, the story would not go away. The weekend magazine of Israel's most widely circulated daily, Yediot Ahronot, featured the most high-profile victim, Sasha Elterman, on the eve of her sixteenth birthday. Sasha, a dark-haired, lanky fifteen-year-old from Sydney, was a particularly promising tennis player with a training regime that included ten kilometers of daily running and dozens of laps at a swimming pool each day. It was her first trip to Israel, “the homeland,” and she was moved by her visit to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and key local attractions with her parents prior to the games.

“On the evening of the opening ceremonies, I stood together with all the delegation and it was our turn to move forward. We started to walk,” she recalled.

I truly remember that one of the kids that stood by me said: “There's no way we're going to go on that shaky thing.” I didn't even manage to answer him or think about the sentence, when I heard a shout, and immediately after, I fell into the water. There were people on top of me, and I was stuck in the mud and I couldn't get myself up above the water. From the stories of the other athletes, they pulled me from the Yarkon unconscious. After treatment in the ambulance they restored me to consciousness, and I remember they wanted to cut my clothes to treat me. With my last bit of strength I told them: “Don't cut my Maccabiah uniform.”[10]

Sasha lapsed into a coma within hours and woke up four days later in the hospital with her entire body aching. Little could she know that her nightmare

was just beginning. For six weeks she languished in the Shneider's Children's Hospital in Petah Tikva, waiting for a diagnosis of her condition that would lead to curative therapy. With her lungs barely functioning, biopsies were sent to local and American laboratories. Only when Pseudallescheria boydii infec-tion was identified in the lungs of Warren Zeins, the fourth Maccabiah fatality, was there a clear direction for treatment.[11]

This was hardly good news—of the twenty-six diagnosed cases of P. boydii infection in the world, only four have survived.[12]P. boydii, a rela-tively ubiquitous fungus, is an opportunistic organism always ready to exploit a weakness in the body's defenses. Lung transplant recipients are at special risk because of their immunocompromised status. The fungi tend to colonize in the lungs or pleural cavities, producing a pneumonia that kills cells in its wake. The microbes and the deadly pus they spawn spread readily, disseminating to the brain, kidney, heart, and thyroid.[13]

Six months after the disaster, Sasha had been through three hundred X-rays and eighteen operations (thirteen of which were brain surgeries). She had lines inserted to bring food and medicine directly to her stomach, and three tubes for draining the excess fluids in her head, which had been put-ting pressure on her brain.[14] Her permanent lung function was 60 percent of what it was before the accident, and she was plagued with periodic con-vulsions.[15] Eventually, she recovered sufficiently to carry the Olympic torch a few hundred meters during the opening of the games in Sydney.

The outpouring of concern by Israel's public, including a visit by Nava Barak, the Prime Minister's wife, along with the ultimate conviction of the defendants for negligent homicide, may have ameliorated the family's frustration and sense of loss. But the Yarkon River's toxic touch was largely irreversible. Sasha's mother, Rosie Elterman, spoke candidly: “She won't be what she was before. She was extremely intelligent, skipped a grade, was an outstanding athlete, a quick thinker. And now, all that I want is that she should be average, just an ordinary girl. I dream that she may one day have a normal life.”[16]


Sasha and her fellow athletes' pain, as well as at least three of the four Maccabiah fatalities, were caused by pollution. “How did the Yarkon River come to be so polluted?” and “What is being done to stop it?” are questions that barely seemed to interest the victims or the concerned public. Indeed, initially even environmentalists were confused about what actually happened. When activists from the environmental group

GreenAction organized a small protest about Yarkon water quality days after the accident, those who noticed saw it as insensitive opportunism. Early news reports in Israel implied that the victims suffered from trauma due to the fall.

As Dror Avisar, hydrologist at the activist organization Adam Teva V'din (the Israel Union for Environmental Defense), acknowledged in an interview a month after the disaster: “Even we who are constantly dealing with Israel's severe water pollution were surprised by the deaths in the Yarkon. No one anticipated that a person that falls into the water would die from it.”[17]

Part of the confusion can be attributed to the Israeli government's en-vironmental agencies, who were eager to avoid blame when the public was clamoring to find a scapegoat. The Ministry of the Environment was slow to acknowledge the environmental aspect of the tragedy. First, it denied the toxic exposures; later, its director general, Nehama Ronen, thought it in-appropriate to capitalize on human misery. Months after the tragedy, Ronen maintained a highly defensive position: “Look, the Yarkon has been a place that people want to run from for over thirty years. The second that people came looking for someone to blame, suddenly, we at the Ministry of the Environment are the guilty party.”[18] Even in informal settings, David Pargament, director of the Yarkon River Authority, still takes this line: “You have to remember that ultimately the Maccabiah incident was a mechanical disaster. A bridge collapsed. It's not like Love Canal. The peo-ple had no business reaching the water there.”[19]

Eventually, pollution's role as a causa sine qua non in the Maccabiah deaths could not be denied. On August 18, 1997, an “Intermediate Report” submitted by the Water and Streams Division of the Ministry of the Environment reported a veritable cocktail of chemicals around the area of the bridge. The results were based on six separate analytical tests per-formed in Israeli laboratories and at the Global Geochemistry Laboratories in California. Although fecal bacteria appeared low in the river, Pseudomonas bacteria were found in high concentrations of ten per hun-dred milliliters. (Pseudomonas were isolated in the phlegm of Warren Zeins, the fourth victim of the incident.) Oils, heavy metals, petroleum hy-drocarbons, and siloxane were all found in the samples.[20]

There was much quibbling over the proximate causes of death. Yoel Margalit, director of the Center for Biological Control at Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva, went on record blaming the MLO. Nehama Ronen responded that this just served to frighten the public, and threatened legal ac-tion.[21] The absence of a single “smoking gun” among the chemicals revealed

in laboratory results has led most scientists to assign some role to the river's sludge: The collapse of the bridge temporarily disturbed the greasy mud cre-ated by years of suspended solids settling onto the river floor. This virulent anaerobic cocktail was temporarily stirred up and led to the toxic exposures.[22]

With the submission of the intermediate report, headlines began to ap-pear attributing the death of the athletes to the contamination in the Yarkon. Uri Minglegreen, the chief scientist at the Ministry, described to reporters the synergistic effect caused by the mixing of a variety of haz-ardous chemicals.[23] “These pollutants are sufficiently toxic and there's no need to look for any additional mystery substances,” he explained.


The Yarkon River had not always been contaminated. Until the 1950s, a re-mote risk of bilharzia (schistosomiasis) was still the only “environmental” concern for the children who swam and fished its rushing waters.[24] The river's 28-kilometer run to the Mediterranean at Tel Aviv's northern border still resembled this description from an 1891 travel guide: “The Yarkon River leaves from the base of a small hill called Ras El Ayin. Many other springs and rivers flow into it until it becomes a roaring river that zig zags until falling to the sea. This is one of the largest rivers in the land, and its power turns mills, and small fish can be caught in it.”[25] Biologists would later discover that the river boasts a species of small fish, lavnun ha-Yarkon, that exists nowhere else in the world. Even today, a rich variety of native plants remain along the banks. When the little nutria (a furry rodent) was brought to Israel in an unsuccessful fur enterprise near the river, the animals soon escaped and took to the warm climate, joining the local fauna.

Historically, the Yarkon also enjoys a rich and varied history. The strong flow and the thick wetland vegetation surrounding it created a sub-stantial land barrier. This gave the river considerable military importance. Whoever controlled the narrow land passage between Migdal Zedek and the Fort of Antipater dominated the surrounding area and a major north-south route. Over the past millennia, a series of military contests ensued around the river's narrow headwaters, as so often is the case for such strategic locations.[26]

But the Rosh ha-Ayin springs were tapped in 1956, and most of the Yarkon's natural 220 million cubic meters of annual flow (220 billion liters) was diverted to the south of Israel as part of a national irrigation program. The river quickly lost its vitality.[27] Were it not for the allocations to up-stream farmers, the river would have become completely moribund. The untreated

sewage of the many municipalities that make up the Central Israeli Dan and Sharon region replaced the clean natural spring waters bubbling out of the Mountain Aquifer. These wastes were augmented by chemicals and detergents from factories in the many industrial zones that lay along the flood plain, discharges from the many solid waste dumps in the water-shed, and runoff, carrying residues of oils, from roads and industrial debris.[28]

It took little time for Israelis to grow used to the new stench-filled and stagnant reality. It was just another annoyance of daily life. A line in the popular song “Only in Israel” from the 1960s summed up what was al-ready the common perception about the perennially polluted river: Ha-Yarkon tamid yarok, “The Yarkon is always green.”[29]

In fact, the river is not uniform, breaking into three separate sections:

  • The upper Yarkon, which has been returned to a fairly clean state
  • The central (and largest section), which receives municipal waste-water and effluents at various levels of treatment
  • The lower four kilometers, where seawater flows in to fill the vac-uum and tidal fluctuations ensure regular replacement of the saline estuary

Even if authorities had been interested in addressing the water quality of the Yarkon, its complex pollution profile makes it a particularly chal-lenging resource. The river's watershed contains some eighteen hundred square kilometers stretching from cities in northern Samaria, such as Nablus, to the sea. Controlling for all the runoff that eventually reaches the Yarkon is a daunting task, today requiring international cooperation.

Raw sewage coming from the Kaneh River in the West Bank, for in-stance, reaches the stream with a biological oxygen demand (BOD) reading of 250 milligrams per liter. The Israeli standard for this parameter, which measures the amount of organic waste that steals oxygen from aquatic sys-tems, is 20.[30] The Yarkon River master plan, based on the river's sensitiv-ity, recommends that entering sewage be treated to a BOD level of 10, or 25 times lower than the concentrations that actually reach the river.[31] The Kaneh is just one example of many pollution sources. In addition, the Ayalon, Shiloh, and Hadarim tributaries carry their own sewage loadings.

The range of pollutants is also enormous. The small factories and sewage discharges whose effluents indirectly reach the tributaries make up only the urban part of the pollution portfolio. Farmers near the banks contribute a range of agricultural pollutants, including pesticides and animal wastes, through diffused (nonpoint) runoff, which may have been responsible for the P. boydii that harmed and killed the athletes.[32] In the most densely populated

area of the country, where land prices are highest, there simply is not much land available to install the biological processes required for treatment.

Once the heart of the river became polluted, it lost its biological integrity and the ecological law of “unintended consequences” set in. Pest control of-fers one example. Since the British brought the Gambusia fish (Gambusia affinis) to Palestine in 1924 as a remedy for the malaria problem, these fish have been employed for mosquito control,[33] but the central Yarkon pollutants are too virulent even for these hardy mosquito eaters. Without fish in the wa-ters, mosquito populations are not curbed by a natural predator and quickly became an urban nuisance. This is particularly aggravating for Tel Aviv resi-dents, who like to leave their windows open and frequently do not have screens.

The light spraying of MLO, a thin sheen of oil on the surface, was selected as the “lesser evil” of the available control options.[34] Even if it affects only the mosquito population (a dubious assertion to be sure), it is not always possible to apply the MLO from a boat, so access roads along the river are required. This in turn disturbs vegetation that is supposed to grow back as part of recla-mation efforts. The exposed land hastens erosion, silting, and turbidity. Treating the symptoms rather than the causes of a sick river has limitations.


After twenty-five years of total dormancy, the Streams Authority Law was finally given some life with the establishment of a Yarkon Streams Authority in 1988. (It took the better part of another decade for the next River Authority to be declared.) The idea behind the 1965 statute was to introduce a watershedwide approach to river reclamation in Israel. The responsibilities of the Authority include pollution prevention enforcement, planning, licens-ing, and drainage. These responsibilities extend beyond the meager 20 meters of land on each river bank over which the Authority exerts direct control.

David Pargament took over the Yarkon River Authority after one too many photogenic “fish kills” hit the Israeli press and left top brass at the Environmental Ministry dissatisfied with his predecessor.[35] Pargament, a surprise appointment, strikes an unconventional figure in Israel's environ-mental bureaucracy. A physically imposing man, his long beard and ponytail (still red), preference for jeans, and American education give him a rugged cowboylike persona.

Selected for the Yarkon River Authority position, after working as a rel-atively aggressive nature reserve field inspector, Pargament had all the requisite ecological qualifications, enforcement orientation, and rapport

with environmental groups to make him a relatively popular figure. He downplayed expectations after his appointment, explaining that much of the reported improvement in the river's quality was exaggerated. The re-cent spate of fish kills was largely due to the fact that previously there had simply been no fish in the river at all.[36] No one expected miracles, but they did want progress. And they got it.

A comprehensive master plan was drafted to preserve the river. Pargament, with the help of a broad coalition, got the strategy passed in principle through the labyrinth of planning procedures and the affected city councils. The operational objectives that the plan set for itself included drainage, ecological rehabilitation, preserving the “green lungs” for the most populated area in Israel, and changing the Yarkon's image “so that the public perceived it as a front yard rather than a backyard.”[37]

With the personal interest of a concerned, Tel Aviv–based Minister of the Environment and his director general, the River Authority's budget grew. The restoration of the upper seven kilometers made great progress, becom-ing one of the better-kept recreational secrets of the greater Tel Aviv area. Many of the recalcitrant cities, such as Kfar Saba and Ramat ha-Sharon, began to make a serious commitment to sewage treatment upgrading.

Even before this, the Yarkon rehabilitation efforts were already hailed as a success story by Israel's Ministry of the Environment. A 1994 propaganda piece reads:

The success of the rehabilitation program is already evident in the re-turn of flora and fauna to a restored seven-kilometer stretch, in the de-velopment of boating and fishing areas, and in the eradication of mos-quitoes using biological control. A few kilometers upstream, near Petah Tikvah, the National Parks Authority officially inaugurated the Mekorot ha-Yarkon (Sources of the Yarkon) National Park in October 1993. The park includes historic sites, a pastoral atmosphere, and river-bank vegetation with public access.[38]

Reconciling this rosy picture with the poisoned athletes is not simple. However, in small countries such as Israel it is not uncommon to have pris-tine natural enclaves adjacent to significant contamination.


At a senior staff meeting of Israel's Ministry of the Environment, days after the Maccabiah Games, the importance of a cogent government re-sponse was raised, and opportunities created by the tragedy were also pointed out. Historically, environmental disasters have spawned quantum

progress. The “London Fog” killed 4000 people in 1952 but ultimately led to England's Clean Air Act in 1956 and the subsequent dramatic improve-ment in London's ambient air quality.[39] The toxic tribulations of residents in New York State's “Love Canal” neighborhood produced an enormous nationwide investment in hazardous chemicals cleanup in the United States through the establishment of Superfund.[40]

But the response to the crisis from Israel's Ministry of the Environment was remarkably sluggish. It is not clear whether the hesitation stemmed from not wanting to exploit the misery of the victims, or not wanting to implicitly acknowledge responsibility for the pollution problem, or per-haps, just not knowing what to do. At a formal level, sewage reaching the Yarkon River had been allowed by the Ministry of Health and Israel's Water Commissioner, which might have served to temper the virulence of these agencies' responses.[41]

By the end of the summer, the Environmental Ministry had changed its tune. The international media's focus on the Yarkon and related pollution stories were becoming embarrassing, with top periodicals running exposes like Time's “The Filthy Holy Land.”[42] Lack of clear information led to wild claims, such as an erroneous theory appearing in the Australian press that the river contained nuclear wastes. There was a need to muster some sort of response to the disaster. Environmental Minister Rafael Eitan, a former general who typically paid more attention to his second portfolio at the Ministry of Agriculture, eventually went on the record demanding 15 mil-lion shekels from the Finance Ministry for special Yarkon rehabilitation.[43]

Later, the Environmental Ministry announced an enforcement cam-paign against Yarkon polluters. But it was unsuccessful in identifying any point source polluters beyond the sewage from the cities of Ramat ha-Sharon, Kfar Saba, and Hod ha-Sharon.[44] No legal actions against pol-luters were ever filed.[45] Of the requested funds, only five million shekels were ultimately approved for conducting general exploratory research about the contents of the river's sludge. Director General Ronen explained: “It's a good start. Before you take out the sludge you have to know how and when. We've commissioned a report from some Dutch experts. At least Holland has reclaimed a few rivers and actually might know what they are doing. I just got back from visiting England and they explained to me that river reclamation is a matter that takes twenty years. Until the sewage flow is stopped, it's basically a hopeless issue.”[46]

The follow-through was even less impressive. It took some three years for the modest public funds to be transferred by the Treasury to support an assortment of Yarkon-related research initiatives and proj-ects.[47] Four years after the catastrophe, a thirteen-million-dollar compensation

package was finally closed for Sasha Elterman and the other victims.[48] Baruch Weber, Deputy Director of the Ministry's Water and Streams Division, offers a pessimistic prognosis for the Ministry's efforts. “The problem is the legal standards for sewage treatment.[49] They may be acceptable as a generic effluent criterion, but if we're talking about a recreational resource, they just aren't relevant. With the sewage treatment facilities in place, chemicals can slip through the treatment process and will continue the mass destruction of aquatic life.”[50] Indeed, the Ministry of the Environment recommends effluent standards that are twice as stringent.[51]

Hydrologist Dr. Dror Avisar is also pessimistic about the adequacy of the remedial measures pledged. The problem, he argues, will ultimately be maintaining the new sewage treatment plants. Municipalities are not always ready to pay for the expertise necessary to keep the level of treatment high. Even if, hypothetically, they are treated to a BOD level of 5 or 10 milligrams per liter and the Yarkon flow was entirely based on high-quality effluent, there is the problem of periodic “overflows.” These are inevitable because of maintenance requirements or equipment breakdown. “If these overflows happen five times a year (a reasonable level of operation based on present experience from Tel Aviv), multiply it by seven cities. The river will die. It just can't handle this level of direct raw sewage discharge. That's after you've cleaned the water, brought back the fish, and rehabilitated the river. Without the lands for an overflow backup settlement pond, all the efforts will be for naught.”[52] Rachel Adam, an attorney at the Ministry of the Environment specializing in water quality, agrees that zero discharge should be the ulti-mate goal. All treated sewage should be utilized by agriculture.[53]

As Israel's Water Commissioner for most of the 1960s and 1970s, Menahem Kantor was a central figure in national water policy. He has reached an even more discouraging conclusion: “There's no choice but to dry up the rivers of Israel. We don't have the groundwater available to di-lute the streams. If you want a river full of water, it creates an illusion. The public thinks it can swim in this water even though it's wastewater. It cre-ates the disaster that we saw at the Maccabiah.”[54]

The Ministry of Health was much less hesitant in its response from the start. It took protective measures. On September 22, Shalom Goldburger, the Ministry's chief environmental health engineer, recom-mended a ban on all boating and fishing (and, of course, swimming) on the lower stretch of the Yarkon. The decision was based on water quality monitoring in the Tel Aviv section from April to August 1997 that showed clear violation of water quality standards. This effectively shut

down a range of recreational activities that had been part of the Tel Aviv experience for years.[55]

Following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the sponta-neous creation of memorial sites through the lighting of traditional mourn-ing (yahrtzeit) candles at the sites of tragedies emerged as a ritual of Israeli youth culture. All signs of the bridge were removed, but months after the event, the Maccabiah site became a shrine. Candles were scattered on the con-crete blocks adjacent to the river bed. The death of four healthy athletes and the untold suffering of many survivors may not have inspired any meaning-ful policy changes, but it left in its wake a wave of graffiti on the blocks with sketches of fish skeletons and an ominous engraving: “This pollution kills.”[56]


Pollution killing athletes in a highly publicized international sporting event should constitute a watershed event in the environmental history of a nation. Unfortunately, this was not the case with the 1997 Maccabiah tragedy. The upshot of the events on the Yarkon from the perspective of the Israeli environmental experience is discouraging. Officially, boating has been banned, and roughly one million dollars in additional funds were allocated for theoretical research about pollution characterization and reclamation strategies. David Pargament at the Yarkon River Authority put together a long list of restoration projects that were ready to go if they could only get funded. However, his agency's budget actually went down in real terms during the eighteen months following the disaster.[57] Only lip service to Israel's rivers flowed freely, while the Yarkon's putrid waters continued to meander to the sea.[58] The message was one of chronic neg-lect, evasion, impotence, and resignation.

Most alarming is how closely the Yarkon River fiasco fits into an estab-lished pattern, as part of a long series of inauspicious ecological delinquen-cies. Israel's environmental history is marked with a disheartening number of environmental disasters. Epidemiological estimates suggest that over a thousand Israelis die each year from the fine particles in the country's am-bient air.[59] Toxic exposures are almost certainly more hazardous to Bedouins living adjacent to the Ramat Hovav industrial zone and hazardous-waste disposal site. Only a fraction of the country's coral reef has survived the un-controlled expansion of the city of Eilat. Scattered around Israel's towns and cities there may be thousands of “brownfields”—polluted and abandoned tracts of land, too contaminated for development. A considerable portion of the landscape of Israel, which for millennia inspired prophets and pilgrims alike, lies decimated by careless development and sprawl.


The Yarkon disaster is not even the most severe instance of water con-tamination. A decade earlier, some 10,000 residents of the Krayot district, north of Haifa, became sick, hundreds were hospitalized, and two died after drinking water contaminated by the sewage of the nearby city of Shfaram.[60] The laundry list of hazards goes on and on. As environmental experts were quick to point out, the Yarkon is not the most polluted river in Israel: The Kishon River, a receptacle for the acidic effluents of Haifa's petrochemical industry for decades, stands uncontested for this dubious distinction. When an epidemic of cancer among veterans of the Israeli Navy's elite commando frogman unit who trained in its waters was con-firmed by a high-profile government inquiry in 2001, the river's notoriety was unsurpassed in the public's mind.

Israel's ecological record is particularly tragic because its environment is so unique. Despite its diminutive size (smaller than Denmark), Israel has an almost unparalleled combination of biological, climatic, and geological diversity. Sitting at the crossroads of three continents, Israel has as many indigenous bird species as are found in all of Europe, and many more types of bats. After thousands of years of human settlement, the sheer density of Israel's archaeological treasures is unmatched. Its status as a holy land makes its preservation of particular importance to Christians, Moslems, and Baha'is, as well as Jews.

Amos Keinan, the acerbic journalist and author, pronounced at a 1993 symposium held by the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel: “Two thousand years of conquerors didn't cause to the land of Israel a fraction of the damage produced by a century of Zionist settlement.” At first glance it might seem that the Zionist quest for Jewish national rejuvenation through aggressive economic development has produced an appalling en-vironmental legacy. The 1997 Maccabiah is but one small chapter. Any environmental history of Israel should have massive ecological deterioration as its point of departure and overall context.

But Keinan's indictment is also somewhat banal. There is hardly a na-tion on earth where the ecological destruction wrought by the twentieth century has not exceeded all previous anthropogenic harm throughout human history. Moreover, the magnitude of the damage is less important than understanding how environmental conditions deteriorated, if we are to ever begin the process of restoration. Understanding the Zionist vision is part of the diagnosis. How it might be transformed into a more envi-ronmentally friendly form must be part of the cure.

It is also important to recognize the many ways in which the Third Jewish Commonwealth has been a blessing to the land of Israel. Israel's environmental profile is far more complex than a one-dimensional,

pessimistic snapshot would imply. Alongside the story of pollution and pernicious development is a parallel narrative, which offers hope. It is a story of unprecedented afforestation in a semiarid climate, of relatively extensive nature reserves, of comprehensive planning, of legislation, of solar innovation, of world leadership in water conservation, and even of enforcement against polluters.

There have been dramatic reductions in concentrations of sulfur dioxide in the cities.[61] The concentration of tar on Israel's Mediterranean beaches dropped more than a hundredfold, from 3.6 kilograms per front meter to 20 grams per front meter, during the 1970s and 1980s.[62] Even the Yarkon wa-ters are cleaner today than they were ten years ago. Such changes do not happen by themselves. Hence, Israel's environmental history is also the story of a unique movement that, despite the growing population and eco-nomic pressures, often prevails in preserving its promised land.

Israeli environmentalists rarely refer to a formal environmental move-ment. The press frequently lumps together “the Greens,” but in fact ecosolidarity is rare. The aphorism “two Jews—three opinions,” which ex-plains so much backbiting within Israeli society, certainly characterizes environmentalists.[63]

Ironically, many of these organizations, as well as other government and nongovernment environmental institutions, have attracted international admiration for their achievements. Their individual histories are as unique as the idiosyncratic country they work to preserve. Their stories are also the only way to truly understand Israel's environmental experience. While the Yarkon incident is in a sense a reflection of their shortcomings and collec-tive failure, there are other cases in which the environment emerges tri-umphant. Understanding when and why these groups were effective, and when they were not, is a crucial part of Israel's environmental puzzle.

It is also instructive to consider the relationship between Israeli society and its environment. Increasingly, the environmental crisis is described as a crisis of values. An environmental history of Israel must consider the cultural paradox that continues to baffle activists and professionals alike. A country that justifiably boasts a national ethos for hiking, nature edu-cation, and a visceral identification with “the land,” remains strangely de-tached from the ongoing ecological damage.

In the past, Israelis could be likened to the proverbial frog and the pot of boiling water. Al Gore conjures up this well-known metaphor in his book Earth in the Balance.[64] Reportedly, frogs have a very crude internal thermostat. If you throw them in a pot of boiling water, they will hop out, recognizing that their lives are in danger. But if they are put in a pot of

lukewarm water that is slowly heated to the boiling point, they will boil and die, unable to detect the gradual increase in temperature. For its first forty years, as environmental conditions in Israel worsened, the public was seemingly unable to detect the deterioration.

The tremendous media attention, government sponsored publicity, and impact of pollution itself over the past ten years, however, has left little room for doubt in the Israeli public's mind that the environment is in se-rious trouble. Yediot Ahronot's New Year's “Survey of the Nation” on Rosh Hashanah in 1997 reported that environmental degradation was con-sidered the single greatest impediment to quality of life.[65] A 1994 poll con-ducted by the Ministry of the Environment three years before the Maccabiah disaster showed that 63 percent of Israelis perceived the na-tion's rivers to be “an environmental nuisance.”[66] And yet politically, the environment remains a “nonissue.”


No Israeli man of letters is more associated with environmental protection than Yizhar Smilansky. His novels under the pen name “S. Yizhar” may frequently be controversial, but are universally admired for their master-ful descriptions of a lovely land. Smilansky is not just an observer. While serving in Israel's Knesset during the 1960s, he was largely responsible for passing landmark legislation that established a nature reserve system. Forty years later, however, he questions whether there is much utility for environmentalists in studying earlier periods in the country's history:

When A.D. Gordon wrote about nature at the turn of the century, we were maybe 40,000 people and the few pioneers were scattered like seeds. In those days, it could take more than a day to get from Tel Aviv to Degania; today it can be done in an hour and a half. It has be-come a suburb of Tel Aviv. … Television and newspapers have made everybody urban. In my wildest dreams, I would never have imagined we'd be five million people in Israel. In this context, the Zionist ideol-ogy of those days isn't one you can actually apply. The children of farmers may feel close to the land, but they can't make a living unless they hire Thai workers to do the work for them. Whoever wants to find nature at the Kinneret today gets stuck in traffic. There's nothing left of that world.[67]

A century of astonishing technological development and population growth has changed the landscape (political and natural) in most countries beyond recognition. International influence is profound. Yet national en-vironmental realities continue to be diverse, a reflection of the dreams,

failures, and triumphs of the people and their land. Israel is also the prod-uct of myths and passions. While Israeli political leaders may rarely get outside of office buildings, they reflect the landscapes and ideals of their youth, which, despite Smilansky's intuitive pessimism, largely endure.

Israelis rarely wave the banner of Zionism. Except for politicians and school teachers, a Zionist label today is not a particularly trendy one. This cynicism is more a healthy response to the self-righteous, bombastic rhet-oric of the nation's founding fathers than an actual reflection of Israeli pa-triotism. Youth are volunteering to challenging combat units in greater numbers than ever. Israelis continue to prefer to tune their radios to Hebrew folk and pop music than imported international tunes.[68] Even ex-patriates who live outside the borders of their homeland tend to be more passionate about what goes on in the Knesset in Jerusalem than in the na-tional legislatures of their adopted countries. Also, even Israeli citizens who choose not to define themselves as Zionists still carry with them Zionist values and assumptions that inform their perspectives about life and the environment.

For example, Israelis take it for granted that the government owns 92 percent of the land, and that those who dwell there may only lease for pe-riods of 49 years. The importance of water delivery to semiarid regions, the edifying effects of hiking, the desirability of large families, an intolerance toward high unemployment—all these are manifestations of a Zionist per-spective that continues to shape the country's environmental conditions. Thus the source of Israel's pollution problem will be found beyond atmos-pheric or groundwater chemistry. These are mere symptoms. Rather, the problem begins with an ideology that was a reaction to European anti-Semitism during the late nineteenth century and blossomed into a prag-matic, national endeavor in the soils of Palestine. Israelis may have been the players who acted out the rebirth of a Third Jewish Commonwealth. One hundred years of unyielding Zionist determination and achievement unwittingly wrote the ecological script. While Zionism gave birth to a po-litical and economic culture that often exacerbated the environmental im-pact of modernity, there are cases where it also provided the philosophical foundations for breathtaking ecological gains.

To understand Israel's present environmental problems, therefore, one must know its past—both the physical and the intellectual realities. One must also be familiar with the many efforts and organizations that sought to make the Zionist pursuit a more gentle one for the land, resources, and creatures of Israel. This book describes both, considering the local ecological

challenges alongside the institutions and people who tried to influence Israel's checkered environmental history. Diverse in orientation, they share a common passion and patriotism. (It is not surprising that environ-mental leaders were primarily Ashkenazic men. The astonishingly high percentage of those who are or were members of kibbutzim is less predictable.) The book concludes with a closer look at some of the critical issues that will need to be tackled if Israel is to begin to move in a sustainable direction. Zionism, which has been part of the problem in the past, must also evolve.

Jewish tradition describes the past as a point of departure, as in navi-gating a boat on open waters. It enables one to guide one's course as the trip unfolds. If one never looks back, one quickly becomes lost.[69] A litany of avoidable environmental blunders in Israel's past suggests that by not studying history, the country has indeed repeated it. The tragedy wrought by the polluted Yarkon River will certainly be repeated in other, more per-nicious forms if Israel's environmental challenges are not addressed. Priorities and perspectives must change. If the ingenuity, determination, and emotional power of the Zionist dream is at the heart of Israeli envi-ronmental problems, it is also true that a newly modernized, environmen-tally sensitive Zionism has the power to solve them. The Zionist view of the natural world and how it was manifested in pre-State Israel, therefore, offers a natural starting point to begin Israel's environmental history.

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