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By the late 1980s, there were only two sizable nongovernmental organi-zations in Israel's environmental community. The Society for the Protection of Nature was still the predominant Green organization in the country, although there were many environmental issues that it did not address. The other group was the Council for a Beautiful Israel, established in 1968 by Josef Tamir, who chaired the Knesset's Interior and Environment Committee.[26] The Council benefited from the dedication and connections of its chairwoman, Aura Herzog, who later became Israel's First Lady. The Council's objectives emphasized aesthetics, with a strong focus on cleanliness.[27] Its orientation was primarily educational, and the organization worked intensively with teachers. Its approach to activism in its nine local chapters typically did not go far beyond community beauti-fication projects.[28]

In this institutional landscape, it is not surprising that a number of small groups and countless individual initiatives sprang up to fill the vacant ecological

niches. The sheer variety of characters who became environmental activists in Israel during the period made for a fascinating, if occasionally unruly, community. EcoNet was one of the first such successes. It chose to focus on the taboo subject of nuclear power and radiation. No Israeli envi-ronmental group of that period better reflected the spirit, aptitude, and lim-itations of its “founder” or set off as many unanticipated ripples.

Shirley Rose came to Israel from California during the 1970s. Living in Jerusalem, she found employment as an English teacher and enjoyed the large and friendly English-speaking Anglo-Saxon community there. She had once worked for the American Civil Liberties Union, and she soon became restless for something more provocative than teaching English. Coming from the United States in the post–Three Mile Island era, she was astonished at the degree of local indifference to nuclear issues.[29] Israel's Atomic Energy Commission was directly overseen by the Prime Minister's Office, and it was highly furtive about its activities. Israelis generally relegated ques-tions involving nuclear power, exposures, and wastes to the broader—and inaccessible—category of “security.” Indeed, Israel's fringe Communist Party was the only Knesset faction willing to make it a political issue.[30] Environmental groups had “more pressing” and less controversial topics on their agenda. But Shirley Rose did not. When she met and married Herschell Benyamin, she had a partner in her antinuclear crusade (see Figure 32).

Herschell Benyamin was among the many distinguished British Israelis who brought their World War II experience to Palestine to fight for the Zionist cause. Benyamin was quickly put to work as an artillery officer. But unlike many of the foreign volunteers, he was smitten by the young country and stayed on after the cease-fire. (Though he was by nature a man of pacific character, he ended up fighting as a reservist in all four of Israel's subsequent wars.) An avid gardener, Benyamin was a natural person to assume responsibility for the landscaping and grounds at Israel's only golf course, in Caesarea. The position gave him unusual access to Israel's small upper-class community. This elite circle of acquaintances widened after he trained as a tourist guide and became popular among an exclusive clientele for his understated wit and charm.[31] By the mid-1980s Herschell Benyamin was well into his sev-enties and would have been quite content to retire quietly to a small farm in the rural town of Karkur and tend to his avocado trees and sundry other horticulture ventures. But he had married the wrong woman. Shirley Benyamin had decided to do something to stop Israel from going down the nuclear power pathway, which she saw as a danger to the country's and the planet's future.


As a third coconspirator she called on her friend D'vora Ben Shaul. Dr. Ben Shaul had long since quit her post at the Nature Reserves Authority. Yet her work as Israel's first full-time environmental jour-nalist at the Jerusalem Post still left her ample leisure for the new project, and she was happy to serve as editor of a quarterly commu-niqué, Israel Nuclear News. Working out of the Karkur farmhouse, they tried to establish the Israel Agency for Nuclear Information. They hoped to create a clearinghouse that could offer the public reliable infor-mation about the perils of radiation.[32] Although over 150 people sent donations after receiving the first newsletters,[33] the Ministry of the Interior refused to register the organization as a nonprofit “ahmutah.” In the wake of the Vanunu affair, where a disgruntled former worker sold revealing photographs of Dimona's nuclear weapons facility to an English paper, it may have seen something perfidious in an antinuclear group. But 1986 was also the year of the Chernobyl disaster, and the group pressed on.

In 1989, Shirley Benyamin decided to modify her tactics, changing the organization's name to EcoNet.[34] Her rationale was that because a nuclear power plant was not imminent, it was prudent to expand the base of the organization's supporters. When the nuclear monster eventually reared its head, she would be ready to field a formidable opposition.[35] After stating much broader environmental goals, EcoNet's request to register as a non-profit organization was finally approved. Herschell was formally the chairman, with his many personal connections and his driver's license. But Shirley was the driving force.

Although she was a woman past retirement age, Shirley Benyamin showed the energy of a college activist. The organization found funds to study pesticide exposures and sponsored over a dozen student research theses in environmental health.[36] As the Soviet immigrants began to pour in, the group recognized that it had a unique opportunity to assess the health impact of the Chernobyl accident. Benyamin supported re-search that monitored and advised Israeli Chernobyl survivors. In 1993 EcoNet helped sponsor a conference on the subject.[37] When concerns about the proposed Voice of America radio transmitter arose, much of the information about nonionizing radiation came from the burgeoning EcoNet library.[38] Ben Shaul's quarterly newsletter, now entitled EcoNet News, tackled a different issue each month. The bulletin ultimately reached 150,000 recipients, including all Knesset members and govern-ment decision makers.[39] And the group continued to hammer away at the nuclear-power option.[40]


Most of Shirley Benyamin's time, however, was taken up with an envi-ronmental hot line. Israel did not have a Freedom of Information Act until 1998, and obtaining data about the environment from Israel's government was not a trivial task. Sometimes the call was for expertise or interpreta-tion of an environmental situation, rather than hard numbers. Relying on a growing pool of friends in academia, she became a Green matchmaker, linking people who had problems to the appropriate expert or journal ar-ticle. The number of requests for free advice and information grew. Shirley Benyamin presided over her network of 130, mostly retired, volunteers, who helped translate and research, as well as lick envelopes.

Shirley Benyamin saw her group as a catalyst that worked behind the scenes. Besides pursuing the research initiatives, she would, like a fairy godmother, seek out innovative initiatives and share what little re-sources she had: a computer or a printer for a deserving activist who did not have one, or funding for a part-time staffer to get a promising group off the ground. In 1990, a twelve-thousand-dollar EcoNet seed grant to the author, along with much encouragement, led to the creation of Adam Teva V'din, a public-interest environmental law group that is now Israel's second-largest environmental organization.

Many government officials dismissed the pesky septuagenarian as “that crazy American” (even though her Hebrew was fine, Shirley pre-ferred to speak in English, annoying government officials in a variety of forums with her frank and merciless attacks). Slowly but surely, though, Israelis began to talk about nuclear issues.[41] The process culminated with a televised documentary about health impacts on workers at the Dimona nuclear facility and the environmental Minister's high-profile fact-finding visit to the reactor area in 1994.[42] That year the Knesset found EcoNet's work impressive enough to grant the Benyamins the coveted Knesset Prize for their contribution to Israeli society.[43]

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