previous sub-section
Environmental Activism Hits Its Stride
next sub-section


Air quality provided the impetus for community activism in another city—and one that could not be further removed from Haifa in its socio-logical and ethnic makeup. Beit Shemesh was one of the many develop-ment towns that planners scattered around Israel during the 1950s to absorb new immigrants. A high percentage of immigrants from North Africa settled there, and it soon became associated with Sephardic socioe-conomic disadvantage. When the Nesher Company built a cement factory in the Har Tuv industrial park north of Beit Shemesh, it rescued the local economy. Instantly it became the town's largest employer—and polluter. During the 1950s, cement factories were nasty operations. But in those days, the Har Tuv plant sat far away from the closest cottages, and people were thankful for the work.[58]

As the city expanded northward, filling the open spaces along the hill-sides opposite the Nesher factory, the pollution problem worsened. The porches, cars, trees, and lawns of the northern neighborhoods were con-stantly covered with a thin white powder. When it became damp, the dust would harden. Such is the nature of cement. Clearing a car windshield in the morning literally became a grinding ritual. The particles also affected the lungs of the local residents. A 1994 government health survey confirmed

two decades of respiratory complaints. Schoolchildren in Beit Shemesh were three times more likely to suffer from chronic colds and coughing episodes than a comparable control group in nearby Givat Sharet.[59]

Elli Vanunu had come to Beit Shemesh from Morocco with his parents in 1963, at age three. As an adult, he commuted to work in a print shop in Tel Aviv but was committed to the Beit Shemesh community. Vanunu rep-resented his neighborhood in the town's urban renewal projects and did not hide his political ambitions as an activist in the Likud Party. When Vanunu bought a spacious new apartment for his family in 1988, it seemed as if his standard of living had taken a big step forward. But the apartment was deep in the town's northern dust belt. After speaking to his new neighbors and hearing repeated stories about sick, coughing children, his real estate investment did not seem quite as attractive.[60] He soon recog-nized that he had found an issue.

The Nesher factory had a long history of disputes with regulators. Many of the big factories in Israel underwent air quality regulation dur-ing the 1970s and 1980s, and yet the Beit Shemesh facility managed to elude a personal decree (under the Kanovich law) from the Ministers of Health and Interior.

Vanunu immediately demanded that the Ministry of the Environment call the factory to task for its massive releases of dust into the air. After long negotiations, Prime Minister (and environmental Minister stand-in) Yitzhak Shamir finally signed a personal decree on November 18, 1990.[61] But expectations for improvement were soon dashed. The Ministry of the Environment decided to show flexibility and agreed to accommodate the factory's request for “gradual controls.” This gave the factory several years' grace before it would be required to install an electrostatic precipi-tator in the central smokestack of the kiln. The Ministry had also done shoddy technical work: Several of the smokestacks that were the main source of dust in the complex did not appear on the map that accompanied the permit.

The factory interpreted the omission as a loophole and refused to nego-tiate over further controls, even though the unmapped sources may have been the major source of emissions. Under the permit, the factory was re-quired to measure particulate levels, but the management dragged its feet on continuous monitoring of the chimney and skipped several of the mandatory ambient measurements around the plant. When the incomplete data were submitted, they still showed a pattern of air quality violations.

Vanunu emerged as a formidable local political force. He had no trou-ble persuading the Beit Shemesh newspaper to adopt air quality as a lead

issue. He sought and received legal assistance from Adam Teva V'din and, through public-interest attorney Tirtseh Keinan, he began to bombard the Ministry, the factory, local environmental officials, and the Mayor with demands to enforce the environmental permit, in particular its monitoring requirements. Ministry personnel who may have been dismissive of the brash young activist began to take him seriously. So did his neighbors.

Vanunu's efforts struck a chord with the citizens. He was a natural organizer. He set up a march of citizens to the factory gates, demanding better emission controls. He videotaped pollution episodes. Many of the factory workers were hesitant to join the ranks of activists, but most were highly supportive, and several quietly provided invaluable intelligence.[62] When he called an emergency meeting at the neighbor-hood community center to vent frustrations over air pollution in the city, several hundred people showed up.[63] A nervous Mayor Shalom Fadida (from the Labor Party) appeared, an hour late, and made prom-ises to the angry crowd about his commitment to his city's health. Eventually Vanunu filed a private criminal suit against the plant and its manager. Although the resulting indictment did not produce results, because of an unsympathetic judge, it maintained the sense of momentum.

Publicly the factory was defiant, arguing that the dust that was choking Beit Shemesh residents actually came from nearby quarries. It tried to show its environmental commitment by planting trees inside the factory grounds. But the Nesher plant was feeling the pressure and made some ad-justments: Ambient air measurements around the plant became much more regular, and when the new electrostatic precipitator was finally in-stalled on the central chimney in 1993, the main source of emissions was virtually eliminated.[64] The factory still had “a long way to go” and peri-odically caused air quality violations that left Vanunu grumbling about the inadequate number of continuous monitors.

But at least he had a front-row seat from which to observe. The munic-ipal elections of 1994 had catapulted him into the City Council. “I simply reached the conclusion that if we won't sit in the places of power, where the real decisions are made, then we won't make any meaningful progress,” explained Vanunu. “The political campaign was purely environ-mental.”[65] Beit Shemesh's new Likud mayor was only too happy to grant him oversight authority over the same local environmental protection unit that had previously defined him as persona non grata. And although there was no love lost between Vanunu and the Nesher management, it began to cooperate.


Vanunu's triumph disproved assertions that the environment was an elitist issue. Few middle-class Ashkenazi neighborhoods ever put together as fierce and effective a campaign as had the Beit Shemesh activists. Vanunu scoffs at attempts to infer ethnic or environmental-justice dimen-sions from his efforts. (“Ashkenazic children get just as sick as Sephardic ones,” he joked.[66]) Rather, the Beit Shemesh experience is instructive re-garding the power of uncompromising activism and the potency of health impacts for politicizing air pollution campaigns. Areas adjacent to cement plants are never truly clean, and Vanunu's neighborhood is no exception. But after a decade of pressure by a politically astute and ambitious local, Beit Shemesh's air quality had improved.

previous sub-section
Environmental Activism Hits Its Stride
next sub-section