previous sub-section
Environmental Activism Hits Its Stride
next chapter


Eilon Schwartz, an environmental education expert from Hebrew University, served as the first Chairman at Adam Teva V'din. In addition to his views about the appropriate tactical approach for any given case, he often raised deeper “strategic” questions. Victories would not be sustain-able if the general public that the organization purported to represent did not share the organization's underlying environmental values. During the debate over the Trans-Israel Highway he reminded advocates that even if public transportation or bike lanes were dramatically improved through litigation or lobbying, most Israelis would still prefer their cars.

This need to address the intellectual origins of Israel's environmental problems drove Schwartz to join Jewish studies scholar Jeremy Benstein to establish the Abraham Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in 1994. The Center is named after the great Conservative rabbi who taught so profoundly about traditional Judaism's “radical amazement” toward the natural world. The overarching goal behind the Center's curricula, teacher seminars, and leadership training programs is to confront the environmental crisis as a crisis of values. The Center's mis-sion statement read: “Only a renewed appreciation for the wonder of the world in which we live and a renewed commitment to basic human responsibility for that world can lead to long-lasting environmental pro-tection.” Schwartz taught a perspective that was both universal and con-sciously Jewish.[143] The message appealed to a variety of governmental and nongovernmental bodies, including the SPNI and the Ministry of the Environment, which frequently used the Heschel Center on a consulting basis. By the end of the 1990s the Heschel Center was Israel's fastest-growing environmental initiative.

Reaching out to Israeli hearts and minds and infusing them with a re-newed commitment to environmental ethics is a daunting task. Simpler educational challenges have repeatedly failed. Despite years of campaigns, gimmicks, and slogans, 78 percent of Israelis polled in a government sur-vey admitted to littering.[144] The environmental ideal runs counter to the relentless message blasted across sixty cable television stations, suburban shopping malls, and an increasingly hedonistic urban culture. Despite a multimillion-dollar water conservation media campaign after the third consecutive dry winter in 2001, water consumption among the Israeli pub-lic dropped by only 1.5 percent. It is not clear whether Israelis will be able to leave their cellular phones long enough to listen to the natural wonders that might inspire them to take an alternative route. (Israel is truly a world

leader in cell-phone usage: Between 1996 and 1998, Cellcom, Israel's second cellular phone company, saw its customer base jump from five hundred thousand subscribers to one million.[145])

Lest the clash with the prevailing cultural bent appear too discouraging, it is worth noting that in some cases Israelis have listened to public-interest messages. For instance, Israelis used to be among the heaviest smokers in the world. During the country's first thirty-five years, theaters, buses, and of-fices reeked of tar and nicotine. Yet during the 1990s, smoking rates plum-meted. As a result, today's 28 percent smoking rate is only 4 percent higher than that of the United States.[146] More surprising was the commitment to indoor air quality. Without any discernible enforcement efforts by the gov-ernment, a tough 1983 ban on smoking in public areas and buses was widely honored.[147] Even El Al airlines prohibited smoking on its flights.

It is also well to remember that all Western societies are not the same. Values, and not simply transportation policies, inspire millions of Dutch citizens to get on their bicycles and pedal to work.[148] By the late 1990s, or-ganizations such as Tel Aviv for Bicycles began to add an environmental message to their more traditional recreational appeal and were eventually recognized by Time magazine for doing so. But the demarcation of bicycle lanes has been delayed again and again, and the rare cyclist remains a brave pioneer amidst the tumult of Tel Aviv traffic. The virtues of civic duty, caring for the natural world, and concern for public health are hardly alien to Israeli society. But it was not clear how to tap into these amor-phous commitments and harness them to change many popular but envi-ronmentally unfriendly aspects of modern living.

One source of encouragement was Israel's school system and universi-ties, which expanded their environmental tracks during the 1990s. A 1997 survey reported that the subject of environmental studies was taught in half of the country's elementary school classes. At the secondary level, 150 out of Israel's 450 high schools offer a final bagrut, or matriculation exam, about the environment—up from only three programs in 1991.[149] Furthermore, a 1996 study commissioned by the Ministries of Education and Environment showed a relatively high environmental literacy rate among students who participated in formal studies programs. It also con-firmed a correlation between the level of knowledge and commitment to environmental values.

Over the long run, formal education can offer crucial content to the Israeli public. Yet it remains an unlikely forum for changing conscious-ness: convincing Israelis to forgo a large family, a suburban development, or a second car. Private actions like these are at the heart of Israel's most

troubling ecological issues. Getting the public to reconsider them is a chal-lenge that must be addressed by informal educational outreach as well as government policy.

Perhaps the ultimate value of grassroots expressions of environmental-ism, therefore, is that they offer a compelling experience that flies in the face of the pervasive consumer culture. People really do learn best by doing. Hiking through a pristine valley may no longer awaken the same commitments for many as it did when Israel was less metropolitan. Sadly, many of the old natural treasures are tarnished. In 1996 journalist Meir Shalev wrote a column about his regret at having participated in trail-marking campaigns during his youth. Returning to the sites, he found the treks covered in plastic wrappers and beverage cans. Shalev wondered whether only an elite group of bushwhackers, who had to work to find the scenic routes, was worthy of hiking them.

Israel may be more urban than ever, but that does not mean that peo-ple have changed. Through activism (as shown in Figure 34), scores of cit-izens have come to rediscover their local communities and to connect to the basic human need to belong somewhere. Precisely because Israel is such a young country, with half its residents still foreign-born, many cit-izens suffer from shallow roots. Enlisting the public in efforts to enhance the physical fabric of their common urban experience offers an important tool for deepening these ties.

And aesthetics and beautification have taken their rightful place on the country's environmental agenda, as environmentalists began to think about ethics. Life expectancy for Israeli males, now standing at seventy-seven years, has consistently been among the highest in the world, and Israeli women live two and a half years longer on average![150] Statistically Israelis' “quantity of life” is doing fine. It is quality of life that needs attention.

The ancients had a keen sense of the ability of greenways to transform and edify drab urban life. This awareness can be found in pastures man-dated for Levite towns in the books of Numbers and Leviticus.[151] The me-dieval rabbi and physician, Moses Maimonides, prescribed open spaces as a tonic for city congestion. These considerations were secondary in the strategic planning of Israel's cities.[152] But there is a growing pride in local parks and beaches, or just clean, attractive neighborhoods, that energized many of Israel's ad hoc groups during the 1990s. The exceptional coalition that rose up to fight to preserve the last three hundred acres of the Jerusalem Forest became a model.[153]

It has been argued that this sense of place may be the most powerful, identifiable force behind environmental commitment.[154] Growing numbers

of Israelis were seeking to safeguard those places they called home. The vast majority of grassroots environmental campaigns attempted to pre-serve a specific cherished resource. Often a group's only purpose was to stop an undesirable landfill, factory, or road. Even in Hebrew, this phe-nomenon has been dubbed by centralist environmental regulators as “NIMBY”—the pejorative English acronym for “not in my back yard.” It is disparaged as a disingenuous, selfish desire to deflect the necessary en-vironmental price of progress onto some other, weaker segment of society. This egoism presumably leads to less than optimal environmental results.

But from the vantage point of a sustainable society, NIMBY actually represents a positive phenomenon. The same citizens—who refuse to breathe toxic air, to endanger drinking-water sources, or to concede the open spaces that offer them a bridge to their natural world—may be the harbingers of a mass environmental movement in Israel. This movement understands intuitively that only a sense of place, community, continuity, and responsibility can return the harmony between humans and their en-vironment.[155] The educational challenge is to expand the public's percep-tion of its “backyard.” In a country as intimate as Israel, the micro for many is hard to distinguish from the macro, and this educational mission may prove easier to overcome than in larger nations.

Environmentalists are often discouraged. Even when the ecological sit-uation is good, it is their job to worry about how easily things could turn bad. But the record of local and national activism in Israel during the 1990s offers some basis for optimism. More and more Israelis were waking up to their ecological problems and to their own power to improve them. Beyond the many resources that were saved and health hazards that were mitigated, activists may have infused their ranks and communities with a higher sense of purpose: that the healthier environments they protected not only bestowed benefits to their bodies but to their spirits.

previous sub-section
Environmental Activism Hits Its Stride
next chapter