Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.

The Pathology of a Polluted River


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.”

The Pathology of a Polluted River

Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.