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


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.

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.