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

Toward a Sustainable Future?


Almost by definition, Israel's environmental community lives with para-doxes. As environmentalists, they know that nuclear arms production is a nasty business, with waste disposal a conundrum that has yet to be solved. But as Israelis, most understand that without a nuclear deterrent their country may not survive. As Israelis, they long for peace. But as environ-mentalists, they know that development in a tranquil Middle East can bring ecological ruin to resources that would otherwise be safe in times of war.[68] As environmentalists, they believe that if sustainable development is a questionable concept,[69] sustainable growth is an oxymoron.[70] But as Israelis, they are ideologically committed to embracing any of their tribe's exiles who are willing and able to join their ranks. Contradictions are in-evitable and often help define the personalities of individuals as well as so-cieties. Some can be brushed aside as the price of living in a complex world. Others can be ignored only at a nation's peril. The population paradox is a case in point.

The most critical single factor in understanding the downside of Israel's environmental history is population pressure. With an average increase of one million people a decade, the land soon became very crowded. Israel's population density is now roughly 270 people per square kilometer. This is greater than that of India and is fast approaching the density of Japan,

which has 327 people per square kilometer. If one subtracts the generally uninhabited Negev desert, the population density per square kilometer rises to over five hundred, making Israel the most densely populated Western country in the world. It will not be long, though, before today's levels of suffocation will be remembered as the good old days. At present rates of growth, conventional estimates foresee Israel's population reach-ing 8.7 million people by the year 2020.[71] Other estimates suggest that when the Palestinian population is included, the number could be as high as fourteen million between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.[72] By that time, northern Israel will reach the hair-raising density of eight hun-dred people per square kilometer—twice that of Holland, the most popu-lated country in the West.[73]

Almost all the environmental clashes described in this book share a common characteristic. A growing population needed more electricity, more highway capacity, more neighborhoods, more water, and more jobs. Indeed, one longitudinal study analyzing environmental conflicts in Israel showed that they were often the outcome of the residential invasion of once-outlying facilities such as airports, landfills, or treatment plants.[74] A country with abundant land resources might have been able to find a rea-sonable balance and accommodate competing needs. In a tiny nation like Israel, the result was environmental crisis.

It took a while for environmentalists to recognize that they had a pop-ulation problem.[75] But now, at the turn of the century, among themselves, there is growing agreement that if something does not slow demographic growth soon, Green efforts will have been for naught. Population pressure promises to undermine even the most optimistic scenarios. Yet publicly, even nongovernmental organizations remain uncharacteristically timid in expressing their concerns. At most they call for debate about the issue.[76] A few brave souls, however, have gone public with the message.[77]

Israel's population growth has two engines: immigration and an un-usually high birth rate. Ever since David Ben-Gurion called for “internal immigration” and for subsidized fertility treatment through a special fund in the Prime Minister's office, Israelis have been encouraged to have chil-dren.[78] The typical Israeli family has 2.9 children, but this does not reflect the geometric growth in certain sectors such as the Muslim community, where the rate is 4.6.[79] Average family size among ultraorthodox Israelis is 6.9 people and growing; in some sectors ten has become the norm. Religious couples in their eighties often boast a progeny of over a hundred people.[80]


Both immigration and birthrates are linked to broader cultural and philosophical issues. Indeed, Jewish immigration touches the very heart of modern Israel's raison d'être. Similarly, calls for zero population growth clash with Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Jewish traditions. The modern Hebrew expression for a large family is “a family that is blessed with children.” When Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin questioned the va-lidity of the term, an angry public debate ensued about just how great the blessing was.

Public policies certainly contribute to the problem. Israel subsidizes large families with tax breaks and grants the fathers relief from military re-serve duty. Part of the historic rationale for the policy was to provide enough able bodies to defend the country against the overwhelming nu-merical superiority of the Arab countries. (A desire to replace the six mil-lion Jews slaughtered in Europe also remains, at least subconsciously, an important factor.) Yet even if the peace process sputters, high-tech weaponry has revolutionized the military dynamic completely. Moreover, the Arab and ultraorthodox sectors with the highest birthrates do not con-tribute appreciably to local defense capabilities. Other policy areas also af-fect the demographic equation. For instance, a tightening of criteria led to a massive drop in the number of requests to abort unwanted pregnancies—from 44,000 in 1980 to 19,500 in 1996. (Presumably, some abortions took place outside the official system and went uncounted.)

Some politicians began to seize on the issue and play on their public's resentment of perceived ultraorthodox parasitism. Avraham Poraz, a Knesset Member from the radically secular Shinui Party, wrote voters a direct mail appeal, blasting the bias of Israel's National Insurance stipends, which reward large families, most of whom do not serve in the military. A family with ten children, regardless of income, was automati-cally subsidized by a government stipend of over $1200, as opposed to a family of two, which received around $80.[81] Such attacks may not be the most constructive contribution to the population debate; indeed, they may be counterproductive. The human misery and hunger caused by a cancellation of support for large families—many of whom are completely indigent—would certainly be politically unacceptable in a Jewish state that retains its fundamental decency and sensitive collective social con-science. Yet grandfathering present benefits in, while in future eliminat-ing the bonuses granted for the fourth child onward, may prove to be an acceptable alternative. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that the cancel-lation of child support would alter the commitment of religious families

to produce a big brood. The decision is ideologically driven and reinforced by powerful sociological pressures and community services.

A frank presentation of the sociological implications may offer a more compelling case than the narrow environmental arguments. There are doc-umented impacts on equality of opportunity and quality of life. A recent study by sociologists Ilana Broch and Yohanan Peres concludes that off-spring from large Israeli families suffer more than economic disadvantage. The data of Broch and Peres indicate that children from Jewish families with more than six children have an average IQ of 90, as opposed to average levels of 99 among children from smaller nuclear families. Furthermore, lev-els of professional aspiration, as measured in sociometric tests, proved far lower among children from large families.[82] There is probably some basis for finding a cultural bias in such test results. Yet the very fact that these studies made the front page of Ha-Aretz suggests that the secular public is at least ready for a discussion about the full implications of the present levels of procreation.

Eventually the issue will have to be breached theologically. The first commandment in Genesis certainly calls on humans to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the land.” But the rabbis who interpreted this dictate in the Talmud stated that two children were enough (if one was a son) to meet the religious duty.[83] Moreover, in times of famine, Jews are expected to show self-restraint. Environmentalists have been largely unwilling to make the scarce-resources analogy, proclaim that the land is already full, and suggest moving on to the other 612 biblical commandments that are less enthusiastically fulfilled.[84] Future environmental historians may well look back and identify the present deadlock as one of Israel's great-est tragedies: Attempts to raise the population issue were doomed to be received cynically, as a transparent diversionary tactic in the openly ac-knowledged cultural war between secular and religious Israelis.

Yet ecology will not wait for a religious modus vivendi. With each passing year, the likelihood of reversing the population policy diminishes. Charles Galton Darwin (the grandson of the eminent geneticist) ex-plained that purely voluntary population controls were bound to fail be-cause they rewarded individuals and cultures with a proclivity for large families.[85] If it is serious about solving problems, Israel's environmental movement must embrace the population issue without hesitation while politically there is a chance to change public policy, and let the chips fall where they may.

Immigration is an equally thorny issue that cannot be ignored if Zionism is to forge a new environmental ethic. The negation of the

Diaspora was an integral part of the Weltanschauung for Israel's founding political elite. The Zionist solution for the Jewish problem was in direct competition with alternative ideologies, from Communism and Bundism to the American Dream. This pushed the pioneers and their leaders to pose Palestine as the superior choice, if not the exclusive alternative. But as the year 2000 has now come and gone, a reality check is desperately needed. With a solemn, post-Holocaust resolve, Israel for fifty years sought to lib-erate Jewish communities suffering from persecution around the globe. Today, however, the last Jews who wanted to have already left Arab coun-tries such as Yemen, Iraq, and Morocco. There is an open-door policy among former Eastern-bloc Communist nations. Zionists should be de-lighted that anti-Semitism is no longer a compelling reason to move to Israel.

Demographic trends show that because of assimilation and a low birthrate among North American and other Western Jewish communities, very soon Israel will boast the largest Jewish population on the planet. It is time to bury the old insecurities about Israel's standing in the Jewish world and the obsessive need to validate the Israeli option versus the American, Argentinean, or English alternative. Most mainstream Jewish organiza-tions around the world recognize the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and the importance of the “homeland” for strengthening identity, especially among Jewish youth. Indeed, almost all forums and institutions in which Israeli and Diaspora Jews work together speak of a new, more “mature” re-lationship, based on mutual respect and equality. This is reflected in initia-tives with names like “Partnership 2000.”

If Israel is serious about accepting the legitimacy of Judaism in the Diaspora, it is not clear why it needs to send emissaries to the ends of the earth with a mission of convincing people to immigrate. Sending Jewish educators to support the burgeoning religious school systems would be a far more constructive expression of Jewish solidarity. If Jews feel that moving to Israel is spiritually or professionally edifying, they should be welcomed. Talented individuals can certainly make important contribu-tions to Israeli society. But the land of Israel no longer needs more people.

Eventually, economics, water resources, noise, and the general dys-function caused by unbearable density will push Israel into a confronta-tion with advocates of large families and mass immigration. While Dan Perry was Director of the Nature Reserves Authority, his call for assess-ing options to modify immigration and family size policies was met with outrage from Israel's religious community. Yitzhak Levy, then a mem-ber of the Knesset and later Minister of Education, called for Perry's

dismissal. Perry was upset that the press had misinterpreted his comments. It was not to preserve nature that he called for population policies but to protect humans and save the quality of Israeli life.[86] Environmentalists, however, should not be afraid to speak on behalf of the many natural treas-ures that will otherwise be decimated by the crowds; flora and fauna are the first to pay for human encroachment on shrinking habitat. Future generations will certainly have reason to resent today's deafening silence about Israel's excessive population growth.

There are any number of explanations for the present ostrichlike my-opia among decision makers regarding Israel's ultimate carrying capacity. Religious Jews can fall back on the Talmud, which explains that unlike settlement in other countries, population growth in Israel is comparable to the skin of a gazelle. As a young doe, the animal's skin is stretched so tightly that it seems as if it would simply burst if the body underneath expanded at all. But sure enough, as the gazelle grows, its skin grows with it. And so it is that the Almighty provides for the land of Israel, guaran-teeing space and support for all comers.[87] On the secular side, there may have been residual distrust among Zionist leaders who felt that the British Mandate authorities disingenuously used carrying capacity as a tool for stifling Zionist aspirations. Today's Zionists ultimately are fer-vent technological optimists. It is no wonder that carrying capacity re-mains a nonissue.

The Ministry of the Environment, for the foreseeable future, remains unwilling to define overpopulation as an environmental priority, main-taining that Israel's population limits have yet to be determined. The offi-cial view remains that there is probably room for many millions more in the Negev. Turning Beer Sheva into a Phoenix is an easier operational goal than defining the long-term impacts of unencumbered geometric demo-graphic growth and adopting policies to stay it.[88]

Some environmentalists argue that it is “consumption” rather than overpopulation that constitutes the preonderant cause of Israel's envi-ronmental deterioration. A recent analysis, based on car ownership, water, and garbage production, concluded that consumption is growing faster than Israel's population is, and that poor “large” families may con-sume less than rich “small” families do.[89] Clearly, if the analysis had chosen different indicators (such as disposable diapers, BOD loadings into sewage systems, or even heating oil), the results would have been different. Nor does the “snapshot” analysis attempt to evaluate what the long-term implications of a high birth rate might be. Nonetheless, the choice of indicator is gratuitous, because clearly, both overpopulation and

wasteful consumption patterns are critical environmental issues that deserve much greater attention.

Toward a Sustainable Future?

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