Environmental Issues in Israel

Jews are naturally concerned about the well being and success of Israel, and wish her to be safe, secure, and prosperous. However, an issue that is seldom discussed, the quality of Israel's air and water, and other environmental factors, could become a prime issue that will affect Israel's future.

The current environmental crisis is worldwide; among the most serious issues are the destruction of tropical rain forests, the depletion of the ozone layer, acid precipitation, soil erosion and depletion, and global warming. In 1993, almost 1700 of the world's top scientists, including 104 Nobel Laureates, signed a "Scientists Warning to Humanity", which argued that current methods of production and consumption are unsustainable, that "human beings and the natural world are on a collision course' and that "a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated".

Like other nations, Israel faces severe environmental problems today. Among the more important reasons are some positive factors that Israel hopes will continue: rapid population growth; rapid industrialization; and increased affluence which has resulted in a sharp increase in the use of automobiles and other consumer goods. In addition, environmental concerns were largely ignored for many years because of the need to consider security as a top priority.

Israel has been taking steps recently to address its environmental problems. There was a "Year of the Environment" in 5754 (September, 1993 - August, 1994) with many activities devoted to increasing the public's environmental awareness. Among the many nationwide projects were a safe disposal of bottles campaign, the institution of eco-labeling on environmentally-friendly products, and various clean-up and recycling campaigns. It also had an information campaign that involved all government ministries, every municipality, numerous public organizations, the private sector, and the entire educational system in a unique and unprecedented environmental partnership. Also, many laws have recently been passed to reduce pollution and other environmental problems. However, much more needs to be done and laws have to be enforced more strictly.

Severe potential water shortages may become the most crucial problem that Israel will face, touching on its very existence. Since the mid-1970's, demand for water has at times outstripped supply. Israel is a semi-arid country where no rain falls for six months a year. While Israel was known as a country that practiced water conservation and pioneered in the development of the drip irrigation method, the country has recently been using increasing amounts of water per person, often for non-essential uses. There has been a sharp increase in private pools, jacuzzis, water parks, and automatic car washes.

Israel also faces major water pollution problems, with most of her streams and rivers being significantly polluted. For example, the Kishon River has been especially hard hit because for over 40 years Haifa Bay's chemical industry has discharged its raw industrial wastes directly into it. In 1994, tests of the river's waters by the Israeli Union for Environmental Defense (IUED; also known as Adam, Teva, v'Din) showed a startling cocktail of pollutants, indicating massive non-compliance of pollution laws by major chemical factories. However, IUED recently won two major court cases against major polluters in Haifa, and it is hoped that this will lead to a sharp decrease of dumping of industrial wastes.

A recent article in the Jerusalem Post, "Rivers of Darkness" indicated that almost of Israel's rivers, except those flowing through sparsely populated areas are much more polluted than rivers in Europe and the United States. There are indications that the main cause of death for some of the Australians who fell into the Yarkon River after the bridge to the Olympic Stadium collapsed was the pollutants in the water..

Many cities, such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, and industrial centers such as Ashdod, face severe air pollution problems, primarily from industrial and auto emissions. There were 300 violations of air pollution standards in Tel Aviv alone in 1996. After the IUED publicized the high air pollution readings in Tel Aviv that they had measured, a special Knesset meeting was called to discuss the issue. Professor Menachem Luria, Chair of Hebrew University's Environmental Science Department, has stated that if current trends continue, some aspects of the air quality in Jerusalem could be as bad as that in Mexico City by 2010. A symposium that IUED sponsored on the issues was titled, "Don't Take a Breath - Urban Air Pollution". While many air pollutants have been increasing sharply. there has been a decrease in sulfur oxide emissions due to a shift to low sulfur coal, and lead emissions due to a reduction of the lead content of gasoline. The sharp increase in vehicle density from 34 cars per thousand people in 1954 to over 230 in 1993 constitutes an ever-growing threat to Israel's air quality.

Israel faces a solid waste crisis due to the discharge of increasing amounts of garbage yearly and the country's meager land resources. Many garbage disposal sites were poorly designed and managed and many are also at or near their full capacity. Yet, presently (1997) less than 5% of the garbage in Israel is recycled. However, there has been recent legislation requiring a sharp increase in recycling. Also, many older inefficient landfills are being closed and new, more environmentally sound landfills are being opened.

Another serious environmental problem is the loss of open space and recreational areas. A recent nationwide demographic and developmental study prepared for the government concluded that some 60% of the Galilee will be under asphalt in less than 25 years, compared to only 12% today. Also, according to the IUED, municipal and industrial development has encroached the borders of the Jerusalem Forest, the largest planted forest and one of the last green areas in Jerusalem.

Many major environmental issues in Israel today are connected to the proposed Trans-Israel Highway, a major highway that would go from Beersheva to close to the Lebanon border in the north. Many environmental groups, including SPNI (The Society for Protection of Nature in Israel) and IUED, oppose the construction of this Highway #6. Among the reasons for their opposition are:

1. It would make it more difficult to establish an integrated, balanced transportation system, which would place greater emphasis on rail and other forms of public transportation.

2. Israel already has a high number of cars per square kilometer, and the construction of the highway would exacerbate this situation by encouraging increased use of automobiles instead of other means of transportation.

3. Already severe air pollution problems in major cities would be worsened.

4. The death rate due to automobile accidents, which is already high, would be increased by the high speed limit on the highway which could lead to more speeding on other Israeli roads.

5. There would be a worsening of Israel's balance of payments deficits since increased reliance on automobiles would lead to more outlays for foreign cars, spare parts, and fuel.

6. There would be an increase in the suburbanization of the country, at the expense of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other urban areas.

7. There would be an increase in noise and visual blight.

8. The road would reduce the open space left in the central regions of the country where land reserves are few and demand for land is high.

The aforementioned SPNI and IUED and other Israeli environmental groups are increasing their efforts to increase the public's environmental awareness through hikes and other educational activities and to reduce pollution through promoting legislation and taking polluters to court. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has been active in trying to preserve and expand Israelis forests. They also are starting what they regard as a historic campaign, "Action Plan Negev", to develop what they regard as "Israel's Final Frontier", to reduce population and pollution pressures in other areas of the country. There are already several thriving agricultural communities in the region, but the development of new water sources will be a great challenge.

Judaism has very powerful teachings related to the environment, including:

1. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1), and people are to be partners and co-workers with G-d in preserving the environment;

2. Bal tashchit (based on Deuteronomy 20:19,20) - People are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value.

3. The talmudic sages were greatly concerned about preserving the environment and reducing pollution. They stressed that certain factories had to be at least 50 cubits from a city and had to be placed on the east side of the city, so that the odors would be carried away from the city by the prevailing winds from the west (Baba Batra 2:8.9).

It is essential that these important teachings be applied in order to reduce the many environmental threats that Israel currently faces.

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