Israels future demands vigorous care of environment

Jews are naturally concerned about the well-being of Israel, and wish it to be safe, secure and prosperous. However, what is seldom discussed — the quality of Israel's air, water and other environmental factors — could seriously affect Israel's future.

Like other nations, Israel today faces severe environmental problems. Many stem from rapid population growth and industrialization, and increased affluence, which has resulted in a sharp rise in the use of automobiles and other consumer goods. But because of the need to make security a top priority, environmental concerns were largely ignored for many years.

Israel has been taking steps recently to address its environmental problems. The "Year of the Environment" (September 1993 to August 1994) resulted in activities to increase public awareness. Among the many nationwide projects were a safe disposal of bottles campaign, the institution of eco-labeling on environmentally friendly products, and a number of cleanup and recycling campaigns.

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 for Israel, impinging on its very existence. Since the mid-1970s, 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 drip irrigation, the country has recently been using increasing amounts of water per person, much of it for nonessential uses.

Israel also faces major water pollution problems, with most of its streams and rivers significantly polluted. The Kishon River, for example, has been especially hard hit because for more than 40 years, Haifa Bay's chemical industry has discharged raw industrial wastes directly into it. In 1994, tests of the river's waters by the Israeli Union for Environmental Defense showed a startling cocktail of pollutants, indicating massive non-compliance with pollution laws by major chemical factories. However, IUED recently won two major court cases against major polluters in Haifa.

Many cities, such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, 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. Professor Menachem Luria, chair of Hebrew University's environmental science department, said that if current trends continue, by 2010 some aspects of the air quality in Jerusalem could be as bad as that in Mexico City. The sharp increase in vehicle density from 34 cars per thousand people in 1954 to more than 230 in 1993 constitutes an ever-growing threat to Israel's air quality.

Israel also faces a solid waste crisis caused by the discharge of increasing amounts of garbage yearly and the country's meager land resources. Yet less than 5 percent of the garbage in Israel is now recycled.

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 percent of the Galilee will be under asphalt in less than 25 years, compared to only 12 percent today. In addition, according to the IUED, municipal and industrial development has encroached upon the borders of the Jerusalem Forest, the largest planted forest and one of the last green areas in Jerusalem.

Many Israelis are concerned about the environmental impact of the proposed Trans-Israel Highway, a major highway that would go from Beersheva to near the Lebanon border. The Society for Protection of Nature in Israel and IUED are among the groups opposing its construction.

They say the highway would encourage increased use of automobiles and make it more difficult to establish a balanced transportation system that would place greater emphasis on rail and other forms of public transportation. It would also exacerbate pollution problems and increase suburbanization, as well as noise and visual blight. Moreover, the road would reduce already shrinking open space.

Environmental groups are expanding efforts to increase public awareness through hikes and educational activities as well as reduce pollution by promoting legislation and taking polluters to court. The Jewish National Fund has been active in trying to preserve and expand Israeli forests. JNF has also launched Action Plan Negev, to develop what it regards as "Israel's Final Frontier" and to reduce population and pollution pressures in other areas of the country.

Judaism also advances powerful teachings related to the environment, including:

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

*The principle of bal tashchit (based on Deuteronomy 20:19, 20): People are not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value.

*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 facing Israel.