Israeli environmentalist pushing for green change

Do you remember when, in the 1970s, the Ministry of Tourism promoted Israel’s natural beauty with big glossy posters featuring the Red Sea’s coral reefs?

Yariv Abramovich wants to know. Heads nod in the small audience.

“It’s all gone. Seventy percent of the coral reefs are dead because of human pollution,” he said.

Abramovich is the director of Zalul, one of the leading environmental organizations in Israel. Zalul means “clear” in Hebrew, an apt name for a nonprofit that since 1999 has fought to clean up Israel’s rivers, lakes and coastlines. Zalul works through legal and legislative channels, and also coordinates grassroots campaigns.

Abramovich spoke Feb. 12 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco; he also visited Los Angeles and San Diego. During his S.F. lecture, he summarized Israel’s environmental problems and encouraged people to think about preserving instead of building the country.

“Sometimes when I hear people talk about how they want to build the land, I feel shame,” he said. “As a modern Zionist, I would encourage people to think instead about preserving the land.”

He explained that after its founding, Israel had to develop very rapidly for many years to absorb millions of immigrants. Consequently, industry grew unchecked.

“Water became the main victim of environmental negligence in Israel,” he said.

Rivers, lakes and even the Mediterranean are dirty. In 1997, participants in the Maccabi Games fell into the Yarkon River after a bridge collapsed; two died weeks later, not from the impact, but from the chemicals and sewage in the river.

Israel was established in 1948, but the Ministry of Environment was not founded until 1990. Today, Abramovitch said, it is “completely underfunded.” In 2008, the environmental budget was cut by 19 percent, to $40 million, which is not enough for officials to enforce standards that could curb pollution. According to Ha’aretz, only the Ministry of Communication receives less money.

The tiny budget also means a lack of transparency, and few public hearings that would allow citizens a bigger voice.

But it’s not all bad news.

Zalul pushed for more public accessibility to information about wastewater permits. The agency also fought for six years to protect the remaining coral reefs in the Gulf of Eilat. In 2005, Zalul convinced the government to order the removal of polluting fish cages from the water.

Zalul is not alone in their fight. Israel’s high-tech companies are focusing on clean technology.

Solar and wind plants are growing in size and efficiency. Biofuel companies are making biodiesel from algae, which can grow in any enclosed space and multiplies rapidly, unlike ethanol, which relies on large fields and fertile soil to grow the corn for its production.

Abramovich said citizens are starting to pay attention, much like in the United States.

“It’s become sexy to be green,” he said. “People want to be part of the revolution.”

For more information on Zalul, visit

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.