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Zalul in the News: Pollution in the Promised Land

February 27, 2008

Folks in Boston will be able to read about Zalul in print this week, but for those of you without a subscription to The Jewish Journal – Boston North feel free to read the article below.

Pollution in the Promised Land

Environmental Issues Have Become a Growing Concern in Israel

Susan Jacobs
Jewish Journal Staff

Although Israel is often referred to as the land of milk and honey, many environmentalists view it more as a land of sewage and sludge. Rapid population growth and the steady expansion of agriculture and industry have polluted the coastal area, where more than half of Israel’s population dwells and where most of its industry is concentrated.

It should not be surprising that ecological concerns have historically been a low priority in Israel. Since its founding nearly 60 years ago, Israel has been preoccupied with survival. Besieged by wars and hostility from neighboring nations, protection of the environment has not been a primary focus.

Yet the issue is being thrust to the forefront, thanks to organizations such as Zalul (Hebrew for “crystal clear”). It was founded by Benjamin Kahn, who as a youth snorkeled in the clear waters of Eilat. As an adult marine biologist, he was shocked to discover that the colorful fish he used to admire were gone and the reefs they swam in had withered. The philanthropist founded Zalul nine years ago to educate Israelis about the country’s pollution problems, and to devise viable solutions.

Yariv Abramovich, 39, is a lawyer who has served as managing director of the non-profit for the past four years. The Israeli newspaper Maariv named him one of the top ten most influential environmental leaders in Israel for 2007. Abramovich was recently in the United States on a whirlwind tour to raise money for and awareness of Zalul. While in Boston, he spoke with the Journal about Israel’s environmental woes.

The Extent of Water Pollution in Israel• Israel is one of the top ten polluters in the Mediterranean region.
• The Shafdan, a sewage treatment facility near Jaffa, is the single largest polluter, pouring nearly five million cubic meters of sludge into the sea each year.
• In 2007, there were over 50 instances of public beach closures in Israel, most for more than one day. As of February 6, 2008, beach closures have occurred in Bat Yam and at the Dead Sea.
• Along Israel’s coastline, nearly 200 factories and municipalities spill their sewage into the sea with government issued permits. Most exceed the permitted polluted amounts without any consequences.
• According to Israel’s Ministry of Environment, all 16 rivers flowing to the Mediterranean are polluted to the point of being unsafe for swimming and fishing.
— Facts courtesy of Zalul

“Israel rushed into development and, unfortunately, that has created some serious environmental problems. Water is the main source of life in the Middle East. But our rivers are open sewage canals, and we are killing the coral reef in Eilat,” Abramovich said.

He maintains that the pollution primarily comes from industrial and chemical factories that dump fertilizers and pesticides into the sea, and from municipalities that release raw sewage directly into the waterways.

“We have identified 200 land-based sources that discharge pollution directly into the water, some with permits from the Israeli government. We must stop that,” Abramovich said.

The Israeli government, aware of the health hazards posed by the pollution, established a Ministry of the Environment in 1988 to monitor and address such concerns. It insists that enforcement of environmental legislation is a top priority, and that it uses economic tools such as rewards and sanctions to stop polluters from contaminating the country.

Some activists are skeptical. “People are starting to become more aware of environmental issues, but the government is far behind,” said Abramovich, who added, “While the law is quite good; the enforcement is not so good. The polluters are very powerful, and the government is afraid to deal with them.”

Like David fighting Goliath, Zalul is not afraid to take the polluters on. Although it has a staff of less than a dozen and is funded entirely by private donations, it has successfully won several key battles. Thanks to Zalul’s efforts, the Na’aman River, long considered one of the most polluted in Israel, has been cleaned up. In Eilat, the organization identified fish farming as the reason the region’s legendary coral reefs were dying. Zalul lobbied for fish cages in the water to be removed, and as a result, the reefs are slowly returning to life.

Zalul works in collaboration with other national and international environmental groups. Although it stages public hearings and demonstrations, its goal is to work with government and industry for positive change. “We try to address problems from various angles,” said Abramovich, who “doesn’t believe the solution is to close all the factories.”

Nadav Tamir, Israeli Consul General in Boston, acknowledges that the country has been slow to respond to environmental issues, but says it is making progress. “Throughout the history of Israel, we’ve had other existential threats to worry about. It took us time to realize that the environment is an important issue. We are far from being perfect, but we’re moving in a positive direction. We’re not where we were several years ago — there has been movement forward,” he said.

Abramovich believes organizations like Zalul are important for the future of Israel. “My father and I discussed this issue last Pesach. What we are doing is modern Zionism. Our generation must do a better job to preserve what my father’s generation built in 1947, when he came to this land after the Holocaust.”

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