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View of a sinkhole near the Dead Sea, southern Israel, October 4, 2018 . Sinkholes are a result of the continuing sea level drop of the Dead Sea.(Yaniv Nadav/FLASH90)
Yaniv Nadav/FLASH90, shows a sinkhole near the Dead Sea, southern Israel, October 4, 2018.
Op-ed

We have sinned against Israel’s land, water and air: Yom Kippur food for thought

At this solemn time of penitence, an accounting of the environmental sins we are visiting upon the Land of Israel’s ecosystems. And a plea for change

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Main image by Yaniv Nadav/FLASH90, shows a sinkhole near the Dead Sea, southern Israel, October 4, 2018.

On Tuesday night and Wednesday, Jews throughout the world are gathering in synagogues for the most solemn day of the year, Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement.

We cry to the Heavens that we have sinned, and we beg God for forgiveness. In silent prayer, we beat our chests and list the multiple misdeeds committed by the Jewish People as a whole.

So, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, and in the hope that the coming year will see the environment elevated to the same (or even greater) level of importance as security and diplomacy, here is a selection of sins that we have visited upon the Land of Israel’s ecosystems and the environment that sustains us all.

We have sinned by weakening the authority of the Environmental Protection Ministry. The undermining of its ability to enforce the rules was reflected, for example, in a damning state comptroller report published in June that said that there had been little to no improvement in the northern industrial city of Haifa’s air quality over the last four years, and that residents of Israel’s third-largest city and the surrounding metropolitan area — about 900,000 people — were being exposed to carcinogenic pollutants just as much as when a national plan to change this was adopted by the ministry in 2015. The Haifa Bay is home to oil refineries as well as chemical and metals plants.

Pollution in Haifa, April 15, 2015. (Basel Awidat/FLASH90)

Earlier this year, a regulations unit in the Prime Minister’s Office indicated that the Environmental Protection Ministry should loosen its regulations on air quality and take economic factors, as well as environmental ones, into account in its decision-making. Around 2,500 Israelis are estimated to die from air pollution every year, many more than from traffic accidents or terror attacks. The post of chief scientist at the ministry has been empty for more than 18 months; the Environmental Protection Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, is only a half-timer. He is also responsible for Jerusalem Affairs.

View of the oil refineries in the bay area of the northern city of Haifa, May 5, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

We have sinned by allowing business to pressure government into delaying environmental legislation and regulation, which already lags behind other developed countries. In the case of natural gas, which is gradually replacing dirtier fuels such as coal, we have allowed the Energy Ministry to dominate what goes on in the Mediterranean Sea, while the Environmental Protection Ministry plays a distant second fiddle.

We have relied too heavily on industry predictions for pollution from natural gas. Data for 2016, published by the Environmental Protection Ministry in November 2017, showed — four years after commercial production had begun — that the Tamar natural gas rig was emitting materials “known or suspected to be carcinogenic” in quantities that equaled the total of such emissions from 570 large industrial plants across the country, including the Haifa oil refineries.

According to Amy Rosenstein, a risk assessment and toxicology consultant, Tamar’s non-methane VOC emissions (a variety of chemically different compounds, such as highly carcinogenic benzene) were 30 times higher than Noble Energy — the Texas-based company which is developing and operating the field — had originally predicted in the environmental impact assessment it had been required to carry out before commencing production.

A marine crane vessel en route to Israel to set up the Leviathan natural gas platform 9.7 km (6 miles) from the popular Dor Beach, north of Caesarea. (Noble Energy)

While the Tamar processing platform is located 23 kilometers (14 miles) off the coast, close to the southern city of Ashkelon, the new Leviathan platform, due to start production next year,  has been built just 9.7 kilometers (6 miles) from the popular Dor Beach, north of Caesarea. Fearing that Leviathan will harm environmental and public health, citizens groups, local authorities, environmental groups and a clutch of academics are fighting an 11th-hour campaign to have the platform moved much further out to sea.

We have sinned by investing way less money than other developed nations in public transportation. Some 70 percent of Israelis get about in their own cars, spending hours in traffic jams and looking for parking places.

Cars stuck in a traffic jam on Route 2 (Coastal Road) on the eve of Passover, April 19, 2018. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

We have sinned by doing too little to encourage people to buy electric cars. True, in recent years, the purchase tax on (the much more expensive to buy) electric and hybrid cars was held at just 10%, compared with 83% for a fuel-driven car. But earlier this year, faced with a burgeoning government deficit, the tax authority announced that from 2020 the electric car purchase tax will rise to 30%.

We have sinned by paying too little attention to renewable energy. In a country blessed with sunshine, just 3.5% of energy was being renewably produced by the end of last year, the bulk by solar panels. By December of this year, that figure is expected to rise to only 5%. The prospect of the government reaching its declared goal of generating 10 percent of electricity from renewables by 2020, and 17% by 2030, looks increasingly remote.

Power-generating solar panels on the rooftop of a house in central Israel. (Chen Leopold / Flash 90

We have sinned through our almost total dependence on desalination to guarantee our drinking water into the future. Desalination plants are vulnerable to military and cyber attack and must shut down if there is an oil or gas spill in the sea to  protect their industrial membranes. We continue to allow industry to pollute our groundwater and we don’t make it pay to clean up. Groundwater should provide the backup for drinking water in cases where desalination fails.

A sign warns of polluted water outside Haifa on May 18, 2013. (Shay Levy/Flash 90)

We have sinned by only recycling less than 20% of our growing garbage footprint, which puts us near the bottom of the OECD group of developed nations. Holland, for example, recycles 58% of its trash.

Israel produces around 5.4 million tons of refuse every year, which translates into 1.7 kilograms (3.75 pounds) per person per day. Fourth-fifths of this is sent to the southern Negev desert to be buried. Leaks of toxins from buried trash pollute soil and underground water.

Illegal waste dumping in a field in the Hefer Valley, central Israel, November 21, 2008.. (Gili Yaari / Flash 90)

We have sinned in our ignorant use of disposable plastic, the third-largest element of the trash we produce, after organic material and paper/cardboard. Israel is the second largest user per capita of disposable plastic in the world. It is not uncommon for a dinner host to use plastic cutlery, crockery and a plastic table cloth and to wrap everything up at the end of the meal and toss it into the trash, without batting an eyelid.

We have sinned by limiting recycling deposits on bottles to those of up to 1.5 liters only. While millions of larger bottles end up in bottle-recycling bins, millions of others deface our beaches, parks and nature reserves.

Israelis grocery shopping for the Passover holiday at a supermarket in Talpiot, Jerusalem on April 20, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

We have sinned by allowing all but the largest of supermarkets to continue handing out plastic bags without charge. While poorer but apparently more aware countries such as Kenya and Rwanda have totally banned plastic bags, Israelis continue to use and dump them with abandon.

Plastic is so omnipresent in nature today that tiny bits of microplastic are being found in our food and drink, even in our feces and in mother’s milk. In one Mediterranean study, a fifth of fish sampled had plastic refuse in their bodies. Think of that next time you order a fish dinner on an Israeli seafront.

View of a sinkhole near the Dead Sea, southern Israel, October 4, 2018 . Sinkholes are a result of the continuing sea level drop of the Dead Sea.(Yaniv Nadav/FLASH90)

We have sinned by allowing the Dead Sea to continue to recede by around 1.2 meters (four feet) every year.  The Jordan River, historically the main source of water for the Dead Sea, is diverted for agricultural and other uses by Israel, Jordan, and Syria, all of which have growing populations.

Of the water the Dead Sea still has, large quantities are pumped into evaporation pools by factories on the Israeli and Jordanian sides for the extraction of  potash, magnesium, manganese and bromide. Israel Chemicals Ltd has been allowed to pump water out of the Dead Sea without a license, and without having to pay a dime for the water it uses, while contributing to 20% of the lake’s slow disappearance from planet Earth. A recent court judgment will belatedly impose some restrictions on the company.

The Dead Sea Works factory – a business unit of ICL Fertilizers, the world’s fourth largest producer and supplier of potash products, Feb 1 2012. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The Dead Sea needs an additional 700-800 million cubic meters of water annually just to stay at its current level, and more than 1,000 million cubic meters to bring it back up to 410 meters (1,345 feet) below sea level, where it was in 1995.

Plans for the first stage of a Red Sea to Dead Sea pipeline will not save this iconic body of water. Under the scheme as it stands, just 235 million cubic meters of seawater mixed with desalination plant brine will be transferred to the Dead Sea each year.

We have sinned by throwing away around 40% of the delicious fruits and vegetables which the Land of Israel yields to our farmers. According to new research by Leket Israel and BDO Ziv Haft, Israelis will spend an estimated NIS 7.5 billion ($2.1 billion) on food during the current holiday season, of which around NIS 1.9 billion ($538 million) worth will go to waste. This means that some 234 tons (468,000 lbs.) of food will go to waste, all along the supply chain, from production to consumption. This is equivalent to more than one-fifth of the food that goes to waste annually.

Tomatoes wrapped in plastic. (DutchScenery/ iStock/Getty)

The answer from our policymakers has not been to educate Israelis to use misshapen cucumbers and lemons (dumped before they reach the stores) or to use leftovers rather than tossing them into the trash (not even the compost). It has been to pay supermarkets to wrap fruit and vegetables in disposable plastic.

We have sinned by allowing the continued and unsupervised use of high levels of chemical pesticides which are banned in Europe.

An agricultural aircraft sprays crops with fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. (photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash90)
An agricultural aircraft sprays crops with fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. (Doron Horowitz/Flash90)

We have sinned by our consumption of meat, and especially beef, which comes mainly from overseas. Israel leads the world in per capita consumption of chicken and is in sixth place for per capita consumption of beef, according to Greenpeace, with Israelis eating more than 81 kilograms (just under 180 pounds) of beef and chicken per capita per year, which is some 40% more than the worldwide average.

Greenpeace says that industrialized agriculture, including livestock rearing for meat, is responsible for some 80% of forest destruction worldwide, while the burning of forests to clear land for agriculture contributes around 60% of all the gases that create global warming. The group has linked beef at Israel’s largest supermarket chain, Shufersal, to cattle raised on cleared areas of Argentina’s Gran Chaco forest, the second-largest forest in South America after the Amazon.

Israelis barbecue during Israel’s 69th Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem, May 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

We have sinned by failing to educate the public about environmental issues and to prepare it to cope with the consequences of climate change, with the result that public awareness is pitifully low.

We have sinned… but it is not too late. Not yet.

Yaniv Levy, manager of the Israeli Sea Turtle Rescue Center, resuscitates a loggerhead sea turtle in critical condition, in Mikhmoret, on September 18, 2017. The turtle, named Michelle after the fisherman who found her, sustained neck injuries after being choked by a piece of string at sea. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Many of the figures used in this article come from the Hebrew language Pressure Report, in which the legal-environmental advocacy group Adam Teva V’Din sets out challenges for the next Israeli government.

The writer is The Times of Israel’s environment reporter.

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