Terra Incognita: The commandment Moses forgot? Stop littering

There is a story in the Bible that relates how Moses sent out spies to see the land of Canaan, which was to become home to the Jewish people.

April 12, 2015 21:27
A SIGN admonishes people to clean up their litter in a public park

A SIGN admonishes people to clean up their litter in a public park. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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So Passover is behind everyone.

Those who refrained from bread are now packing it in and wondering why their “Passover diet” didn’t make them skinnier. During the holiday, some people comment about the story of Passover, the freedom from Egypt, and the 40-year wandering in the desert that ensued.

There is a story in the Bible that relates how Moses sent out spies to see the land of Canaan, which was to become home to the Jewish people.

“See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak; few or many,” he told them. Moses wanted real details about the cities and fortifications.

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And the spies went around the country for 40 days and returned and said, “Yes, it is flowing with milk and honey, but the people are strong there.”

It’s a nice story that turns out badly. But what concerns us is what is not mentioned. Trash. Litter. Garbage.

Neither Moses nor the spies he sent reported garbage everywhere.

Yet in the aftermath of every holiday in Israel – some of them religious holidays, others national ones such as Independence Day – large numbers of people visit the parks and the outdoors, and too many of them throw trash around. Every year, we are treated to pictures of garbage-strewn beaches, parks and particularly the shoreline of Lake Kinneret.

It is obvious that the country’s various anti-littering campaigns have not had the effect that similar campaigns have had in the United States or Europe. For instance, in 1997, the Environment Ministry embarked on one of “its most ambitious cleanliness campaigns ever,” according to a report at the time. It was an “all-out effort” to stop the plague of littering.

At the time, the Public Works Department claimed that people threw some 200 tons of garbage alongside the country’s highways every year. But Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund was allocating only NIS 2 million to clean up trash in the parks and forests.

A survey of Israelis at the time showed that 82 percent were against littering “on a theoretical basis,” yet at the same time, 78% admitted that they littered. That’s a typical Israeli- style survey result. Surveys against racism show the same dissonance, as in, “Yes, racism is wrong – and yes, I dislike people who are different.”

It is interesting that one of the main ideologies of Zionism was an attempt to “heal the land,” which is actually the title of a book by Sandra Sufian on the subject of Zionist ideology and hygiene in the years before the state. But the elite Zionist ethos of “cleanliness” and “healing the land” never really trickled down.

That was because much of Zionist ideology in the early years of the state created a dual society: Inside the bucolic fences of the kibbutzim or moshavim, there might be environmental awareness, but the rest of the country was viewed almost as a foreign landscape, inhabited by different communities. Environmentalism was the preserve of a small, politically connected niche of upper-class society.

Fast forward years later, and we see a country burdened under heaps of trash, and weakness in confronting it. In 2014, Maya Negev, the director of environmental policy at Tel Aviv University’s Hartog School of Government and Policy, conducted a study with lawyer and researcher Avital Eshet on how to get Israelis to reduce trash in public spaces.

According to reports, they found that the type of person who litters does not fit a simple stereotype.

Women and higher-educated people may litter less. They found that a lot had to do with neglected neighborhoods and poverty. But there was hope. Countries like Australia had reversed course on littering.

The populist conception of littering is that it is a problem of “the others.” When you ask people who litters, the responses are “the haredim” or “the Arabs.” It is easier for people to blame those who are different, because then the problem doesn’t have to be addressed as clearly at home.

Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner David from Kibbutz Hanaton wrote a blog in 2012 discussing the trash strewn about the valley between the kibbutz and the Beduin village of Bir al-Maksur. “The trash I pick up each day is left almost exclusively by my Arab neighbors.... There is a cultural divide at work. The unabashed way in which my neighbors leave their trash makes it undeniable that their attitude towards littering is different than mine,” she wrote.

For her, it was a fact that “non-Western cultures tend to create a strong divide between public and private space,” and therefore “most Arab Israelis don’t seem to realize littering is even a problem.”

The reality is, of course, that littering was common in the West into the 1980s and many non-Western countries, such as Japan, were litter-conscious.

The first major anti-littering campaign in 1953, “Keep America Beautiful,” took years to have an effect. The famous “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering campaign by the state’s Department of Highways reduced trash in the Lone Star State by 72% along highways between 1986 and 1990. In Iran and Turkey, anti-littering campaigns have reduced trash in recent years, and in Dubai in 2012, reports announced: “Mindless litterbugs, gum chewers and smokers beware. Dubai authorities have unleashed an 869-member legion of litter swatters to curb” bad behavior. Abdul Majeed Saifaie, director of Dubai’s Waste Management Department, asserted that “most residents here are civilized and educated, but there are some who don’t care.”

So if Europe, America, Japan, Dubai, Turkey and Iran can change their cultures, so can Israel. There is anecdotal evidence that anti-littering messages in school can change children’s perception of trashing their environment. But it is hard to counter littering when youth leave school and see their parents doing it.

There is a myth that Arabs in Israel don’t care about littering or have some built-in culture of it. However those with whom I spoke agreed it was a major problem and that it was a question of finding a solution, such as fining people or getting people to cooperate in cleaning up trash. “Break the stereotype,” said one woman. “The assumption is that Arabs don’t care about hygiene, but actually they are clean freaks in their homes.”

What Israel needs is innovative solutions to cleaning the public sphere. In India, newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked up a broom and announced a nationwide “clean India” campaign last October.

It builds on the “cleanliness is next to godliness” mantra associated with Gandhi.

But Israelis are diverse. Netanyahu playing with a broom won’t help those who loathe him. When Shas was campaigning in the last elections, the party had posters of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef looking down at his followers, with the text, “Father looks down from above.” Why not repackage that and show him looking down on the trash-strewn shores of the Kinneret to send the message? Haredi religious leaders picking up litter sends a more powerful message to a community that accepts religious dictates than secular fines for littering would.

For some Israelis, the message of “littering is anti-Zionist” may reverberate.

Why would people trash the Land of Israel? Picking up trash cannot be a self-fulfilling “we are better, we pick up litter” campaign that only some well-heeled people from kibbutzim or devoted national-religious people do. I remember being on a high school trip to Mexico in 1997 and being told we should “do a volunteer project” by cleaning up trash strewn about a small town. But how does having a bunch of outsiders clean up garbage teach local people to do it? People have to own the trash that they throw. Innovative campaigns can help teach them that. Imagine a public service ad that shows a kid and his parents throwing trash around a park, and then the walls of a home being built around them, so that in the end the trash is in their living room: “You don’t throw trash at home, why do it outside?” The relevant government agencies should begin keeping and publishing clear data on the amount of trash they clean up, especially litter; and the new Israeli government should increase investment in a national campaign against littering tailored to the various challenges society faces. Whatever it takes, Israel deserves a clean environment, and it is a campaign in which every community should be involved.

Follow the author @Sfrantzman

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