Aryeh Brander, a 53-year-old blind resident of Haifa, was met with great disappointment last Friday when he came with friends for a trip to Nahal Ergot in the Ein Gedi nature reserve. While his friends were allowed to stroll along the paths on the trail, he was denied entry and had to wait at the gate. This is because Brander refused to leave behind Pepsi, his guide dog, who is a Labrador retriever.
"I feel humiliated," he told Walla! Tourism regarding the incident, which happened to him in June, the same month as Blind Day – Israel's day of awareness for those with blindness and visual impairments, held every year on June 6 since 2010.
"We were standing at the entrance to the nature reserve at around 8:00 in the morning, but the guy at the entrance was insistent. He argued with me and wouldn't let me through. We were in Ein Bokek the day before and didn't have any problems. Their sign says no dogs allowed, but that's exactly why there's a law for this, and the sign doesn't say no guide dogs allowed.
"[The man at the entrance] put me on the phone with whoever was in charge, but they also said that no guide dogs are allowed, just as they aren't allowed in Nahal David and Nahal Argut. But I told him that I had actually walked in Nahal David with my dog three years ago."
He stressed: "I don't go anywhere without my dog."
"The ibexes classify any kind of dog in the environment as a threatening predator"
Overall, Israeli law sides with Brander, and blind people in general. It specifically states that "The right of a person with blindness to enter a public area and use any facility therein or use public transportation shall not be restricted by their being accompanied by a guide dog."
This is legislated in the Law Prohibiting Discrimination Against People with Blindness Accompanied by Guide Dogs, which was enacted into law 30 years ago, in 1993. The law was expanded in 2016 to include those who are training dogs and puppies to serve as guide dogs. Violating this law comes with a fine of NIS 150,000.
Overall, Israel's Nature and Parks Authority (NPA) respects the law and the rights of blind people with guide dogs. However, there are two exceptions.
"Dogs... are an outside species entering an area home to wildlife," the NPA website says. "By definition, dogs are predators and their presence in a nature reserve is very threatening to the local wildlife, even if we don't feel it at all.
"Of all of the NPA's nature reserves, there are only two – Ein Avdat and Ein Gedi – where we are forced to prohibit the entry of guide dogs," the site explained. "This is because we need to maintain visitors' safety and is based on prior research and experiences. Ibexes that often roam through these parks recognize any kind of dog whatsoever as a predator and dangerous. When this happens, they start to dash toward the clips while loudly whistling a warning for other ibexes in the area. This stampede of ibexes causes the rocks to become unstable, which can be dangerous for visitors."
The NPA said that this ban on bringing service dogs to these areas is done in accordance with the 2013 laws regarding equal rights for people with disabilities and stressed that "the NPA allows visitors who require guide dogs to leave their dogs behind at the entrance at a suitable zone specifically designated for this very purpose while these visitors go on a tour with a guide."
A notice regarding this should be available on signs at the entrance of these nature reserves and on the NPA's website. Brander, however, said that there was no information regarding where to leave guide dogs behind on the entrance sign and accused the NPA nature reserve of not being accessible for blind people.
In response, the NPA said they offered to let Pepsi stay in an air-conditioned room at the entrance to the reserve while Brander could go on the tour and be accompanied by a guide.
"Either there is a ban on discrimination or there isn't a ban on discrimination," Brander said. "If an area is dangerous, then no one is allowed to go there. Don't let some people go inside while others have to stay outside. What is this nonsense? This list must be reevaluated immediately. If the law isn't able to protect my rights and everyone just does what they want, then what use is the law?"
"All I have to do is sit at the gate and wait three hours for my team"
Haifa City Council member Nir Schuber, who is also running for mayor, tried to help Brander after the latter called him from the reserve, but ended up running into a wall.
"I called Tal Gilboa, the prime minister's adviser on animal-related issues, who called the NPA, who told her that dogs aren't allowed on the reserve," Schuber said. "I would expect that the rights of a blind person wouldn't be infringed – it's a basic right. The reserve's claim about ibexes causing stones to fall on visitors is insensitive and completely detached from reality. I'm sorry that this ended like this, and I hope that this evil decree will be amended for the sake of the blind people who will come visit in the future. Even if it's just for some of the reserves, the basic rights of blind people shouldn't be infringed."
"I'm slowly accepting this," said Brander, who went blind 28 years ago due to diabetes, with even surgeries failing to save his eyesight. Since his retirement from work, he "mainly [spends his time] traveling, mostly in Israel but wherever possible." He said that rocks can fall anywhere in the country. Even in Nahal Bokek, rocks fell on us that very day. And there are ibexes in Nahal David and here in Haifa's Baha'i Park, but they don't ban me from entering with my dog. With all due respect to the ibexes, they can't just be prioritized over my right to enter with 'my eyes,' Pepsi. No one can tell me to leave my eyes behind at the gate.
"I feel so bad about this. I feel empty, hollow. I can't describe it," he said. "I don't have any other option but to stay behind at the gate and wait for my group for three hours. It left a bad taste in my mouth for the whole trip and it doesn't go away."
In response, the Nature and Parks Authority said that they "consider it very important to make sure nature reserves and parks are accessible for people with disabilities and we invest considerable effort and resources for this very purpose. Accessibility allows people with disabilities to spend time in parks and reserves to have an experience that is as similar as possible to what those without disabilities have. This is done with very careful planning to make sure the natural landscape isn't damaged. We manage and provide access to hundreds of parks and reserves. Only in two of them – Ein Gedi and Ein Avdat – are we forced to prevent dogs from entering, but we make sure to zone off a specially designated area for guide dogs to stay behind, and this is solely in order to ensure the safety of our visitors and nature conservation.
"In this particular case, a visitor came with a group to a reserve that bans the entry of dogs, even though the tour's organizers were aware of this ban. He was told that the dog will not be allowed in but it could stay behind in an air-conditioned room. Unfortunately, the visitor refused to join the group despite this information being available on the NPA's website, which is accessible to those with blindness, as well as being mentioned on the signs at the reserve."