Essay: Israel's dirty little secret

It's time we stopped treating Israel as if it were a country in the Galut.

Good for Haaretz architectural and landscape critic Esther Zandberg! At a time when, triggered by a campaign in her own newspaper, the country's nature lovers are up in arms at the fencing off by private concessions of the supposedly public shores and beaches of the Kinneret, she pointed out in a column this week that without the concessionaires, the Kinneret's situation would be far worse. If it weren't for them and the money they invest in keeping their areas clean, she quite rightly argued, our one lake would be one big garbage dump - as are so many other places of natural beauty in this country. Take the coast near Zichron Ya'acov, where I live. From spring through mid-November, when the sea starts getting really cold, I swim in it almost daily. Dor beach, which I regularly go to, is run by a concession; though the price for a season ticket is quite reasonable, it's not free. Why, then, don't I go to the beaches to the north or south of it, which cost nothing? For one reason: Because they're disgustingly dirty, while Dor is clean and well-kept. In fact, to walk the 10 kilometers from Dor to Atlit, whose cliffs and little bays are the finest stretch of coastline we have in this country, is a thoroughly depressing experience. Wherever one looks are discarded cans, food wrappers, bottles, plastic bags, cigarettes, toilet paper, rotted food and assorted other trash. A small part of this, it is true, has been washed up by the waves. Most, however, is the gift of the people of Israel - of the same picnickers, hikers and vacationers who dump hundreds of tons of refuse around the Kinneret every year, especially during the holiday season that we have just been through. It's not merely our beaches, either. It's our roadsides, our fields, our city streets, our empty lots, even our nature trails. We in Israel live surrounded by filth. We may not be quite up to the standards of certain Third World countries, but apart from them, we are quite literally one of the dirtiest places in the world. HOW HAS this happened? How have we, who have a reputation for being patriots and lovers of our country at a time when such emotions are increasingly considered passe elsewhere, allowed ourselves to befoul it in this way? Who befouls what he loves? Perhaps we do not really love it as we think we do. There has always, after all, been something abstract about the Jewish love for the Land of Israel, which for most of our history we loved from a distance. It was a romanticized and idealized land, not a real one, and even though we are now living in it again, it has retained for us something of that quality. It continues to be an idea - one which, although as a people with a fondness for ideas we may feel passionately about, we have difficulty in connecting with an actual physical environment. A simple road, a simple beach - how are we supposed to love it as Yehuda Halevi did the Zion of which he wrote from far-off Spain, "Mourning your lowliness I am the wail of jackals,/ Dreaming your sons return, the song of lute strings?" But Exile did more to us than just that. It also taught us to make an invidious distinction between the private and the public, between the home of the Jew, which belonged to him as a home does to anyone, and its surroundings, which were the goy's and none of the Jew's business. What did a Jew in Morocco or Poland care what the public domain looked like? His land was somewhere else. Let the owners of the land he lived in take care of it, not him. Although the land around us is now ours, this attitude has stuck with us. I have no doubt that the great majority of Israelis who think nothing of littering their streets and countryside live in spotless houses and apartments. If you were to throw a tissue on their living-room carpet, they would throw you out with it. It simply does not occur to them that our beaches and fields are the carpets of us all. Instinctively, they relate to them as if they still belonged to the goy. Moreover, the "goy" in this case - the government of Israel - acts as if this were not his problem, either. Anti-littering laws are not enforced in this country. There may be signs along our roads forbidding us to throw waste from our cars, but when did you last see - when did you ever see - a policeman pull a car over for doing this? When did you last see a pedestrian ticketed for dropping refuse in the street? Indeed, even if you want to keep the law, our government and its agencies do not provide the minimal waste disposal services for doing so. Although, for example, most of the stretch between Dor and Atlit is a nature reserve, the Nature Reserve and Parks Authority has placed hardly a single trash bin in the entire area - and where such bins exist in this country, they are often overflowing because they haven't been emptied on time. Clean-up campaigns are rarely undertaken here. What is filthy stays filthy - and we all know that filth attracts filth. Inhibitions against littering an area that is clean do not exist with one that is not. I'm no better than the next person in this respect. The other day, needing to throw out some old junk and not having a supervised town dump to throw it in, I loaded my car with it like any other Israeli, drove with it to the first refuse-strewn stretch of road, and added it to the existing pile. An untreated eyesore asks to be made sorer. In a place with as many problems as ours, keeping our public spaces clean might seem a trivial matter. Yet quite apart from the grief that public filth causes many of us (and we are not a small number) by robbing us of the elemental right to commune with nature or enjoy a walk through our streets, no country that habitually soils itself can respect itself - and an endemic lack of self-respect forms part of many of our problems. A cleaner Israel would be a better Israel in other ways, too. If we really loved this country, it would look that way.