Unbeknownst to many, the Jewish state suffers from a variety of serious environmental issues, among them the Jordan River's protracted crisis -- its flow has been reduced by more than 90 percent since the founding of the state, and much of what remains is a foul combination of sewage and saline water.
The Jordan is not, however, the only waterway suffering such ill-treatment. Zalul, an Israeli environmental nonprofit, recently released a list of Israel's five worst rivers, including one named for a biblical locale (the Lachish) and another with a high profile in Israeli pop music history (the Yarkon).
International Earth Day happens to fall on Israeli Memorial Day this year (April 22) and the eve of Independence Day, and as Zalul's managing director Yariv Abramovich works to press the case of Israel's seas and rivers, he finds the coincidence meaningful.
"There has to be a new kind of Zionism," Abramovich said in a phone interview. "This has to be the goal of the younger generation [of Zionists].... There's absolutely no reason for the State of Israel not to be on a par with countries like Germany and France on environmental questions."
The Lachish River, for instance, is almost dry now, and like the Jordan, kept alive in part by raw sewage. Industrial and municipal waste pollution have created dangerously high -- and wholly illegal -- levels of hazardous bacteria and chemicals in a waterway that flows straight past Ashkelon (where, we're told, Samson killed 30 men in a divine fury) and into the Mediterranean Sea.
The Yarkon is already infamous for its levels of contamination: In July 1997, several Australian athletes participating in the Maccabiah Games fell into the river when a bridge collapsed; four later died, the result of inhaling a river-living fungus that fed on toxic pollution.
Running through metropolitan Tel Aviv, the Yarkon is now in better shape but still contains dangerous levels of pollutants directly linked to wastewater treatment plants in Tel Aviv's bedroom suburbs. This in the river about which seminal Israeli rock stars Arik Einstein and Shalom Hanoch once sang, in a paean to national idealism, "the Yarkon, [where] the wind sings in the reeds ... [and] the birds sing."
Israeli-born Sagit Rogenstein grew up in Encino, returning to Israel in 1997. Now 31, she said in a phone interview that she was "devastated by the environmental situation" she saw upon her return to Israel. "The situation is so terrible."
After volunteering with a variety of organizations, she decided three years ago to dedicate her life to the cause and today serves as Zalul's national project manager. Rogenstein said she chose Zalul "because the [waterways] are closest to my heart. I'm a little beach baby."
The tale of the other rivers on Zalul's list is not much different from that of the Lachish and Yarkon: The Hadera River is burdened with sewage, industrial pollution and urban discharge. The Ayalon, running literally down the middle of Tel Aviv's biggest highway, battles municipal discharge and wastewater from nearby Ben-Gurion Airport and the highway itself. The Bsor River, a seasonal waterway that crosses the Negev in the rainy winter months, is subject to a year-round flow of raw sewage.
The idea of Zalul, Rogenstein said, "is to raise public awareness and create a critical mass to put pressure on politicians, to change things from the core."
"We need policy change," she added, "and enforcement."
Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian nongovernmental organization that focuses on regional environmental cooperation, agrees that the situation in Israel's internal waterways is dire.
"Israel's rivers and streams have come to be recognized as the green lungs of an increasingly densely populated country," he wrote in an e-mail. "Without clean water flowing in our rivers, our lungs will remain contaminated."
Bromberg's office recently issued a statement in advance of Earth Day "call[ing] on the Israeli government to take the lead on implementing earlier commitments made to rehabilitate the Jordan River by removing the sewage discharged and replacing it with healthy water."
Abramovich also spoke of the need for a general shift in perception among Israel's leadership.
"What the environmental movement has achieved so far," he said, "is because of citizen [involvement], not because of the government. People are sick of it. They want a country that's more pleasant to live in."
He believes that visitors feel the same way. "Nobody wants to come to Israel on vacation and find a polluted sea. And they don't want to be worried that if they fall in some water, they'll come out sick."
Click here for 3/23 JewishJournal.com article about the pollution threatening the Jordan River The River Jordan's survival is at stake as pollution peril grows.