In contrast to the relatively high priority accorded to nature protection in Israel’s national consciousness, public awareness of environmental issues has lagged far behind most Western countries. While grassroots environmental groups organized throughout the Western world in the 1970s, the general public in Israel only awakened to the need for environmental protection in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, despite a slow start, recent years have witnessed a dramatic increase in environmental awareness and activism. To a large extent, the growth of environmental consciousness in Israel is reflected in the increased numbers of the non-governmental organizations which have taken root and sprouted in recent years.

The Society for the Protection of Nature

Perhaps more than any other organization, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has been instrumental in raising public consciousness of nature and environmental protection in Israel. The SPNI began with the organization of a small group of teachers, kibbutzniks and natural scientists in 1953 around a specific issue: the draining of Lake Hula and the surrounding swamps. As a result of their efforts, a few hundred hectares of untouched swampland were preserved as a protected refuge for the flora and fauna of the Hula Valley. The campaign, however, succeeded in a much larger sense as well: it put environmental awareness on Israel’s national agenda.

The SPNI’s first campaign on behalf of nature conservation was a prelude to countless other achievements during its forty year history the most successful of which was the 1960s campaign against the picking of wildflowers. Over the years, the SPNI has continued to spearhead dozens of campaigns against the destruction of unique, ecological systems and scenic landscapes through unwise development.

In order to introduce as many people as possible to an awareness of nature and to foster sensitivity to conservation problems, the SPNI, in its early years, organized guided tours into little-known wild areas and to scenic spots. A fine educational network was soon built with 26 field study centers, 33 branches and community centers, hundreds of youth clubs and comprehensive teacher training programs.

The response of the public to the SPNI’s outreach program has been enthusiastic. Today, the Society is Israel’s largest environmental non-governmental organization, boasting a membership list of over 25,000 families, representing about 100,000 individuals from every stratum of Israeli society. Through a broad-based program of education, conservation, research and public action, the SPNI involves over a million people annually (about 20% of Israel’s population) in its myriad activities walking tours, roving camps, lectures and seminars.

Recognizing that information is crucial to environmental protection, the SPNI places major emphasis upon the scientific investigation of Israel’s landscape and wildlife. Together with Israel’s leading universities and the Ministry of Science, it operates 13 Information, Research and Development Centers focusing on mammals, raptors, birds, insects, reptiles, caves, amphibians and plants. The centers provide essential data for developing conservation strategies through a variety of surveys and field research programs.

In recent years, the SPNI has broadened its orientation to include environmental activism. As a public representative on the National Planning and Building Board, the SPNI has been a strong advocate of environmental interests. Its activities have been backed up by public protest and legal action, including petitions to the High Court of Justice. Recent campaigns have included a struggle to preserve a unique sand dune near the city of Ashdod from destruction due to a proposed housing project, a petition to the High Court of Justice to delay construction of a Voice of America transmission station in the Aravah until completion of all environmental impact statements (the project has since been canceled) and, at present, a campaign against hasty approval of the proposed Trans-Israel Highway.

SPNI-Related Organizations

Increased environmental awareness has led the SPNI to further broaden its orientation to the education of the industrial community toward sustainable development. One notable achievement was the formation of the Industrial Association for Environmental Quality (ALVA) in 1990. Founded by the SPNI, Ormat Turbines, Ltd. and the Manufacturers Association of Israel, the organization is committed to instilling an environmental approach into all branches of industry. Its major objectives include promoting energy and resource conservation and use of environmentally-friendly products; disseminating environmental information to the industrial community; encouraging waste reduction, reuse, recycling and proper disposal; and promoting environmental careers.

The SPNI’s wide experience in promoting environmental education and action has drawn newly-emerging environmental groups into its organizational framework. Thus, when the Education and Culture Committee of the Knesset recommended the establishment of a Public Council for the Preservation of Monuments and Sites in 1984, it appealed to the SPNI to place the council under its aegis and to cooperate in its activities. With the aid of the SPNI, some 35 public, vocational and academic bodies agreed to join forces to increase public awareness and foster public activity aimed at influencing decision makers to preserve the unique heritage of the past few centuries.

Still another SPNI-led initiative is the recently-established Israel Forum for Recycling. The forum was established in 1993 as a lobby group dedicated to increasing awareness of recycling, with the cooperation of the public, government, local authorities and the industrial sector. The objectives of the forum are waste reduction, reuse and recycling.

The Council for a Beautiful Israel

Established in 1968, the Council for a Beautiful Israel (CBI) is active in promoting environmental education and awareness; protecting the natural beauty of Israel and preserving its historical sites; promoting the rehabilitation of run-down urban areas; and developing public gardens and parks, sport fields and recreation and leisure sites.

Working in cooperation with government and public bodies, CBI’s thousands of volunteers have spearheaded projects and activities designed to implement the organization’s goals. Among the CBI’s best-known activities are competitions and awards granted to industrial plants, army bases, schools, police stations and gas stations for cleanliness, greenery and environmental enhancement. The competitions, accompanied by educational programs, have helped promote aesthetic values in the home, the workplace, the school, and even the military.

An important milestone in the growing environmental commitment of the CBI was the inauguration, in May 1992, of the CBI Center for Environmental Studies in Tel Aviv. The unique structure consists of five pavilions, two terraces and two courtyards, surrounded by wide expanses of demonstration gardens. It houses a comprehensive library, classrooms, meeting rooms and an auditorium as well as an exhibition pavilion for local and international displays. The center’s educational program, concentrating on hands-on education, focuses on the built environment; ecology, conservation and recycling; gardening and landscaping; design and aesthetics; basic architecture; preservation; and community beautification.

Life and Environment

Established in 1975, Life and Environment serves as an umbrella organization to coordinate environmental activities among Israel’s non-governmental organizations and to avoid duplication of efforts. At the time of its establishment, Life and Environment included ten national bodies; today this number has more than doubled. Representatives of the various groups meet regularly to exchange information on specific environmental activities, plan campaigns, and select priority areas for action, but each organization is free to promote environmental action according to its particular interests and priorities.

Life and Environment’s major goals include: representation of Israel’s environmental bodies, as a strong united lobby group, at the level of the Knesset, government ministries and local authorities; formulation of comprehensive solutions to environmental problems, on the national and local levels; publication and dissemination of environmental information in order to arouse citizen action and involvement; and representation of Israel’s environmental NGOs on the international front.

Israel Economic Forum on the Environment

The establishment of the Israel Economic Forum on the Environment in 1991 represented an important breakthrough in the greening of industry in Israel. The aim of the forum is to increase environmental awareness within the business community, to deepen industry’s involvement in the advancement of environmental quality and to adopt the "pollution prevention pays" principle (instead of the "polluter pays" principle). The forum encourages industry, agriculture, transport and other economic sectors to incorporate environmental concerns into their socio-economic development planning, alongside economic and operational concerns, in line with its motto "development with forethought."

At the time of its establishment, the forum included 30 businesspeople, representing Israel’s major industrial, commercial and economic organizations and industries. Today, its numbers have risen to 120 businesses and organizations. The forum is currently planning a number of new initiatives: publication of a Hebrew bi- monthly, in cooperation with the Jewish National Fund; operation of mobile environmental workshops, utilizing four buses equipped with environmental material; and establishment of a new environmental center in Givata’im.

The Jewish National Fund

As the executive arm of the Zionist movement, the Jewish National Fund

(JNF) has been instrumental in reclaiming, developing and afforesting the land of Israel since its establishment in 1901. In a world threatened by encroaching deserts, shrinking forests and the dangers of the greenhouse effect, JNF’s afforestation efforts are a unique phenomenon. By 1994, the JNF had planted 200 million trees, creating 280 forests over an area spanning 80,000 hectares in addition to caring for 40,000 additional hectares of natural woodlands.

Greening strategies implemented by the JNF since 1948 have succeeded in pushing the edge of the desert southward, actually reversing the process of desertification. The JNF has developed innovative methods of harvesting scarce natural precipitation, and has initiated large-scale water conservation projects to cope with the water scarcity problem in Israel. It is building reservoirs and dams to capture floodwater for irrigation, halt soil erosion and replenish underground aquifers. It is clearing clogged river beds and reinforcing river banks to rejuvenate waterways. It is undertaking extensive drainage work in the Jezreel Valley to lower the saline water table and restore agricultural productivity. It is introducing special plantings and earthworks to anchor drifting sands and reduce dust in the Western Negev and elsewhere in the country.

EcoNet Israel

EcoNet Israel, established in 1990, is an environmental research, information and advocacy organization established by members of the public seeking solutions to environmental problems. The organization began as a handful of concerned citizens who joined forces in the wake of the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl to disseminate information on nuclear energy via a bi-monthly newsletter. As the newsletter became more established, the organization, originally named the Israel Agency for Nuclear Information, broadened its frame of reference and changed its name to EcoNet, the Ecological Network.

The organization seeks to inform Israelis about key environmental issues

(e.g. nuclear energy, pesticides, electromagnetic radiation), to promote enlightened policy making, to broaden citizen participation in environmental matters, and to protect Israel’s environment. EcoNet’s involvement has taken several forms, from direct action and lobbying, through cooperation with other volunteer organizations and government bodies, to providing seed funding for projects and research.

EcoNet has been instrumental in helping to establish a number of environmental NGOs in Israel as well as setting up an environmental library, and a phone and fax hotline which directs inquiries to the correct source of help.

The Israel Union for Environmental Defense

Indubitably, the establishment of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (UED) in the summer of 1990 marked a milestone in the coming of age of Israel’s environmental organizations, in general, and in the use of legal means to tackle environmental problems, in particular. The UED is a public interest law group which provides free legal advise and representation to individuals and grassroots organizations. It also acts as a "watchdog" over government ministries to ensure that responsible environmental policies are developed and implemented, addresses local pollution problems through citizen suits and nuisance actions, and serves as a national resource center for Israeli environmental law and environmental attorneys. Through a combination of lobbying, press releases and legal proceedings, the UED has often been successful in bringing about more rigorous enforcement policies by government agencies. Where need be, it has turned to the courts, including the High Court of Justice, on such issues as air pollution, sewage treatment and more recently, the proposed construction of the Trans-Israel Highway.

The organization has also established Israel’s only Citizens’ Laboratory, providing low cost analysis of key environmental parameters in drinking water, air and soil samples. The laboratory, which was officially dedicated in 1993, is meant to improve public access to reliable information on environmental quality.

The many projects implemented by the UED in recent years have made a significant mark on Israel’s burgeoning environmental consciousness, impressing upon citizens nationwide that involvement and activism can yield positive results in the battle for environmental quality.

Grassroots Organizations

In recent years, spurred by growing environmental awareness in Israel and by the success of environmental activism abroad, concerned citizens have begun organizing to improve the quality of their environment. While most grassroots groups have organized around local environmental problems, several organizations have widened their horizons to deal with nationwide issues as well.

One of the first models for grassroots organization in Israel was a group of citizens which banded together in 1985 to fight air pollution in Haifa, under the name ENZA (Hebrew acronym for Citizens Against Air Pollution). ENZA’s efforts were augmented by the Environmental Action Committee of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI). Armed with a background in civil rights activism and administrative and marketing skills, this Anglo-Saxon group of activists collaborated with ENZA and with several other sympathetic public groups in Haifa to bring about environmental changes. Together, they conducted a high-profile campaign, utilizing petitions and publications, demonstrations and lobbying, to raise awareness and to pressure both polluters and politicians to stem the tide of pollution plaguing the city.

As a result, Haifa’s grassroots organizations achieved not only visibility, but much more. They succeeded in helping reverse a proposal to build a second power plant in Haifa, in electing an environmental candidate to the Haifa City Council, and in convincing both the Israel Electric Corporation and the oil refineries to burn low-sulfur fuel.

Within a few years, several organizations followed in ENZA’s footsteps. A group of concerned citizens in the Galilee organized in order to protect the Galilee’s water, air and environment. The group, Citizens for the Environment, uses volunteers for its information drives, lobbying, law suits and cleanup campaigns. Similar groups have sprouted throughout the country, in Petah Tikvah, Hadera, Bnei Brak, Tel Aviv, Modi’in, Eilat, Karmiel, Kfar Sava, the Jezreel Valley to name some prominent examples.

Other grassroots organizations have broadened their activities to include nationwide interests. In Herzliya and its environs, ALMA (the Hebrew acronym for Association for Environmental Quality) was established in May 1991. Like other grassroots organizations, it grew from a handful of concerned citizens to hundreds of members. At present the association is involved in promoting the use of environmentally-friendly products and organically-grown produce, in encouraging industry to reduce the waste it produces, in forming an environmental youth movement and in advancing the recycling of plastic, paper and glass.

Another group, based in Rehovot, has expanded from birdwatching to environment-watching. The group formed a non-profit organization, Guardians of the Environment, in 1990, and seeks to award the label "Green Star of David Guardians of the Environment" to companies, factories, organizations and individuals whom it considers deserving of the award.

In the Arab sector, the Galilee Society is making new inroads into environmental activism. The Society, founded in 1982 to work on health-related issues in the Arab sector, has expanded its activities to environmental hygiene, including sewage disposal, clean drinking water, reduction of industrial emissions and environmentally-safe waste disposal and recycling. Its environmental work concentrates on advocacy, research and education, and it serves as the Ministry of the Environment’s focal point for environmental education and for the recruitment of cleanliness trustees in the Arab sector.

Several new grassroots organizations were established in 1994. One of the most innovative is GreenAction, established in January 1994, as a grassroots organization seeking to raise environmental consciousness through non-violent civil disobedience. This young and dynamic direct-action group, modeled on Greenpeace, aims to link committed individuals and groups across the country who are prepared to act together on environmental issues. GreenAction operates out of its head office in Tel Aviv, but is currently setting up new chapters in Jerusalem and in Haifa.

Another environmental NGO, set up in the spring of 1994, is working on the integration of Jewish and environmental values in education. The Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Nature Studies seeks to develop short- and long-term curricula and educational programs utilizing a values-oriented approach to environmental studies, both in the formal and informal educational frameworks. Utilizing Jewish sources, it seeks to understand the interrelationship between natural landscapes and cultural perspectives, to bring environmental issues to bear on Jewish education while bringing a Jewish perspective to nature studies,

Public Organizations and the Environment

A major indicator of the dramatic increase in environmental awareness in Israel has been the gradual incorporation of environmental issues into the agenda of Israel’s veteran public service organizations. The Histadrut Federation of Labor in Israel, the country’s largest trade union and volunteer organization, is now promoting environmental protection through its Consumer and Environmental Protection Authority and through its women’s organization, Na’amat. The Authority has been active in the organization of Earth Day celebrations in Israel, in sponsoring environmental seminars and workshops for hundreds of its volunteers, in implementing environmental surveys, and in publishing information sheets on the environment. Na’amat, the working and volunteer women’s movement of the Histadrut, has initiated its own environmental consciousness-raising campaign with the aid of its extensive network of volunteers, associated with 100 branches throughout the country.

The successful experience of the Histadrut in working with thousands of volunteers led to the establishment of a new volunteer body on the environment in 1989: the Forum of Organizations on Quality of Life and the Environment, within the framework of the Israel Volunteer Center. The forum, including more than 50 organizations, meets regularly to coordinate activities and priorities, but enables its individual members to deal with projects which are of special interest to them through their environmental protection committees.

Women’s organizations have long stood at the vanguard of environmental activism in Israel, both individually and collectively. The Council of Women’s Organizations in Israel has recently set up its own environmental committee, composed of WIZO, Na’amat, Emunah, Hadassah, Academic Women and B’nai B’rith Women. Each of these organizations will continue to play its own part in environmental improvement, but collectively, the organizations hope to multiply their efficacy in instilling a new environmental ethic in Israeli citizens everywhere. The environmental committee has already prepared, and is currently implementing, an action plan including seminars and workshops, to raise environmental consciousness and involvement.

These and other public organizations intend to turn their volunteers into Israel’s environmental torchbearers, leading the way to a better quality of life and the environment for each and every Israeli.