So why is it so dirty, noisy, loud, neglected and messy here in Israel?
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Here’s the answer: “Modern society is killing itself with noise and smoke but if you remove it all it will cease to exist,” wrote then-Transportation Minister Yisrael Ben-Yehuda in Haaretz on February 14, 1965. Looking back we see that he summarized the universal and domestic context and also gave an appropriate Zionist response to the question that was being asked then, as now, and even more forcefully.
The title given to Ben-Yehuda’s article, “Quiet for those who aren’t alive,” was the motto of an eye-opening lecture given by Prof. Oded Heilbronner, a senior lecturer in cultural studies, on “Modern noise and pollution – Israel as it started out,” at the Fourth Israeli Conference on Environmental History at Tel Aviv University last week. In his lecture, which was part of a comprehensive historical survey on culture and society in Israel during the 1960s, Heilbronner linked modernity with nuisances in the urban environment and also with public awareness of the nuisances, then a new phenomenon in and of itself.
Indeed, behind Ben-Yehuda’s observations was a wealth of evidence about environmental nuisances, their scope and character, awareness of their existence and what were then pioneering attempts to deal with the phenomena. It began with the anti-nuisance law that was dubbed the “Kanowitz Law,” which the Knesset passed in 1961, continued with the founding that year of the Council for Preventing Noise and Pollution – a pioneering nonprofit organization in the field that would later be called environmental quality, and culminated in feverish, grass-roots civic awareness,” as expressed in an endless stream of complaints, lawsuits, angry letters to newspapers and the feuilletons of Ephraim Kishon.
Heilbronner opened his lecture with the mythological scene from Kishon’s 1969 film “Blaumilch Canal,” in which Kazimir Blaumilch begins digging a ditch in Tel Aviv’s Mugrabi Square, a scene that raises no few connotations with regard to today’s chaotic excavations for Tel Aviv’s light rail system and in general.
The scene of the digging and the accompanying noises, which has been burned into the consciousness of Israelis of all ages since then, illustrates the conclusion of Heilbronner’s research in a Kishonian-hysterical fashion. “Patterns of noise and dirt, and primarily the way they are perceived, can be found in every country, particularly Western ones that undergo modernization processes over a short, compressed period, especially after post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction.”
‘Paradise for rioters’
The sources of “modern noises” in post-World-War-II Israel and elsewhere, are ubiquitous – urbanization, construction, the free market, consumerism, the youth culture, demography, industrialization, technology, automation – like Blaumilch’s annoying compressor. As Heilbronner explains, they become part of the daily lives of all levels of society, not just the blue-collar class. They invade the territory of the bourgeoisie, which respond accordingly.
The complaints that Heilbronner brings in his survey are a whole turbulent, emotional world unto itself. A resident of Shoshana Street, for example, complains bitterly about yelling in the streets and on the balconies, loud radios, honking from the buses, cars and motorcycles, and barking dogs. The pamphlet “Izmel” complained in 1958 about pollution from urban transportation, saying that Israel “is a country of chaos, a paradise for rioters.”
Apartment building residents complain about the noise from nocturnal card games. An immigrant Tel Aviv neurologist complains in a letter in German that the noise in Israel is like the noise of a yeshiva in Germany. “The non-Jews would talk about the incredible noise those Jews would make, not necessarily in an anti-Semitic tone,” he wrote. The transistor radios assault the ears, the doctor added, “And I must note that people from Middle Eastern communities are the worst of all.”
Indeed, while the complaints differ from one another in content and style, Heilbronner says, the complainers are mostly Ashkenazim who believed those causing the dirt and noise were mostly Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin).
Was this racism? Norms of cleanliness have always been dependent on culture, place and time. “It could be discrimination or prejudice, a feeling of foreignness, an attempt to preserve status or hegemony,” notes Heilbronner. “On the margins it might also be racism, but not primarily.”
Demographic movements after World War II brought locals face to face with migrants who had customs the former considered “primitive.” As “progress,” say Heilbronner, the perception of dirt and litter changes. “If a horse would defecate in the street nowadays, we’d freak out,” he says. “Once that was acceptable. Certain strata of the population adopt norms of cleanliness and order and impose them on other strata. Dirt and noise have existed in the world since the beginning of human history. London was filthy even before the industrial revolution. It’s hard to decide whether what changed is the quantity of nuisances or the public’s awareness of them.”
In terms of the environment, Israel in its early years had some unique characteristics, but in general it wasn’t much different compared to European states in those years, says Heilbronner. They, too, experienced destruction, mass migrations, dirt, noise and divisions between their equivalents of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim.
In fact, unlike in Europe, the years between 1958 and 1966 were relatively quiet in Israel, and people could deal with nuisances rather than wars. In Europe, the Cold War cast its pall and people were worried about nuclear war, not noise and dirt.
Sensitivity to nuisances in Israel differs by age and ethnic background, says Heilbronner. The older generation condemned the disturbances young people made with their radios, motorcycles, bikes and cars. From an ethnic perspective, the Ashkenazi bourgeoisie would complain about the immigrants from “Arab countries,” who had a different perspective on cleanliness and order, which contributed to the cultural polarization between “us” and “them.”
According to Heilbronner, the source for linking culture with cleanliness is apparently the German language, in which a travel bag for toiletries is called a kulturbeutel (“culture bag”). This linkage in German led to disaster. The French philosopher Michel Foucault once told an interviewer that the Nazis “were charwomen in the bad sense of the term.” He said: “They worked with brooms and dusters, wanting to purge society of everything they considered unsanitary, dusty, filthy; syphilitics, homosexuals, Jews, those of impure blood, Blacks, the insane. It’s the foul petit dream of racial hygiene that underlies the Nazi dream.”
For all the bad name that the terms culture and cleanliness acquired during the second half of the 20th century in post-modern thought, which saw in them and the preaching toward them oppression, compulsion and “purification,” there still is no escaping the conclusion that sometimes dirt is just dirt, and brooms and rags are no more than that.
And in the crowded, noisy Israeli space, it would be desirable to have many more of them. If we go with the logic that modernity means dirt and noise, one can’t help but wonder if Israel might be more modern than Switzerland because it is dirtier and noisier.