The bathing season officially began in Israel in mid-May. People can go to most of the country’s beaches for free. But that’s not something we should take for granted: In the past, local authorities here charged more or less whatever they pleased for the use of their beaches. As in many cases involving the right to enjoy a public resource in this country, it was the battle of a single individual that brought about the breakthrough. His name is Moshe Puterman. He is now 86 and lives in Ramat Gan. The case that set the precedent regarding the right to free access to Israel’s beaches bears his name.
One day in 1959, Puterman and a few friends went to the seashore in Herzliya. As was usual at that time, the municipal attendants demanded that they pay in order to enter. But Puterman was fed up with paying, and he snuck in – with the attendants hot on his heels.
“There was a scuffle and I escaped, but they caught me and I was taken into custody,” he recalled recently. “I told the attendants that this was a public area and that they were acting like thieves. It upset me to pay for something that should have come to me by right.”
Puterman was convicted in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court for refusing to pay and for resisting the attendants with force. He was ordered to pay a fine. But he did not let the matter rest there.
It upset me to pay for something that should have come to me by right.
“My lawyer was the late Avraham Socholovsky, who was also a personal friend,” Puterman told me. “As we left the courtroom, I asked him, ‘Do we keep going?’ ‘Of course,’ he replied.”
Socholovsky appealed, and Tel Aviv District Court Judge Jacob Gavison overturned the earlier conviction. Gavison cited, among other sources, the Mecelle, the Ottoman civil code, which stated, in essence, that the water, the air and the light are owned by everyone, and all people have a share in these three elements.
In his ruling, Gavison wrote, “God’s gift of the seashore, the enjoyment of its fresh air and its magnificent landscape, and bathing in the sea are not among the items whose use can be made conditional on any sort of payment. Nor are they to be denied to immigrant-refugees, the indigent or large families who cannot afford to pay for them.”
Gavison went farther, ruling that Puterman was within his rights in using a reasonable degree of force against the attendants in order to exercise his right to free access to the beach.
“I was sick with the flu when the judgment was handed down,” Puterman recalled. “The minute I heard the decision, I got well.”
The ruling became a precedent that enshrined the public’s right to free access to the seashores. According to attorney Amit Bracha, executive director of Adam Teva V’Din: the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, the verdict led to legislation, in 1964, that prohibits charging an entry fee to beaches where only basic services – lifeguards, toilets, showers – are provided (though a fee can be charged for parking near a beach). It also led to the High Court of Justice decision in a petition filed by the IUED against the Interior Ministry more than 10 years ago. The court then instructed the ministry to order local governments to uphold the law concerning free entry to beaches. Nevertheless, there are a few beaches that still charge an entry fee.
“Puterman, who was driven by a basic sense of justice, gave physical expression to the public’s disgust when finding that free entry to beaches, public parks and public spaces was blocked,” Bracha notes. “He was the pioneer of the environmental and social struggle to open the beaches, and today, almost 60 years later, we are privileged to enjoy free access to the great majority of the beaches in Israel.”
Puterman, for his part, can’t abide the thought that there are still a few places that charge a fee for access to the beach. “What I did is pointless,” he said, “if there are still beaches where you have to pay to enter.”