The Death of Don Quixote

Yosef Tamir's death is a fitting opportunity to examine the direction Israel has taken since this pioneer of environmental legislation began making his voice of dissent heard.

Two weeks have passed since the death of former MK Yosef Tamir, the founding father of Israel's environmental movement. A year before his death, Yigal Lerner made a documentary entitled "The Man Who Cares," in which Tamir is shown reading "Don Quixote" to his granddaughter in a public park.

Tamir was an Israeli Don Quixote, who battled not windmills but power plants. Tamir opposed the state's founding ethos of unbridled development in concrete and cement (which dismissed inconsequential issues like preserving air and water quality), and was virtually the only one of the country's political founders who swam against the current to save the river - all of Israel's rivers, in fact, which soon became channels for transporting sewage. To the plugged ears of premiers and finance ministers, Tamir maintained it was impossible to found a society on the destruction and waste of natural resources.

Tamir's death is, therefore, a fitting opportunity to engage in soul-searching, to examine the direction Israel has taken since this pioneer of environmental legislation began making his voice of dissent heard, a voice ultimately responsible for the creation of a ministry for environmental issues.

In today's Israel, pollutants that once threatened the environment and public health have disappeared or been greatly reduced - tar on the beach, poisonous lead in gasoline, sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants. Today, the country has progressive environmental legislation and a small, yet well-funded, Environmental Protection Ministry.

Planners and developers have also made an about-face and now take green issues and nature preservation into account when making important decisions. What is particularly striking is that the language and concepts of environmentalism are becoming part of the everyday discourse of the public, the government and business.

Tamir's unique voice remains particularly valid today in light of the growing strains on the ecology and the depletion of water resources. Several dangerous pollutants are now taking the place of those already dealt with - building waste (the result of urban sprawl), for example, and air pollution from a rapidly growing number of cars on the roads.

A continually growing population, with its infrastructure needs, and the increase in living standards and consumption (including a spike in ground-level construction) are diminishing Israel's landscape through mining and quarrying, paving of roads and preparing land for construction. Nearly all of the natural resources unique to Israel - its sandy beaches and gravel mountain ranges, and loess dunes in the Negev, Dead Sea and Lake Kinneret - are shriveling, shrinking or drying out under buildings and roads.

Social tensions also exact a heavy toll on the environment. Discrimination and dismissiveness toward the needs of Arab and Bedouin populations, compounded by widespread lack of interest among these communities in environmental issues, have created a destructive combination in which broad areas within these communities have become ecological wastelands.

Despite Israel's leading global position in water-saving infrastructure and alternative energy, the country has failed to enlist its economy or political system in preserving natural resources in a thought-out, cautious manner like other developed nations have. Israeli society is forcing Tamir's grandchildren, and all of our grandchildren, to confront challenges that will demand not only mental strength, but also new ways of thought, lifestyles and political leadership, all of which are desperately needed today.