Two Women Who Made Life Greener

Rakefet Katz and Alona Vardi, two women whose contributions to Israel's environment will be felt for years to come, have recently passed away.

The local environmental movement recently suffered a great loss in the death, from illnesses, of two women instrumental in reshaping environmental advocacy in Israel. Rakefet Katz, 41, from the Environmental Protection Division of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, died several months ago. And last week, Alona Vardi, 50, died. Vardi was the coordinator of the Environment and Society Project at Shatil, a New Israel Fund organization providing support services for social organizations.

Vardi and Katz illustrated in their work the maturity and development of environmental activity here. No longer do organizations focus exclusively on preserving flora and fauna and preventing pollution, while ignoring the social and political aspects. The environmental groups of recent years were closely tied to social action, created alliances with political groups and assumed leadership roles.

Katz was largely responsible for the fact that the Knesset recently has maintained the strongest environmental lobby ever seen in the Israeli parliament. As a result of her stubborn and persistent activity, environmental input has become an important factor in legislative procedure. Many politicians to whom environmental organizations turned in the past for lack of a better alternative have become involved as full partners. Thanks to Katz and other activists from environmental organizations in the Knesset, MKs have begun to see the "green" label as a valuable political asset.

Vardi, who also set out on her path at SPNI, played a central role in transitioning the local environmental movement to a broader arena of social action. This activity not only addresses various kinds of pollution of one type or another and destruction of the landscape, but also deals with the socioeconomic factors enabling environmental hazards to exist, considering both their victims and the political forces behind them.

At the beginning of the previous decade, there were two or three national environmental organizations here and a small number of individual activists in large cities and in the periphery. During the last decade, dozens of organizations and associations emerged. Some of them have forged coalitions that deal with public health, with increasing public involvement in planning processes and strengthening weaker populations that have difficulty fighting on their own to preserve their right to a clean and healthy environment.

A minor example of this activity is the Public's Guide to Planning and Building Law, published by Shatil four years ago, which explains one of the country's most complicated and important laws in Israel.

The work of Shatil officials, with the prominent presence of Vardi, is what provided organizational and conceptual backing for the environmental movement's widespread activity here. It is still a small number of people with meager budgets, but their presence has made an impact.

Without exaggeration, it can be said that it is difficult to find today an environmental hazard that does not stir a public protest at the local or national level. Environmental activists have learned to submit objections to plans, publish findings related to environmental health, and often force investors and politicians to take action to remove the hazards.

These processes have strengthened the ability of residents to democratically influence decisions pertaining to their property, quality of life or children's future. Sometimes environmental activists are portrayed as nudniks or pests, but precisely these characteristics are needed to not let up on those who harm the environment and hope they can continue to do so.

The struggle to protect Israel's environment, including its population, will continue to be waged between unequal forces. On one side, powerful political and economic players will keep on recruiting experts, lawyers and economists on their behalf. Protectors of the environment have a greater chance of confronting them thanks to the activity of women like Vardi and Katz, who found a way to exert influence from below, via grassroots activists and local organizations, as well as from above, via politicians and decision-makers.