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Galilee Diary: Green thoughts II: My space

Galilee Diary: Green thoughts II: My space

By Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in Galilee Diary and Ten Minutes of Torah)

tmt-bug.jpgOnce there was a man who was clearing stones from his field and throwing them into the public domain. A pious one kept nagging him: "Why are you clearing stones from what is not yours and throwing them into your own space?" The man ignored him. Later, he sold that field, and was walking past it and tripped on the stones. He said, "Now I understand what that guy meant with his nonsense." -Mishnah Ta'anit 1:5

Visitors often wonder why it often seems that in Arab villages, the insides of the homes are spotless and well maintained while the streets are littered with garbage. The answer I have received is a cultural one, regarding the perception of "my space" vs. no-one's space: what is inside my courtyard is my responsibility. What is outside is no man's land. When the population is small and the refuse is minimal and quickly biodegradable (which was the case around here until the 20th century), that approach was sustainable. It isn't any more - but cultures change slowly.

And the problem is by no means limited to Arab villages. Visiting an Israeli national park the day after a holiday can be really depressing. The garbage cans were already filled to the top, early on the holiday, with the detritus of picnics, disposable diapers, etc. But the people kept on picnicking, and the park workers were on holiday leave, and the garbage can was seen as no-man's land; therefore, people continued to pile their garbage on top of the can, carefully balancing it there, or not, not really stopping to consider an alternative, or the consequences of leaving garbage piled in the open for what would clearly be several days.

The "tragedy of the commons," the failure to understand the consequences of treating the public domain as no-man's land, has long been a feature of Israeli culture that has driven visitors from the west crazy. From large scale industrial pollution to the tossing of empty cigarette packs out of car windows, the obliviousness of large sectors of the population to any responsibility for the public domain is sometimes unbelievable. I know plenty of curmudgeons (generally Anglo immigrants, like me for example) who will pick up the popsicle wrapper and courteously return it to the kid who just tossed it ("Oh, I think you dropped this..."). Quixotic, perhaps, but satisfying.

While cultures change slowly, they do in fact change, and it is possible to discern some advancement in Israel in recent decades. As the garbage gets deeper and more durable, and as we are influenced by global trends, there do seem to be signs of changing consciousness. Recently, there have been reports of somewhat reduced mountains of garbage in parks after holidays. There is growing awareness of recycling (though the 0.25 shekel bottle/can deposit law has not been very successful, and most people don't bother). The school system and youth movements certainly try hard to instill a sense of responsibility for public spaces.

It's interesting and ironic that we quote with reverence Trumpledor's "It is good to die for our land," and we engage in emotional and even violent arguments over just how holy the land is and to whom it is more holy - and yet the land itself somehow gets ignored and even violated. Maybe it's like parents in a bitter custody battle - sometimes the kids themselves seem to get forgotten. Twenty-first century Zionism needs to focus less on owning and controlling the land and more on taking responsibility for it - and on sharing that responsibility with everyone who lives here.

Published: 3/17/2009

Categories: Reform Judaism, Israel
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