Let There Be Water
Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World
By Seth M. Siegel
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 Seth M. Siegel
All rights reserved.
A WATER-RESPECTING CULTURE
Rain, rain, go away, Come again some other day!
— American nursery rhyme
Rain, rain, from the skies All day long, drops of water Drip drop drip drop Clap your hands!
— Israeli nursery rhyme
Aya Mironi, now in her thirties, remembers bath time when she was a little girl. As soon as she was toweled off and in her pajamas, her mother would return to the bathtub with a plastic bucket, and fill it with the water still in the tub. Her mother would carry the bucket outside to their small yard and water the flowers and other plants with the still soapy water. She would return to the bathroom, refill the bucket, and repeat the procedure several more times.
If you didn't know that this was taking place in an upper-middle-class community in Israel, you might have thought it was in a poor village in a developing country. Despite the free-flowing water in the home, though, Aya's mother treated their water as a precious asset not to be wasted. Over time, with one act of maternal water conservation after another, Aya and her two siblings absorbed the lesson that every drop counts. Once ingrained, it is a hard belief to unlearn.
Aya can also recall regular reminders in school to be mindful of water. There were posters in every classroom exhorting the children to "not waste a drop." She learned, as all Israeli children do, the sing-song Israeli nursery rhyme at the start of this chapter. It is difficult to imagine an American child being coached to clap hands in delight because of a rainy day. In the American nursery rhyme, of course, the rain is shooed away to "come another day."
The wisdom of water conservation isn't limited to nursery songs. Rather it is part of an integrated curriculum that, like Aya's mother, tries to inculcate in schoolchildren both the idea that saving water is everyone's responsibility while at the same time giving them practical tools for doing so. Aya's mother may have been diligent in saving water, but the school program also trains children to teach those best practices to their parents. As part of hygiene classes, Israeli schoolchildren are taught to shower and brush their teeth, as students are in such classes everywhere. In Israel, there is an added feature: Students are taught how to minimize the use of water. Saving water is everyone's job — but so is the educational process that leads to it.
The people of Israel aren't single-minded, water-saving zealots, but there is a general consciousness about the need to respect water and to not take it for granted. This water-conscious culture comes, in part, from the surroundings, with most of Israel being made up of desert and the rest semiarid land. Droughts are not uncommon. Even so, the physical environment alone doesn't adequately explain the heightened national consciousness regarding water and its preciousness.
Although most of the Jews in Israel today are not strict in their religious observance, culture and tradition are enduring phenomena. The religious culture that carried the Jewish people for two thousand years from exile to national rebirth is filled with reverence for water in the form of rain and dew.
The prayers of Jews through those millennia and to this day include a prayer for rain at certain times of the year. This prayer is recited by many Jews three times each day in both the Diaspora and the Land of Israel. It doesn't ask for rain for the community where the prayer is uttered, but rather custom calls for it to fall in the Land of Israel. No matter where Jews are, in wet places or dry ones, their prayers have been recited for two thousand years facing toward Jerusalem — and with the meteorological well-being of the Holy Land in mind. As with Aya and her siblings, over time, this concern became ingrained and part of the Jewish communal worldview.
Separate from the prayer book, the Hebrew Bible also provides guidance on how to think about water. In one of the Bible's most famous scenes, in the midst of the wanderings of the Children of Israel, Moses strikes a rock in pursuit of freshwater to drink, and a "copious" amount flows. This episode suggests a subtle division of labor: God provides nourishment for the Israelites with daily portions of manna, but it falls to Moses — even with Divine guidance — to provide water. The story is also a reminder that water may be found in many unlikely places and can sometimes be extracted with unorthodox techniques.
Each year, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Moses' blessings and curses from the Book of Deuteronomy are recited in every synagogue around the world. Rain "in its season" is one such blessing. Perhaps the most famous of all Jewish prayers, the Shema, draws from Deuteronomy and states that a penalty for failing to observe God's commandments is that rain shall not fall and that lack of rain shall cause the violator to "perish."
These water-focused scriptural episodes aren't outliers. Linguistically, the Hebrew Bible is a moisture-suffused document. The word dew is mentioned 35 times, the word flood appears 61 times, and the word cloud shows up 130 times. The word water itself is found 600 times in the Hebrew Bible.
"Rain" is not only mentioned nearly one hundred times in the Jewish holy book, but there are even specific Hebrew words — still in use in modern Hebrew — for the first and last rainfalls of the year. If Eskimos have multiple words for snow because of its constant presence, Jews in the Holy Land would seem to have several words for rain because of its scarcity.
As the Zionist settlers were overwhelmingly secular, they may not have been dipping into their prayer books or Bibles with any regularity. But they arrived — from rainy lands like Russia and Poland and river-fed ones like Egypt and modern Iraq — with a familiarity with the Bible and Jewish tradition. From that, they had an inbred awareness of water from the enduring Jewish tradition around them that was tied to their new lives in the Land of Israel.
Water Engineers as Heroes
Theodor Herzl was a Viennese lawyer, journalist, and writer who — unlike many of the Zionist pioneers — knew little about Jewish tradition or custom. He had a quasi-spiritual Jewish awakening when he saw a spasm of broad-based anti-Semitism in genteel Paris in 1894. From this experience, the visionary Herzl came to conclude that Jewish life was doomed in Europe as Jews would fall prey to assimilation or persecution or both. He devoted the rest of his short life to the creation of the modern political Zionist movement.
While building political support for a Jewish home, Herzl also wrote essays, plays, and books, all making the case for Zionism. The two most significant were a political tract, The Jewish State, in 1896, and a utopian novel in the style of the then best-seller Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. Herzl called his 1902 novel Altneuland, or Old New Land.
As the Zionist movement had no religious works at its center, for many, Herzl's speeches, writing, and diaries assumed that place. Granted a secular holiness, Herzl's works were widely translated and any literate Zionist would have read, at a minimum, these two writings. When Herzl died at the age of forty-four in 1904, his insights were treated as guidance and inspiration from the grave. Decades later, Israeli leaders would still quote from Herzl and these books.
In November 1898, the politically skillful Herzl arranged a meeting with the last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to encourage his help in creating a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. The kaiser gave Herzl reason to think he would be an ardent supporter, praising the work of the Zionist pioneers. He told Herzl that above all else "water and shade [trees]" will restore the land to its ancient glory. When Herzl's futuristic Altneuland was published four years later, one of the novel's lead characters says of Jewish settlement in Palestine, "This country needs nothing but water and shade to have a very great future."
Late in Altneuland, one of Herzl's protagonists predicts that the water engineers of his imaginary Jewish homeland will be its heroes. Herzl fantasizes about the country's water future. Although Palestine then was a place with meager water resources or cultivable soil, he describes its watery destiny and good fortune: "[E]very drop of water that fell from the heavens was exploited for the public good. Milk and honey once more flowed in the ancient home of the Jews. Palestine was again the Promised Land." Utopian novels do set the bar high, and Herzl held the Zionist project, especially in regards to water, to that standard. So, too, did his political heirs.
Beyond books and exhortations, water entered the collective consciousness of the Zionist pioneers in other ways, as well. In one of the most enduring songs from the pre-State Zionist community, the pioneers often danced the hora circle dance to a water-themed song — as do many today, even far from Israel. The song "Mayim Mayim" [Water Water] is likely familiar to anyone who has ever been to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah party or a Jewish wedding. Although the lyrics come from the Book of Isaiah ("With joy, you shall draw water from the springs of Salvation"), it was set to music and choreographed to celebrate the discovery of water at a collective farm in 1937 after years of drilling for water there had yielded only dry holes.
Other songs and folk dances were also composed and choreographed to celebrate water milestones. While dancing the hora in the US may be reserved for Jewish celebrations, in Israel, until recently, folk dancing was an everyday form of socializing and exercise. Dancing to "Mayim Mayim" and these other water songs was a nearly universal cultural experience whether in the city or on the farm.
Water has also been used as a theme among leading Israeli writers, explicitly or metaphorically. In A. B. Yehoshua's novella Early in the Summer 1970, water is a motif running throughout the work. Dryness is synonymous with failed communication; the desert stands for barrenness and death. Likewise, My Michael, Amos Oz's 1968 novel about life in 1950s Jerusalem, utilizes rain for symbolic impact. Rain and intimacy between the characters run in parallel while anticipation of rain is also used to literary effect. More recently, Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron's dystopic, futuristic novel Hydromania, about life in Israel in 2067, uses water and rain as key plot devices to describe what happens when the people lose control of this essential natural resource.
Israel has even honored water on its currency and stamps. The now-out-of-circulation five-shekel note (worth a little more than a US dollar today) featured Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. On the bill's back, Israel's National Water Carrier, a project in which he played a key role, was honored. Similarly, many Israeli postage stamps celebrate water themes ranging from technological innovations in water usage to milestones in modern water infrastructure to ancient water systems in the Land of Israel.
The Water Belongs to All of the People
No decision made by the Zionist pioneers and the young State of Israel has had a greater impact on Israel's water culture than the decision to make water the common property of all. Unlike in the US, where water is a personal property right, in Israel all water ownership and usage is controlled by the government acting in the interest of the people as a whole. Available water is then allocated according to what is seen as the best use.
The control of the nation's water was codified in a series of laws that confirmed the centralized water philosophy of Israel. These water laws also came to play an essential part in Israel's water-conservation success.
In the mid-1950s, three laws were passed by the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, which set the stage for the transformative Water Law of 1959. The first, passed in 1955, prohibited any drilling for water anywhere in the country, even by an owner on his private land, without first obtaining a license to do so. Private property rights yielded to government control.
The second of the water laws, also passed in 1955, prohibited any distribution of water, unless that supply was done through a meter. This law also required that all utilities install separate meters to measure the amount of water provided to each home or business. While this granular collection of data put Israel decades ahead of the information technology boom (and the metering infrastructure would prove to be of immeasurable value in later years), it again established an intrusive government role in the water-consumption patterns of its citizens.
In 1957, a third water law was passed by the Knesset. With control of underground water spoken for in the 1955 water-drilling legislation, this new law addressed surface water, broadly construed. Not only did this place the water found in rivers and streams under government control, but it also took charge of rainwater. It even took ownership of the sewage flowing out of Israelis' homes. The law prohibited diversion of any of these forms of water without first receiving a government permit. It also compelled farmers to obtain a license before herding their own grazing animals on their own property if the animals would cross a waterway in the process. Individual interests, yet again, were subordinated to government control.
This evolving centralized ownership reached its logical culmination with the Water Law of 1959. The legislation vested in the government "widespread power to control and restrict the activities of individual water users in order to further and protect the public interest." All water resources became public property subject to control of the State. Land ownership would confer no rights to water resources on, under, or adjacent to the owner's land. Henceforth, individual or private use would only be permitted if in accordance with the law. The Water Law even stated an expectation that all citizens would use the water they receive "efficiently and sparingly."
While popular acquiescence in this state control can be understood in the early years of the country, when the government had a decidedly socialist tilt, it might be expected that the Water Law would have been amended or repealed as the country abandoned its socialist origins. However, ownership of water continues to remain exclusively in the hands of "the people" — and therefore, of the government. Even after several rounds of privatization of government-owned industries and assets, there has been no call for water resources to become a free-market commodity. Israel today has a dynamic capitalist economy, but with a state-controlled, centrally planned approach to its water.
Shimon Tal, Israel's water commissioner from 2000 to 2006, provides a vivid illustration of how completely water is under the power of the state in Israel. "Of course, the government controls all of the water in the Sea of Galilee [Israel's largest freshwater lake] and of course, it controls all of the aquifers," he says. "But if you put a bucket on the roof of your house at the start of the rainy season, you own the house and you own the bucket, but the rain in that bucket is the property — at least in theory — of the government. Without a license to collect that rainwater, you are technically in violation of the Water Law. Once the raindrop hits the ground, or the bucket, it is owned by the public."
Even compared to other countries with public ownership of water, Israel has taken a more absolutist approach than most. In France, for example, a landowner doesn't have unfettered right to use all of the water under his land to the detriment of others. But the 1964 French water law says he can use that water freely provided he doesn't deprive his community reasonable access. Further, the French Civil Code explicitly gives ownership of rain to the owner of the land where the drop falls.
A visitor to Israel might assume that such a controlling, restrictive law and policy was an unpopular one, especially in a country that has seen the near collapse of its socialist political parties and a general repudiation of socialist economics. But it is the opposite. Israelis widely believe that the collective approach in this instance is the secret to the nation's success in water conservation. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Let There Be Water by Seth M. Siegel. Copyright © 2015 Seth M. Siegel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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