Partners in Litter
By Haviva Ner-David
I was walking in the fields in the valley between Kibbutz Hannaton (where I live with my husband and seven children) and the Bedouin village of Bir el Muksar when the siren for Yom HaShoah V’haGevurah (Holocaust Memorial Day) went off this year. I walk in this valley many weekday mornings after dropping my two youngest children at gan (preschool) to get some exercise and fresh air, spend some time in nature, and clear my head before sitting down to work. I also bring along a plastic bag when I walk to pick up the seemingly endless amount of trash that accumulates in this valley from picnicking families, young men gathering to drink alcohol, field workers, horseback riders, bicyclers, and walkers—all of whom seem to think the valley is one big trash bin.
When the siren went off, I was completely alone, except for Hussein–a Bedouin shepherd from Bir el Muksar—whom I saw in the distance grazing his flock. Most years when the siren goes off I am surrounded by people. But while it is comforting to feel the support of community when contemplating such horror, it is also powerful to be alone in nature, I discovered. Nature can be destructive, of course, but that feels, well, natural, whereas people murdering people does not. When we hear of an earthquake or a tsunami tidal wave, we might cry or mourn, but we do not give up hope for life on earth. The images that this siren brings up for me, on the other hand, come very close to shattering any trust I have in human nature.
The truth is, though, that I was not completely alone when the siren went off. Hussein was within my eye sight. But he was not within ear shot, so he was not exactly “with” me; and he is not Jewish or European in descent, which makes his relationship with the siren and the Shoah it commemorates different than mine. He did not appear to be stopping for a moment of silence as the siren sounded (assuming he could hear it at all from where he was), although I am sure not out of anger or resentment. Hussein is always friendly when I see him, always greets me with a smile and well wishes. And actually the residents of his Bedouin village, like most (if not all) Bedouin villages in Israel, serve in the Israeli army and are quite sympathetic to Jewish Israelis—often even more so than to non-Bedouin Israeli Arabs. (Not that I blame Israeli Arabs who do not serve in the Israeli army, since they are not even drafted, and even if they do go out of their way to volunteer, the military glass ceiling in the IDF does not allow them to serve in elite units). Yet, my Shoah is not his Shoah. In fact, in spite of friendly relations between Bedouin- and Jewish-Israelis, they have their own sad history of oppression of which Jewish Israelis were not innocent bystanders, to say the least.
Hussein’s physical and psychological/emotional/cultural distance made for a strange feeling of being alone yet not alone as I stood in silence listening to the siren and thinking about the unthinkable.
When the siren ended and I continued to walk and collect litter along the way, I became further disappointed in human nature. As the week draws to an end, I feel a sense of accomplishment as I manage to collect most of the garbage left along the path of my walk. But when I return on Sunday morning, I am left once again with piles of trash left strewn about, as if those who left it assumed someone like me would be along to collect it—a similar feeling to the one I have when I find my kids’ laundry on their bedroom floors or their dirty dishes left on the table.
If I am lucky when I am walking I find whole trash bags full of garbage left along the path, as if those who left it there are expecting a garbage truck to come through and collect it. I wondered to myself as I continued walking and collecting how the people who left this trash could be so inconsiderate, self-centered, and un-self-aware.
But then my feelings of anger and resentment were replaced with feelings of disappointment in myself for my racist feelings, because what I failed to mention above is that the trash I pick up each day is left almost exclusively by my Arab neighbors—either from Bir el Muksar or Kufr Manda, the Arab village across the street from Hannaton.
As I was finishing my walk I bumped into a friend coming in the opposite direction. I showed her my bag full of trash and expressed my dismay. I also expressed my feelings of guilt at directing my anger at my Arab neighbors. It is not like me to express such accusatory feelings directed towards a group of people. Nevertheless, it seemed clear to me that there was a cultural divide here at work. The unabashed way in which my neighbors leave their trash makes it undeniable that their attitude towards littering is different than mine.
My friend told me that this used to bother her as well, until she visited India, where the trash in the public sphere was even worse than what I find on my morning walks. She told me that she interprets the littering not as a lack of respect or regard for others or the Land, but as a different outlook on the aesthetics of the public sphere. Shop keepers in India will clean off their front stoops but leave the area around the stoop covered with trash. Non Western cultures tend to create a strong divide between public and private space, perhaps because they feel less control over the public sphere out of a more general feeling of powerlessness in their lives.
I carried these thoughts with me into Yom Hazikaron (Israel Memorial Day) one week after Yom Hashoah, and into the day after that, Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), a day which I have mixed feelings about celebrating as it is. When we first moved to Israel sixteen years ago from the U.S., hanging an Israeli flag outside of my house and from my car window gave me a thrill. I felt: This is what I moved to Israel for! I am living in a Jewish country at last! Yet, as my Zionism became more nuanced and complicated, I felt uncomfortable waving the flag in the faces of other citizens and residents who did not see this day as a reason to celebrate. I prefer to spend the day now in a quieter, more contemplative way.
Which is how I found myself this Yom Haatzmaut on a hike with my family in the Gilboa Mountain Range. However, as we climbed along well-marked trails and looked out at a breathtaking view of the Jezreel Valley, we stepped on candy wrappers, potato chip bags, soda cans, and baby wipes. It was impossible to ignore. Even my kids commented on how disgusting it was!
And so, the week after Yom Haatzmaut, I started to pay more attention to the littering situation on my own yishuv. The results were embarrassing. Not as shameful as the hiking trail at the Gilboa, but unbelievably I consistently found popsicle wrappers, dirty napkins and paper cups strewn about—often with a trash can within meters!
And so, it seems many types Israelis have this littering trait in common. What I thought was such a cultural divide may turn out to be a commonality after all. Does this mean that Jewish Israelis are just as non-Western minded when it comes to environmental consciousness as Arabs Israelis? I think not. There does seem to be a difference to me in the way the garbage is left.
It seems to me that most Jewish Israelis are aware that when they litter it is wrong, while most Arab Israelis don’t seem to realize littering is even a problem. So which is worse? The screw-you-I-will-throw-my-garbage-wherever-I-want-to-and-let-someone-else-pick-it-up-for-me-attitude that seems to be the case of many Jewish Israeli litterers, or the I-don’t-care-if-the-parks-and-fields-are-dirty-as-long-as-my-house-is-clean attitude that seems to be the case of so many Arab Israeli litterers? Probably the former is worse, since at least the latter leaves room for hope that with education their attitudes can change, while the former points to a deeper problem of entitlement and self-centeredness that is more difficult to change.
Either way, it seems Arab and Jewish Israelis alike know how to trash this tiny country. So, if one day we do manage to set aside our political differences and arguments over who was here first, who suffered more, and who started the fight in the first place, these two populations may find they have more similarities than differences and can enjoy together littering the very land over which they fought.
Until then, I will keep a low profile on Independence Day and continue to pick up other people’s trash each morning—not only on my walk in the valley between Hannaton and Bir el Muksar, but also on the path in my own yishuv as I walk my kids to gan.