Let’s not care about rules or pollution. It’s kind of catching.
By Roy Arad

The Bat Galim beach in Haifa, which has been closed to swimmers for eight days, stands next to the barb-wired backside of an army base. Across the way, housing projects bake slowly in the sun. Three years ago, I came here on a date, and it seemed to be one of Israel’s most forlorn beaches. Even the sand is grayer – and harder.

Extremely beautiful children nimbly clamber over rusted playground equipment to stand on the roofs of shacks. An elderly woman wearing a hat with an old bank logo crunches pieces of snack crackers on the sidewalk underfoot. I try to talk with vacationers. The first three don’t understand what I want. They speak only Russian or Arabic. Signs written only in Hebrew warn them not to enter the water because it’s polluted. Despite the black flags and the life guard’s feeble cries, many heads bob up and down in the dirty water.
Gordon Beach – Nir Kafri – July 2011

Fun in the sun at Tel Aviv’s polluted Gordon Beach.
Photo by: Nir Kafri

A child named Harry crouches in the sea. He gargles the water and spits it out joyfully. Has he heard about the pollution, I ask. He says: “I think it’s okay. My grandma goes in the water.”

The lifeguard sits next to a pile of pumpkin seeds. I attempt to find out why people are swimming. “You know how Israelis are; they also go through red lights.”

An agreeable inspector passes by the swimming children. I ask why he doesn’t do anything. “I’m in the inspection line, not a lifeguard. I’m not allowed to get involved with the water.”

And if something happens in the water?

“The beach is my territory.”

Are you frustrated by the pollution?

“It’s good for me, because now it’s not boring.”

The only person on the beach whose mother tongue is Hebrew is Shlomo Ben Aish, a retiree who works as a guard. Pollution or no pollution, he swims every day, getting into the sea at 4 A.M. Every Friday, he and his friends convene a senate meeting on the beach. (For some reason, he objects to the term “parliament. ) He provides several conspiracy theories: “Perhaps the beach is polluted on purpose? What, did they poison it? They want to frighten the public. I don’t believe any of these bastards. I swam this morning. The salt destroys all the bacteria. Don’t worry – the water here is clean.”

A group of splendid young women, tourists from Moscow in fashionable swimsuits, stands out on the neglected beach. Galiana wears green eye make-up and pearl earrings. She asks to be photographed and poses (“I love to be photographed. I’m a model.” ) She doesn’t understand how she could have come to Israel and found herself on such a beach.

Katia, with decorated fingernails, is between high school and army service, and works at the kiosk on the beach. She is arguing with an elderly woman who wants a discount on orange juice because she isn’t so thirsty and will drink only half a cup. Katia says that her work week has also been halved. “I’m bored. Time goes so slowly. There are no people here at all.” Although all the orange tables are empty, except for one drowsy man, the sun begins to go down, and Katia sets out blue tables that no one will fill.

“Sometimes it’s jelly fish, another time sewage; soon they’ll be corpses,” another woman complains.

The Gordon beach in Tel Aviv has been closed several times this summer. I visit on the third day of one of the closures. There, too, people thumb their noses. The sea is full of swimmers. A surfing teacher tells me, “They’re just messing with our minds. It’s a lot of crap.” He brings some sea water up to his nose and says, “Smell.”

Tal Limor, 28, a yoga teacher looking for work, asks me if the newspaper needs photographers. She slashes open a mango, complains that it doesn’t taste good and offers me some. She has also been swimming despite the ban. “Maybe I’ll die of poisoning in a day or two,” she jokes. “Only in the State of Israel does a lifeguard shout that the water is polluted and swimming is forbidden, and a second later, an entire summer camp of children enters the water. And then who’s talking about pollution? The poor lifeguard knows that no one ever listens to him anyway. We really are a third world country.”

But you swam, too.

“I’m also an idiot. But the summer camp? It should be under more supervision.”

Tsfrir Gidron, coordinator of beaches for Zalul, a nonprofit environmental association, says this summer kicked off very poorly in terms of pollution. “There is an old [sewer] channel at the Gordon beach, which always leaks. The Health Ministry transferred the drainage out to sea but it didn’t help. Putting the opening farther away is not a solution. The municipality isn’t sufficiently on guard.”

It’s lucky there are jelly fish, I say.

“The jelly fish will go away. Pollution remains.”

One of the great warriors against beach closings is Uri Stark, once a nightlife tycoon and today owner of the Lalaland restaurant. Like the sea, the restaurant is filled with tourists. But Stark is angry: “Because of schlemiels and low-level politics, children, the residents of Tel Aviv and tourists suffer. It does terrific damage.”

Most of the swimmers enter the water in the area farther from the lifeguard station and closer to the attractions, the section sometimes known as Thong beach. Paradoxically, pollution is greater there. A canny inspector explains: “All the dirt concentrates there. But note that there are no signs there saying swimming is forbidden, while next to the lifeguard there is a sign.”

Why aren’t there any signs?

“I don’t know.”

I ask the lifeguard why he doesn’t make the swimmers leave the water.

“It’s their responsibility. I can’t put up barbed wire.”

The whole story is depressing. Because it’s so easy to pollute the water and, in the end, no one is found responsible or gets punished. Also depressing is the general lack of obedience. Perhaps this general disobedience is the best thing about this story. It’s hot. I enter the clean beach nearby, Frishman, in my underpants. The situation seems so Israeli. Unlike the crowded beach where it’s forbidden to swim, the beach where you can swim is empty. The restaurant there hardly has customers. The waves are pleasant. And then I feel it on my back – a jellyfish.