Plastic Politics in the Holy Land

Plastic Politics in the Holy Land

Photograph by Eylul Aslan / Connected Archives



The controversial overuse of plastic and gripes over environmentalism tug at a little-known streak of tension between secular and religious Jews.

BEITAR ILLIT, the West Bank—After Friday Shabbat dinners in this ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlement and around much of the Haredi world, families fold up the plastic tablecloth—and the single-use plastic plates and cups upon it—and toss the whole bundle into the trash. 


Not so in Moshe Zinger’s home, a small flat in Beitar Illit, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank that most of the international community considers illegal. 


Rather than wearing tzitzit—traditional knotted tassels—Zinger dons binoculars around his neck. An avid birdwatcher, he first grew curious about nature when he opened up an encyclopedia, the only book his family had in the house. His family of five doesn’t use plastic. After dinner, they wash their plates and tableware by hand. 


“God is not your garbage man,” Zinger boldly declares. 


It is not a message that resonates among the wider Haredi community. With large families averaging more than six children, disposable plastics are all the rage here. 


Not only do they lessen the burden on women, who tend to work while their husbands study sacred texts, but they also help them abide by strict kosher customs. Such convenience, however, comes at a price. 

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man is partially shown standing behind a rack of plastic containers.

Israel is one of the world’s biggest consumers of disposable plastic utensils. Per capita, the nation’s consumption is five times that of Europe, according to a report from the country’s Ministry of the Environment in 2021. Households use 70 to 75% of all single-use plastic utensils in Israel, compared to 38% in Europe, where the bulk gets used by the restaurants, catering, and other businesses. And attempts to address the issue, such as a tax on single-use plastics in 2021, were met with opposition. The tax was quickly scrapped in January, one of the first moves made by newly appointed finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich. 


Though successful in reducing consumption, decreasing sales by 40%, the tax drew opprobrium from the Haredim who saw it as a political reprisal from Smotrich’s secular-leaning predecessor. “It became a symbol of seculars overreaching religion,” explains Pnina Pfeuffer, an ultra-Orthodox woman and head of the New Haredim organization, a nonprofit promoting progressive ideals in the ultra-Orthodox community. “The Haredim felt slighted,” she said. 


Now certain members of the community, including Zinger, are leveraging faith to increase environmental awareness, demonstrating that the two are compatible. 


There are undoubtedly bigger issues afoot in Beitar Illit. It is a settlement of over 60,000 in occupied territories captured by Israel in 1967. Most of the international community considers this and other Israeli settlements on Palestinian land to be illegal. Beitar Illit, one of Israel’s largest and most rapidly growing settlements, is almost exclusively ultra-Orthodox. There are myriad glaring environmental disasters and human rights violations caused by the settlement, such as the flow of its untreated sewage downhill toward Palestinian-owned farmland. But here, the finer points of Jewish law easily take precedence over issues like Palestinian rights or environmentalism.

A Family Favorite

The Haredi community has one of the highest fertility rates in the world, averaging 6.5 children per woman— three times that of non-ultra-Orthodox women in Israel. Because shared meals are a central part of their culture, dishes quickly pile up. On a regular week, there are three communal meals for Shabbat, the day of rest. Other weeks may require even more festive meal prep if they fall on holidays, which are numerous in the Jewish calendar. 


Women are certainly not complaining about plastics in a community that bears so much of its weight on them. As most men focus their lives on religious study and do not work, women are often the sole breadwinners and caretakers of the children and home. “I don’t have a maid. I don’t want to be the maid,” said Pfeuffer. Disposables help ease her workload. 


Reducing the chore load is especially important on Shabbat. “It is more important to give a peaceful Shabbat than have her in the kitchen,” said a woman in Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox community in East Jerusalem.


Dishwashers aren’t the saving grace they have been elsewhere. For many, dishwashers are too expensive and too bulky to fit inside small houses. 44% of the Haredi community lives in poverty—double that of Israel’s general population. Zinger also points out that certain flats in his neighborhood have been split in half to create space for growing families. To make matters worse, to abide by kosher practices, families would need two dishwashers instead of one.

Three ultra-Orthodox Jewish men shop for plastic products in a narrow aisle of the grocery store.
A shopping cart with a purse and other products is parked in the plastic aisle of a grocery store.

Keeping the Faith

Duplicate appliances and cutlery help the Haredi separate dairy and meat as required by kosher practices. Using disposables ensures there is no cross contamination. And that’s far from the only religious roadblock.


On Passover, a seven-day Jewish holiday, consuming chametz—leavened grain—is forbidden. Observant Jews undergo extensive cleaning to remove any chametz from the home. Here too, the plastic is practical, used to cover the counters. And it is far easier than another alternative: pouring boiling water over them. 


Furthermore, washing dishes—nuisance aside—is prohibited during the 25 hours of Shabbat, and for those who can afford it, so is running a dishwasher because it uses electricity. Miriam Ezagui, a Brooklyn-based nurse and TikTok creator from the ultra-Orthodox community, has found a way to get more use out of her “meat” dishwasher. In a popular video, she shows how she has repurposed it entirely as a snack cupboard for her children. Where one might expect to find dirty plates, Ezagui stores bags of chips and shelled pistachios. 


Zinger views reconciliation between environmentalism and religion as part of a larger challenge in raising environmental awareness. Sarah, a Haredi woman in Mea Shearim who requested to be referenced only by her first name, said she has noticed more children lugging bags filled with plastic soda bottles to the recycling bank––but the incentive is money, not the environment. Returning a used bottle pays 0.30 Israeli shekel, and she noted that this motive takes precedence for the poor community.

Here, the finer points of Jewish law easily take precedence over issues like Palestinian rights or environmentalism.

Green alternatives, namely compostables, face similar branding roadblocks. “There are people among the ultra-Orthodox community who use them but only because aesthetically they’re nice and also more resistant to hot food,” said Zinger. Beyond that, they are often an unaffordable splurge—costing up to four times more than regular disposables.


According to Pfeuffer, placing the burden on this community is counterproductive. “How they’ve encountered the idea of environment is something that is there to impede them,” she said, referring to the general sentiment of being looked down upon by Israel’s secular society, with such issues as recycling perceived as weaponized rhetoric against them. 


While there is a lack of awareness, in many ways the Haredim inadvertently maintain a sustainable lifestyle. Their use of technology is very limited (flip phones are still in high demand), and they do not use electricity on Shabbat. They live in dense housing, and most do not own a car, let alone drive. Hand-me-downs are common within families. “People have an appreciation for things that are a little bit less Western,” said Pfeuffer. 

The plastics section of a grocery store displays plates, utensils, cups, and other materials.

What Does God Say?

“For at least 2,000 years Jews didn’t have disposable plates. And we were very kosher, and it was no problem,” said Alon Tal, a former parliament member of the Knesset who voted for the introduction of the plastic tax in 2021. In his view, the Haredi community’s negative reaction to the tax “is a sad reflection” of their “alienation.” For Tal, plastics are not a religious issue, but a political one. “And I consider myself to be a very traditional Jew,” he added.


The community’s isolation might perpetuate the belief that the environment is the least of their concerns. Unlike other Israeli citizens, they rarely enlist in the army, and half of the men are not part of the workforce. Their children go to special religious schools where they are not taught science or math, let alone issues about the environment. Tal believes a better way to implement this tax would have been to approach rabbis in the community and explain the reason behind it to have their buy-in. 


People like Zinger are taking up the baton. 


To him, caring about the environment comes naturally. Convincing his brethren of the same might be more difficult, but not impossible, he says. 


His family, men included, have certainly adjusted to washing dishes. “It’s the rule at home and the truth is that everyone is quite used to it.” he said. The fact that each person cleans up their own mess means his mother is not unduly burdened, and though the men in his family do work, Zinger does not see how “a task that takes maybe five minutes can interfere with Torah studies” for the extremely devout.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man faces away from the camera, toward the plastics section of the grocery store, picking up one of the products and observing it.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man pushes his shopping cart through the plastics aisle of the grocery store.

Nevertheless, he has a way of reaching the pious, too. In Zinger’s religious study, he mainly uses the midrash, an early commentary text on the Hebrew Bible, meant to intensify the deeper meaning of the Torah. He enjoys referring to the story of Noah’s Ark, for example, to emphasize that God wants people to care for animals and nature. “They bring to me the Torah. I bring to them the Torah,” he said, laughing.  


What is a bit harder to challenge is the ultra-Orthodox belief that the world will end soon, in some 250 years. “After 6,000 years the world will be destroyed so why do I have to care about it?” said Zinger, repeating the type of discourse he hears in his community. 


Israel’s National Economic Council predicts that the ultra-Orthodox community will grow from 13% to a quarter by 2050. Zinger can see this in his expanding settlement. From the roof of the apartment block, he points to an area about 1.5 km away where piles of dirt riddle the landscape. “They have to take care of nature,” said Zinger, “they have a lot of impact.”


Already, Zinger’s expanding settlement completely encircles the bulldozerless farmland of a Palestinian who (as of yet, Zinger notes) refuses to sell. Further out in the distance lies Wadi Foquin, a Palestinian village that has long attempted to bring attention to its own pollution problem: untreated wastewater flowing from Beitar Illit onto its farmlands. In the West Bank, nature is not the only thing being encroached upon.  

An ultra-Orthodox man chats on the phone while walking through a Jewish neighborhood with plastic vendors around him.

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