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2. Reclaiming a Homeland

Zionism's Mixed Ecological Message


To the extent that “history is the polemics of the victor,” the environmen-tal history of Israel in this century can be told through Zionist eyes. During the twentieth century, the Jewish nationalist movement and the state it es-tablished dominated the activities that most influence landscape, natural re-sources, human health, and the many creatures of the land. In some areas, this influence was quite formidable even before the military results of 1948. Moreover, the cultural legacy of Zionism and the attitudes of its leaders may hold the key to comprehending future ecological outcomes. Therefore, it is crucial to understand Zionism in order to understand “why.”

Zionism has its spiritual origins in traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. Three times daily, prayers express the longing to return to the promised land. This yearning is particularly acute when the destruction of the Temples and the origins of exile are commemorated each year on the Ninth of Av. Seasonally based Jewish festivals, reflecting the weather of the ancestral homeland, often make little sense in European and American climates.

During the centuries of exile, the land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael, itself took on mythical dimensions. Jews around the globe, suffering endless cycles of persecution, relief, and again persecution, found comfort in visions that re-flected local aesthetics and bore little resemblance to the Middle East of the nineteenth century. The poet Micah Joseph Lebensohn offered a typically green idealization of the Holy Land:

Once in a leafy tree, there was my home.
Torn from a swaying branch friendless I roam.
Plucked from the joyous green that gave me birth,
What is my life to me and of what worth?[1]


When Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution to the Jewish Problem in 1896, he was only one of a long line of Jewish intellectuals advocating a political solution to the chronic problem of European anti-Semitism. Yet the disappointment left by false messiahs, the growing hope for assimilation in an enlightened Europe, and a general sense of impotence made previous calls to “return to Zion” during the 1800s seem like wistful fantasies. Herzl's book and his energetic follow-up, on the other hand, were a spark that lit latent Jewish aspirations, translating spiritual long-ings into concrete political action. A year later Herzl presided over the First Zionist Congress, where representatives from around the world adopted his program to “create a home for the Jewish people in Palestine.”[2]

Already the first wave of pioneering settlers, or aliyah, from Europe had arrived in Palestine. There would be five identifiable aliyot before World War II. The first immigrants brought with them little more than a fierce ideological commitment “to build and be built” (as the folk song went) in their ancient homeland. From the start, there were many schools of Zionist thought, and even Herzl could not squelch the incessant philo-sophical and political squabbling. But it was a diversity born more of pas-sion than of pettiness.

The majority of Zionists who moved to Palestine shared a visceral re-jection of the Jewish condition in the Diaspora: not just the chronic phys-ical vulnerability and political feebleness but also the pervasive mentality of alienation. After two thousand years of wandering among inhospitable hosts in dozens of nations around the earth, Zionism envisioned Jews once again putting down roots in a single land, the land of their forefathers. In today's rhetoric, the impulse was to reclaim their status as “indigenous people.”

The Labor Zionists, who arrived between 1904 and 1923 in the Second and Third Aliyot, sought to redefine Jewish identity from what they per-ceived as the rabbinic distortion it had been given in exile. This cohort's Labor Zionist perspective is particularly important. Although the Second and Third Aliyot comprised fewer than 10,000 people, their socialist view-point soon came to control key institutions of the Jewish settler population (the Yishuv), thereby dominating cultural and political life in Israel for the next seventy years. Many of these Jewish East Europeans identified with Tolstoy's idealization of peasants' connection to “Mother Russia” and with political leftists who saw in them the most promising revolutionaries.

Yet, the Zionists' revolution was not directed against their entire her-itage; the settlers actually sought to reclaim “the Land” by returning to “the Book.” The Bible held the key for many Zionist pioneers in their

search for a more authentically Jewish or Hebrew identity. David Ben-Gurion was representative of his generation when he wrote: “I believe that the inspiration of the Bible sustained us, returned us to the land, and cre-ated the state. … All of my humanitarian and Jewish values I drew from the Bible.”[3]

The land of Israel was the other inspiration for producing a renewed Jewish identity. Many settlers shared a biblical view that sees the land of Israel as imbued with human characteristics. It is not a neutral setting. The land enjoys the right to rest periodically and is a player in the drama be-tween the people of Israel and their God. Pastoral images from the Scriptures envisioning “every man under his fig tree” gave the land a role to play in the drama of spiritual redemption.[4] Zionists had come home to redeem her and be redeemed. The Zionist poet Saul Tchernichovsky's oft-quoted aphorism, “Man is an image of his homeland's landscape,” was more than a slogan. After kissing the holy ground upon arrival, immigrant pioneers set out to become acquainted with their motherland and thereby to discover their own identity. Here again, the Bible offered the ultimate road map in this spiritual journey. Among the more powerful rituals adopted by the early Zionist settlers were their hikes throughout the countryside, which they called “discovering the landscape through the Bible.”[5]

It is hard to say just how much the Bible actually influenced a Zionist eco-logical viewpoint. The ecological merits of the biblical perspective are dis-puted.[6] The Scriptures do mandate ecologically protective practices, such as prohibition of cruelty to animals and limits on the destruction of fruit trees during wartime.[7] But others seize on Adam's anthropocentric dominion over all the other creatures as the West's first slide down the slippery slope toward environmental oblivion. Indeed, the same Scriptures condone slavery, animal sacrifice, and execution of witches, all of which mercifully remained alien to the new Zionist culture. Ultimately, any actual ecological message of the Bible, and the Bible's influence over the ideology and policies of the Yishuv, were certainly colored by other contemporary philosophical trends, especially Romanticism.


Until recently, scholars did not systematically consider the early Zionist perspectives on environmental issues; the definitive study on the subject remains to be written. This left many Israelis with the impression that clas-sical Zionism constituted the “antithesis” to a sound ecological ideology.[8]


The enormous ideological variation within the Zionist tradition makes blanket categorizations impossible. Many point to the writings of Aaron David Gordon, the Romantic “prophet” of the leftist labor movement, to support the argument that early Zionism was in fact ecologically progres-sive. Gordon (1856–1922) came to Israel at the age of forty-eight. He quickly captured the imagination of the younger pioneers through his diligence and mystical belief that human liberation could only come through manual labor.

Today, Gordon might be typed a New Age eccentric: a vegetarian with a long flowing beard. He was essentially apolitical, maintaining that only immediate personal deeds could lead to individual salvation. For Gordon, working the soil assumed a cosmic significance, binding man not only to nature but to the great All. “It is clear that man-as-man always needs to be among nature,” he wrote. “For nature is, for a man who feels and knows, truly what water is for a fish. Not just something to look at. Man's very soul is in need of it.”[9] While considered a visionary, Gordon was by no means a marginal personality. By the time of his death, mainstream Zionist institutions hailed Gordon as a cross between the Baal Shem Tov (the legendary Hasidic rabbi) and Tolstoy.[10]

If Gordon was the prophet of the Romantic school in Zionism, “Rachel the Poet” (Rachel Blubstein) was the psalmist of the Second Aliyah. Her lyrical, frequently haunting poems of unrequited love and lonely land-scapes drew many metaphors from Lake Kinneret near her home. Chronically infirm and frail, she would die young of tuberculosis in 1931, but not before leaving a rich body of work—many paeans that expressed a generation's devotion to its new homeland. For example, these lyrics became popularized with a Naomi Shemer melody:

The Golan Heights are over there, stretch your hand and touch them.

They order you to halt with silent confidence…

There is a low palm tree on the lake's shore, its hair disheveled as a naughty baby…

Even if I lose my fortune, broken, lose my way, and my heart became a foreign beacon,

How could I forget, how I could I forget the kindness of my youth?[11]

Of course, the very heights to which they aspire make all Romantics vulnerable to a painful fall. Zionist Romantics are no exception. Tel Aviv University's Izhak Schnell finds a great ambivalence toward the natural world among the so-called Romantic settlers of the Second and Third Aliyot. Examining diary entries and letters, Schnell sees a pattern of initial

euphoria and subsequent disillusionment. In support of his view, he cites the diaries of pioneers like Rachel Yana'it Ben-Zvi, who was probably the most prominent feminist of her generation in the Yishuv: the first female member of the Jewish defense organization Ha-Shomer, a leftist political leader and essayist, a cofounder of the Gymnasia High School in Jerusalem, and the wife of Izhak Ben-Zvi, Israel's second president. Soon after arriving in the country at the turn of the century, she writes of the Judean desert: “What natural fortunes are these mountains concealing? I am mainly attracted to the spirit of the prophets that are hidden between their cliffs rather than to their beauty.” Then, days later she is seized by anxiety and despairs at the land's desolation.[12]

Other pioneers describe the relentless heat, the thorns, the stone-filled fields, and the sense of alienation caused by an unfamiliar and unfriendly climate and the increasingly hostile Palestinian Arabs. Yet, as in many re-lationships that become troubled, the original love prevailed.

The Romantic school had a natural ally in the National Religious Zionists of the period. Beginning with the mystical writings on national redemption of the Belgian Sephardic rabbi Judah Alkalai in the mid 1800s, these Orthodox calls for settlement actually preceded Herzl's. By design, they were a less politically powerful faction than other competing parties. Yet, the unswerving reverence for the land of Israel proved highly influ-ential in keeping the Zionist movement focused on Palestine as its geo-graphical destination. In their eyes, everything in the land truly was holy.

The central figure of religious Zionism during the first half of the cen-tury was Avraham Kook, the venerated chief rabbi of the Yishuv. A man of unique intellectual and spiritual faculties, his tolerance and indeed affec-tion for the nonbelieving agricultural pioneers set the tone for the National Religious communities in Israel for many years. Kook was com-fortable with the biblical mandate that granted dominion over the natural world. Kook explained that the intention was not the “dominion of a tyrant who deals harshly with his people and servants” but rather a do-minion comparable to that of God “whose mercy extends to all creation.”[13] For many of Kook's followers, vegetarianism was ideological. Innumerable anecdotes describe his deep compassion for a natural world that God had created and that man had no right to destroy.[14] Perhaps the most famous tale involves his sudden rebuke of a follower for thoughtlessly picking a wildflower, fifty years before the issue became a rallying cry for the incip-ient environmental movement in Israel. The rabbi explained: “You know the teaching of the Sages, that (there) is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force telling it ‘Grow’!

Every sprout and leaf says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner hidden message in the silence.”[15]

The political philosopher Avner De-Shalit feels that a Romantic per-spective such as Gordon's is more precisely defined as “ruralism.” Ruralism is a moral glorification of rural or country life and a rejection of urbanism, not only in the purely ecological sense (e.g., as a source of pol-lution), but also as an inferior moral condition or even a state of decadence. Only when the massive wave of refugees from Hitler's Europe created new economic pressures did Zionism deviate from this aggrandizement of country life. De-Shalit argues that there were three major ideological phases in Zionist history: the initial vision of romantic ruralism, replaced in the 1930s by a development ethos, and modern environmentalism, a synthesis of the previous two that has only recently begun to capture Israeli hearts and minds.[16] Progression through these three stages was in his view ineluctable.

Interestingly, most of the academics who analyze this subject are them-selves native-born Israelis (“Sabras”) and describe the pioneers' views with an appropriate sense of historical detachment. Yet the ambivalence and anxiety described by commentators like De-Shalit and Schnell are im-mediately recognizable to the immigrants to Israel who still constitute about 50 percent of Israel's population.

Eilon Schwartz emerged as one of Israel's profound figures in environ-mental education during the 1990s, after playing a leadership role in the American Zionist movement. Schwartz criticizes De-Shalit's dialectical perspective as simplistic. Zionism, he argues, has always been a mirror of general trends existing in the West. At the turn of the century, Europe was torn between a rationalist tradition and a Romantic one. This tension is firmly entrenched in Zionist theory. Zionism in its original form was an expression of Romanticism and its general veneration of the uncorrupted natural world. At the same time its practitioners were influenced by a ra-tionalist view with the implicit belief in the human ability to control (and improve upon) nature. This conflict existed not only between identifiable ideological camps but also within the complex psychologies of the individ-ual settlers.[17]

David Ben-Gurion is representative of the competing philosophical im-pulses among settlers during the early aliyot. On the one hand, because Palestine needed builders, as a teenager he wished to delay immigration until he could acquire an engineering degree. (His formal studies in Warsaw never materialized, either because of limitations on Jewish enroll-ment in Polish universities or possibly because of a romance that drew him

back to his native Plonsk.)[18] Yet, the would-be engineer wrote his father about the existential mysteries of plowing the land of Israel:“This soil that stands revealed in all its magic, and in the splendor of its hues, is it not it-self a dream?”[19] This dynamic tension was to continue throughout his po-litical career. During the 1960s, Ben-Gurion would deliver an impassioned speech in Israel's Knesset extolling nature and its preservation.[20] At the same time he personified a school of Zionism that embraced the Baconian model of science and human ascendancy.[21]

The Romantic tradition in early Zionism may have become a minority view in the operational decisions of the Yishuv. But, according to Schwartz, it wielded a special influence because it was the “heart and soul” of the movement from which the rationalistic camp drew its inspiration. Undoubtedly, the ruralist impulse remained very strong. Even though most Israelis were urban dwellers themselves, a 1949 public opinion poll indicated that almost all felt new immigrants should be directed to agri-cultural settlements. Half the respondents felt the immigrants should be forced to move there.[22]

Accordingly, the Romantic stream's passion for a harmonious relation-ship with the land remained consistent throughout the century and was relatively unaffected by the economic exigencies of any given period. The Society for Protection of Nature, which became Israel's largest member-ship organization in the 1950s, is an authentic expression of the Romantic tradition. Schwartz argues that the two competing paradigms continue to merge in individual psychologies. For instance, many of Israel's environ-mental scientists are fundamentally Romanticists whose love of nature in-spired them to pursue biological studies. At some point in academia they “bought into” the trappings of a more rationalist approach, but their hearts remained with the land.[23] Similarly, one can see Ben-Gurion and the secular Zionism he represented as advancing Romantic objectives through instrumental rationalism, in the same way that contemporary re-ligious fundamentalists enthusiastically utilize the latest technologies.[24]


Uri Marinov, who headed Israel's fledgling Environmental Protection Service and later its Environmental Ministry, is fond of telling a story about his father, who in his day was an influential Labor Zionist leader. Whenever they would pass by polluting factories and the younger Marinov would criticize the emissions, his father would respond: “It's good to see smoke coming out of the stacks. It's a sign that they're working.”


Those who had responsibility for the Zionist endeavor faced enormous pressures to find work for the hundreds of thousands (and eventually millions) of Jews who joined them in the task of creating a state. Just as the aspiration to return to the land was wrapped in ideological signifi-cance, so was the development of a modern industrial economy.[25]

Development per se need not be synonymous with environmental dev-astation. However, many argue that Zionist development has always been of the particularly aggressive, environmentally unsustainable variety. In both academic and casual discussions about Zionism and the environment, the texts of folk songs from the 1920s and 1930s are invariably invoked to authenticate a given perspective. None is cited more frequently than the homage to urbanization and construction penned by the Yishuv's most topical poet and commentator, Natan Alterman: “We shall build you, beloved country … and beautify you. … We shall cover you with a robe of concrete and cement.” Countless other poems, songs, essays, and plays from the period celebrate the heroic human domination of a recalcitrant land that must be subjugated.

Attempts to attribute this aggressive development ethos to the Mapai, or socialist wing of Zionism, ring false, despite its control of the Yishuv prior to the State. The economically ambitious, rational viewpoint was typical of an entire generation. Yitzhak Shamir, a lifelong right-wing, “re-visionist” Zionist, agreed about very little with his leftist contemporaries and rivals, but the environment lies outside the realm of their ideological controversy. As prime minister, Shamir oversaw the formation of a Ministry of the Environment, but in retrospect was decidedly unsenti-mental on the subject.“They talk about clean air and natural resources and that's all very important. But on the other side, there is development. I mean, why have we come here anyway? To bring the Jewish people here back to the land of Israel. To do this we need development. Ultimately, in the name of development, I am willing to sacrifice anything.”[26]

Avram Burg, the thoughtful speaker of Israel's Knesset, cites an innate aggressiveness in the Hebrew language when it refers to the relationship between man and land. For Burg, the words evoke a model of chauvinistic male domination over females. “Conquering the land,” the modern Hebrew rhetoric for settlement, is adopted by Israeli Don Juans when they speak of conquering a woman. An owner, or baal, of land has the same title as “husband,” which also means fornicate (one of the ways that a man can legally acquire a wife).[27] Others have noted that even the seemingly in-nocuous expression for geographical expertise, yediat ha-aretz, technically means “knowing the land,” which in turn connotes an act of sexual possession,

“knowing” a woman.[28] There are of course other ways to wield the Hebrew language on the subjects of land and nature. Some argue, for ex-ample, that the uniqueness of Gordon's alternative style and use of mater-nal metaphors represents something akin to an ecofeminist approach.[29]

In any case, most experts would agree that hairsplitting over the monolithic character of a very heterogeneous political movement is silly. They also would agree that there was a decline in the practical influence of the Romantic approach to nature in the period following World War I. The explanation may be more demographic than philosophical. The im-migrants arriving in the Fourth and Fifth Aliyot (1923–1939) were mer-cantile, professional, and decidedly more urban in their orientation than their predecessors.[30] Although much is made of Nazi Germany's contribu-tion to immigration, the 1924 anti-Semitic economic restrictions imposed by the Polish government a decade earlier led scores of bourgeois Jews to liquidate their assets and move on. With the United States already impos-ing immigration quotas, many immigrants brought their middle-class val-ues to the new settlements of the Middle East. Besides their money, they carried an appreciation for formal education, fine arts, and material comfort. The urban immigrants were also less enamored of bucolic landscapes and felt little need to discover their essence as human beings in a direct rela-tionship with the soil and the natural history of the Holy Land. However, one-dimensional caricatures are inappropriate. These refugees from Poland and Germany were not dispassionate about the wonders of the new coun-tryside, but they also found beauty among civilization's buildings.

“The old-time Revisionists were city people,” writes the novelist Amos Oz.

They didn't travel to the village. The smell of the manure, the fragrance of the hay was not to their noses' tastes. My grandfather lived in the land of Israel forty-five years and never was in the Galilee or went south to the Negev. … But the land of Israel he loved with all his soul, and he wrote love poems in her honor (in Russian). He loved it as it was revealed to him from his window. A piece of stone, mountain's edge, the sunsets of summertime, the light of a geranium in the courtyard, the lizard on the stone wall, and two or three birds whose names he never bothered to learn on the branch of a tree whose name he never learned.[31]


There is a rich sociological literature about the mixed emotional profile that pioneer immigrants have concerning their new surroundings: awe, alien-ation, inspiration, hostility, and, of course, anxiety.[32] The Zionist pioneers

shared many of these feelings. At the same time, theirs was a uniquely Jewish pioneering experience. The very word for immigrants in Hebrew—olim, or “they that have ascended”—suggests a privileged status.

For many first-generation Israelis, moving to the proverbial “home-land” is the culmination of a lifelong personal dream. For example, Adam Werbach, elected president of the largest U.S. environmental activist group, the Sierra Club, in 1996, is Jewish but never a particularly active Zionist. Yet when the organization decided to install an environmental hotline using 1–800-HOMELAND as a toll-free number, he felt peculiar, because his automatic association with the word was Israel.[33]

The very depth of the immigrants' aspiration created complex psycholog-ical dynamics. On the one hand, they had an intellectual sense of coming home to the well-known landscape of the Bible, the cradle of Jewish history. On the other hand, particularly for the European immigrants who made up the bulk of the Yishuv, little about the land was truly familiar. Coming to Israel therefore was more than simply learning to appreciate the sparseness in local flora, different species of animals, scorching summers, unfamiliar smells, and an entirely new aesthetic. It also involved a host of less glorified transitions: diarrhea from the unreliable food and water supply, disease-carrying insects, a peculiar diet, and, of course, a foreign language. Part and parcel of the “Promised Land” travel package were malaria, the threat of violence and theft from neighboring Arabs, and abject poverty. Hunger was also part of the aliyah experience. Many who had left behind their disap-proving families in acts of youthful rebellion also carried enormous anxiety about falling short of the self-righteously vaunted ideals they had preached.

For the majority, the disparity between the dream and the reality of daily life was too great. David Ben-Gurion, for example, estimated that 90 percent of the original Second Aliyah immigrants left Israel, unable to overcome the enormous challenges of adaptation.[34]

A nagging nostalgia often left even the ostensibly successful Olim un-certain: Was the decision to come to Israel final, or might it be more sen-sible to return to the lands of their birth, which constantly beckoned? One apocryphal story tells of a cabinet meeting opened by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who wryly asked his fellow ministers: “Nu, when can we finish the job here already so we can go back home to Russia?” Even the unshakable Ben-Gurion struggled occasionally with mixed emotions.[35]

For many, a key element of this nostalgia was the lush scenery of Eastern Europe. One way to overcome the sense of alienation and the resulting cog-nitive dissonance was to transform nature into a more hospitable, or at least more familiar, form. Cultural manifestations of settlers' desire to transform

local conditions are expressed in the fundamentally European styles of music, art, dance, theater, and literature of the Yishuv. Efforts to integrate local, Middle Eastern culture were only symbolic and peripheral. Physical expressions of this dynamic were just as common; it is not by chance that Tel Aviv bears more resemblance to Europe than to Jaffa or even West Jerusalem. The most insulting description that Meir Dizengoff could imag-ine for his beloved Tel Aviv was for it to be labeled a Levantine city.[36] The commitment to landscaping and lawns within the new kibbutzim, giving these communities a European “public garden” feel, was not coincidental. Richard Kaufman, a German Jewish architect with landscaping experience from Europe, was commissioned to design the new settlements.[37] Kaufman did not hesitate in applying his foreign perspective. Those who worked with him during the 1930s remember little more than lip service to the idea of integrating the land's natural layout into the designs of new settlements.[38]

The pre-State slogan for agricultural settlement, “Conquering the Wilderness,” implied combat, with Zionists battling on behalf of an imported vision of natural beauty. While the pioneers may have perceived themselves as liberating or returning the Holy Land to its former glory, they could not mistake the exogenous geographic origin of the eucalyptus trees and conifers they brought to the task. Moreover, although their burning desire to “know” Eretz Yisrael was sincere, not all immigrants had the tools, free time, or transportation to do so. It is not surprising, then, that the ecological perspectives appearing in the writing and discussions of first-generation settlers lack the authenticity that comes from specificity. Acquiring the biological, geological, and zoological intimacy of natives is no easy task. Many of the settlers were informed by what they had read, and the myths upon which they were nurtured abroad, rather than by the actual ecological reality of the land.[39] Perhaps the most telling critique of Romantic Zionist environmental views comes from zoologist Heinrich Mendelssohn. Now considered the father of ecological science in Israel, Mendelssohn arrived in Palestine in the 1930s, when Gordon's mythological status was at its apex,[40] yet he cannot suppress a condescending smile when Gordon's view of nature is mentioned: “Gordon was completely unrealistic, a total Romantic. He didn't know the first thing about the natural world.”[41]

Toward Indigenousness

It may have been their own sense of inadequacy, as well as old-fashioned patriotism, that made first-generation pioneers so committed to teaching their children about the land of Israel. The Hebrew word for “homeland,”

Muledet, literally means “birthplace” but connotes homeland, like the Russian Rodina, “Motherland.”[42] Indeed, comfort with the Middle Eastern environment influenced the ecological outlook of the Zionist second gener-ation, who were in fact born of the land. It is fascinating to read the im-pressions of the children of First Aliyah settlers and compare them with their contemporaries, European immigrants from the Second Aliyah.

“As a will, bequeathed for future generations, great is the work and the concern that man wrapped up his inheritance, the estate that he received from nature.” Thus one of the first Sabras, Avshalom Feinberg, described his impressions in 1914, while traveling in the north of Israel. “The en-tire way, the Druze and the Christians (especially the Druze) show the requisite virtues to be our teachers, teach us the practical art of loving our land (an art that exists with us, unfortunately, as only a theoretical sprout).”[43]

Familiarity with the land of Israel and its natural wonders was not col-ored by political affiliation; it was considered a virtue by Zionists from all backgrounds. Declared a compulsory topic in 1923 by the Yishuv's central committee, a series of Hebrew Muledet textbooks were printed in Hebrew in the 1920s and 1930s.[44] Teaching nature studies became a particularly prestigious area of instruction. Azariah Alon, one of Israel's most eminent conservation leaders for fifty years, ascribes much of his success in lobbying government ministers and politicians to his prestigious status as a teacher of nature at Kibbutz Beit ha-Shita in the Harod Valley.[45]

When Alon reflects on the origins of his own environmental con-sciousness, roaming freely as a child at Kibbutz Kfar Yehezkel in the 1920s, it almost conjures up a Rousseau-like state of nature.[46] Physical proxim-ity to nature was then supported by classroom theory and later supple-mented by extensive field trips, or tiyulim, at every stage.[47] This focus, particularly during the early grades, continues to this day, leading to the common Israeli phenomenon of immigrant parents learning not only Hebrew grammar but the names of plants, birds, and insects from their children when they return from kindergarten.

The initial meeting between children of the Yishuv and nature was broadened geographically and elevated to even greater prestige within the youth-movement culture that was such an essential part of the children's socialization experience. Even today, much of the appeal of Israeli youth movements for the hundreds of thousands of participating adolescents is the opportunity to leave the confining framework of the city and enjoy the freedom that nature imparts. With vacations spent backpacking or at work camps on kibbutzim, the idealization of nonurban natural living became a

key component of the psychological makeup of many adolescents. It helps explain the well-known Israeli obsession for hiking and international travel.

This mixing of natural and national impulses before the establishment of the State reached a peak in the training of the secret Haganah militia, es-pecially in the elite Palmach units, where field skills had particular utility.[48] The intense Romantic idealization of nature produced a culture that sociol-ogist Oz Almog defines as “pantheistic,” with reverence for nature serving as nothing less than a secular religion. These values are reflected in the eu-logies to the fallen fighters of the period, where sensitivity and competence about the natural world were the grounds for the highest praise. Almog quotes a number of these memorial books whose tributes are both moving and distinctively nonmilitaristic. “More than all of us, Moshe was a child of nature, in the deepest meaning of the word. Powerful senses that felt the soul of nature and its most subtle movements. Deep love and connection to plant, to bird, to stone, to the landscape, to the land.”[49] Immigrant pioneers did not honor their dead friends with such accolades.


When considering the course of Israel's environmental history, the intel-lectual is no less important than the physical profile. The Yishuv succeeded in leaving a distinct environmental ethic as an integral part of the Jewish national culture it reinvented.

It is sometimes argued that Israel's environmental problems stem from a failure of Zionism. According to this view, Israelis still carry with them a con-scious or subconscious alienation from public spaces which they inherited from the Diaspora. While in exile, the Jew felt unsafe when venturing out into the street or the forest, and thus the home became a fortress—clean, safe, and totally cut off from the natural world. The well-known phenomenon of Israeli apartment buildings, with their filthy corridors and stairwells but im-maculate personal dwellings, supposedly reflects this mentality.[50]

It is impossible to define a single Zionist environmental perspective that emerged from the first half of the twentieth century. Frightened alienation, however, hardly seems to characterize the thinking of the first Israelis at mid-century. Diverse and conflicting ways of thinking about the natural world frequently broke down along philosophical and generational lines. There was no shortage of inconsistencies, because cultures—like people—are best de-fined by their contradictions. The sundry intellectual traditions that colored Israeli and particularly Sabra environmental values may have marveled, em-braced, or attacked the land, but nobody hid from it.


The ideology of the young country was a peculiar amalgam of Tolstoyan agrarianism and sturdy faith in enlightened rationalism and technocracy—beliefs that had already largely vanished from Europe.[51] Steeped in such competing and simplistic paradigms, decision makers lacked both the theoretical tools and the sense of caution needed to under-stand and confront the environmental neglect whose consequences would soon come home to roost. At the same time, Zionist education and the Yishuv experience unquestionably produced a substantial group of Israelis with a unique indigenous sensitivity to their natural world.

Whether this ecological consciousness was pantheistic, Romantic, or dis-tinctively Jewish, the passion for intimacy with the land of Israel continues to influence much of Israel's population. It explains why the Society for the Protection of Nature quickly became the largest membership organization in the country. One hears this consciousness in folk songs. One sees it when looking for a vacant stretch of beach at Lake Kinneret, or for an empty trail during an Israeli holiday; everybody is out trying to get in touch with the land. Even when competing policy considerations such as security or job creation for immigrants trump environmental sentiments, the commit-ment to preserving the landscape of Israel remains a widely held ethos.

Israeli indigenousness is reflected in lay citizens' mastery of local flora, fauna, and geography alongside that of specialist scholars. Meir Shalev is a prize-winning Israeli author whose intense interactions with nature dur-ing his childhood are a constant theme in his work. Of the many honors bestowed on him, none thrilled him more than an award from the Israel Entomological Society, in recognition of the meticulous and fascinating descriptions of insect activity in his best-selling novel The Blue Mountain.[52] Shalev contends that, although he has visited many scenic lands around the world, he still continues to find the Mediterranean land-scape more compelling and personally moving than other, objectively more magnificent, ones.[53]

Meron Benvenisti, a noted politician/historian, echoes this sentiment: “This land is part of me and I am part of it. My American friends laugh when I tell them that the flowers and trees in Central Park seem fake to me.”[54] Benvenisti, a product of a sabra education, boasts that even as an amateur, he was so familiar with the land that in 1959 he dictated from memory complete hiking guides for a five-day walking trip from Beer Sheva to Masada and a seven-day walking trip to Eilat. Later he would be-come the leftist deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek. This po-litical experience undoubtedly influences Benvenisti's belief that there is a darker side to the traditional Zionist reverence for nature.[55] He argues

that, as with other Romantic movements, naturalism provides intellectual justification for chauvinistic attitudes in modern Israel:

Our sensitivity is to things. We are obsessed with the landscape. The Palestinian Arabs who dwell in it are viewed as part of its natural features—a kind of fauna: objects not subjects. Muledet textbooks are full of Romantic descriptions of the Arabs, their customs and folklore are always perceived as an integral part of the scenery, never as a legitimate entity in their own right. … (I)n the wake of the 1967 war, all this added momentum to the growing religiomessianic attachment to Eretz Yisrael.[56]

Benvenisti's perspective is interesting but counterintuitive. The Labor Zionist culture that produced this fascination for nature has been more conciliatory to Palestinian interests than to competing Zionist schools. Right-wing Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settlers in the West Bank may play on the tradition of Muledet, but its followers are primarily driven by an orthodox messianic zeal. For many Israelis, green interests are often (and not without some empirical justification[57]) equated with leftist ones. Moreover, commitment to nature is an area of cooperation be-tween Israelis and Arabs that offers a modest basis for reconciliation and meaningful cooperation. To the extent that objectification and chauvinism toward non-Jewish minorities exist, it is a rational, albeit regrettable, re-sponse to a century of mutual suspicions, conflict, and violence.

The Israeli ecological perspective shares little with the deep ecology philosophy that holds appeal for many environmentalists in Europe and North America. To begin with, Israelis have the physical constraints of liv-ing in very crowded conditions. Even the most venerated local environ-mental leaders perceive idyllic, “ecologically pure” lifestyles as unrealistic. “I don't recommend that anyone return to the stage before civilization,” warns Azariah Alon. “If anyone wants to, it's their problem. I think it will be very hard to do it in this country. And if there is room for ten people like this, the eleventh such person will have to ask himself, Where is there room for me?”[58] With the human imprint everywhere, “pristine” is in-variably a misnomer for Israeli landscapes.

Rather than eschewing technology, Israeli environmentalists for the most part welcome it. Technical resourcefulness holds the key to improv-ing environmental quality in such a crowded, high-consumption country. There is broad support for waste-to-energy incineration, desalination, high-speed rail, and extended tunnels to save scenic countryside from ugly highways. Thus, Israeli environmental ideology is also a product of the

rationalist side of Zionism. There is an unmistakable pragmatism that creeps into the Romantic views of most Israeli intellectuals associated with green causes. Amos Oz, Israel's most famous novelist, perhaps best cap-tures the paradoxical environmental ethos that Zionism ultimately pro-duced:

And now it is my turn for a terrible confession. I object to nature preservation. The very ideal of “preservation” is not acceptable in almost any area of life. We have not come into this world to protect or preserve any given thing, mitzvah, nature, or cultural heritage. … We have not inherited a museum, to patiently wipe off the dust from its displays or to polish the glass. … Nature also is not a museum. One is allowed to touch, allowed to move, to draw closer, to change, and to leave our stamp. … Touch the stone. Touch the animal. Touch your fellow man. On one condition. How to touch? … ‘on one leg,’ and in a word, I would say: ‘with love.’[59]

This love, shared by so many Israelis for their land, was the prime weapon that Israel's environmental movement would carry in the many trials ahead.

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