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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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