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The Emergence of an Israeli Environmental Movement
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Conventional wisdom holds that the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel came as a response of activists to the JNF draining of the Huleh lake and wetlands during the 1950s. This is true but only indirectly. The Huleh campaign actually preceded the Society, but it had a significant role in shaping the perspective of the SPNI's founders. In fact the organiza-tional genesis is the result of one of the most successful and durable part-nerships in Israeli history: the team of Azariah Alon and Amotz Zahavi.

The two met after the War of Independence in the circle of devoted stu-dents who were associated with the Biological Institute in Tel Aviv. Zahavi (seeFigure 8) worked as a bird guide at the affiliated Kibbutz Seminar Center, where Alon was studying. The attraction was less than obvious: Alon immigrated to Israel at age six, whereas Zahavi was a Sabra. Alon, al-ready over thirty when they met, was a respected nature teacher from Kibbutz Beit ha-Shita. Zahavi, a city boy from Petah Tikva and aspiring graduate student in the sciences, was ten years younger. Alon was a gifted public speaker and a prolific writer. Zahavi was more technical and entre-preneurial. Despite their differences they shared a passion for Israel's nat-ural world and a no-nonsense work ethic. Over the years their combined efforts would produce synergetic results.

Zahavi claims that starting the organization was Alon's idea. Alon counters that their ideas coalesced when the two shared a tent as part of a 1950 delegation that explored possible routes for a new road through the Negev.[9] Although there is a consensus that it was the young upstart Zahavi (rather than Alon) who actually got the ball rolling, they shared a mentor. “Amotz Zahavi is the father of the SPNI—but that makes Professor Mendelssohn the grandfather,”[10] concludes Uzi Paz, often con-sidered the unofficial historian of nature protection in Israel. Fascinated by birds, Zahavi idolized Professor Heinrich Mendelssohn, who was the lead-ing figure at Margolin's Biological Institute. After the War of Independence he began work as Professor Mendelssohn's research assistant.[11]

The outbreak of World War II and financial constraints had for twenty years delayed the JNF's ambitious settlement plans for the northern Galilee.[12] As its first major land reclamation project after Israel's

independence, the JNF announced its intention to drain what it called the “Huleh Swamp” to make way for the agricultural cultivation of one hun-dred thousand dunams. To the JNF, the Huleh region in the northern Galilee was the epitome of forsaken land crying out for reclamation. Insects and dis-ease had kept it nonproductive except for modest papyrus harvesting and some fishing. It was, however, an ecological treasure chest.[13] The valley held the greatest concentration of aquatic plants in the entire Near East, eighteen species of fish, and so rich a collection of migratory birds that, on one October day, fifty different species were sighted in a single place.[14]

Mendelssohn was already intimately familiar with the wetlands, having received the prestigious Bialik Prize for his ornithological research at the Huleh. In 1950 he sent his young aid Zahavi to continue surveying the bird population there. Accepting this project meant that he would have to delay his return to his university studies, which had been truncated by the War. Zahavi was concerned about the interruption but ultimately figured, “To hell with school. Soon there won't be any birds left to see.”[15] With the help of a kibbutz fishing dinghy, Zahavi and his local volunteers overcame the ubiquitous leeches in the water to generate considerable new data.[16](This impulsive decision to choose public interest science over the better-trod academic route would repeat itself during Zahavi's career and was one of the keys to the SPNI's success.)

Since his arrival in Palestine in the 1930s, Professor Mendelssohn had been unwilling to limit his zoological activities to research.[17] He was par-ticularly outspoken on the issue of the Huleh reclamation, calling it a dis-aster for biodiversity.[18] Mendelssohn's was not the only skeptical voice in the scientific community.[19] In 1951 he formed a Nature Protection Committee of concerned scientists affiliated with the National Botanical and Zoological Societies. The Committee's work culminated in a 1953 pro-posal calling for the creation of “reservatim” in areas of the Huleh, the Carmel forests, and the Galilee.

The Committee was not just an academic advisory forum. Its members dug into their own pockets to fund Israel's first environmental media trip, a two-day guided visit for the press to the Upper Galilee to foster public awareness.[20] There was a strong case against draining the Huleh. The orig-inal rationale for the project was in fact no longer very compelling:

  • Malaria was now under control because of the introduction of DDT.

  • The additional reclaimed agricultural lands had little meaning for a country that was so sparsely populated.

  • Alternative lands could be developed at a much cheaper price.[21]


With newspaper coverage and Mendelssohn's lobbying efforts, a reluc-tant Yosef Weitz at the JNF listened to their case. In 1951 he set up a spe-cial committee to consider the appeal. Simcha Blass, head of the Ministry of Agriculture Water Department, chaired the JNF committee. They heard all the experts, including twenty-three-year-old Amotz Zahavi's call for a four-thousand-dunam reserve—eight times the land his former teachers were requesting. For the JNF of the 1950s, the value of eradicating “swamps” was axiomatic. Thus it is hardly surprising that environmentalists lost this round.[22] By 1958 the complex of wetlands and lake was entirely drained. In the most massive reclamation project in Israel's history, the southern di-vider between the lake and the Kinneret was literally blown away. Local residents were stunned by the dramatically altered landscape.

Five years later, the SPNI's unstinting efforts pushed the JNF to stick to its promise to reflood 3100 dunams (apparently based on Zahavi's de-mands).[23] It is unclear whether Weitz was joking when he told Professor Mendelssohn that his motives for reflooding primarily were “to allow fu-ture generations to see how miserable conditions used to be here.” Other signs suggest that his perspective may actually have changed. Publicly, at least, he was not happy with the decision. “Do you know how many fam-ilies could make a living on the lands I'm giving you?” he roared.[24]

In either case, the Huleh reserve declaration in 1964 was an empty vic-tory. In theory, the cumulative years of protest produced the country's first case of land designation for nature protection, but unfortunately the re-serve bore little resemblance to the original wetlands. Under JNF manage-ment it got neither the water nor the infrastructure it needed. Only in the mid-1960s, when the Nature Reserve Authority took over its administra-tion, did the 3100-dunam swamp begin to show signs of rehabilitation. Even though the ad hoc Huleh campaign was not immediately successful, it did serve to galvanize a core of Green activists and set the stage for the establishment of the Society for the Protection of Nature.

Zahavi and Alon did not start organizing from scratch. As Professor Mendelssohn's research assistant, Zahavi was encouraged to launch SPNI through the Joint Committee for Nature Protection, which was under the Zoological and Botanical Societies. After its first taste of action with the Huleh initiative, the Committee was ready for more. Despite his age and junior status as a graduate student, Zahavi was comfortable taking on the role of group organizer.[25]

In fact it took another ten months, until December 1953, to register the group formally as a nonprofit organization (or “Ottoman Association,” as it was called under the old Turkish law still on the books). The group was

restless, frustrated by its lack of influence and a sense of stagnation. When Zahavi raised funds for a half-time “secretary,” Alon pushed the organiza-tion to go public.[26] In June 1954, during the Shavuot holidays, the “Society for the Protection of Nature” held its founding conference at the Oranim Kibbutz Seminar Center near Haifa. Typically Alon and Zahavi have dif-ferent attendance estimates (70[27] versus 150[28]). They agree that it was a huge success. The crowd, composed predominantly of kibbutz members and teachers, left with a sense that they had witnessed a momentous be-ginning. In short, six years after Israel's establishment, it was quite clear that the State's priorities were not always consistent with those of nature. This new organization would put environmental interests first and try to teach the people and their leaders why they should too.

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