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Indefatigable as he was, Zahavi recognized from the outset that he could not do the job alone and needed soldiers in the field. The first group of SPNI em-ployees (alternatively called “rangers”[35] or “regional coordinators”[36]) filled a quasi-government role, preventing illegal hunting and working with plan-ning agencies to integrate ecological considerations. With no money, Zahavi could rely only on chutzpah to recruit workers. Still, by the late 1950s, the SPNI had personnel in the field in the Huleh, the western Galilee, Eilat, Ein Gedi, the Mediterranean coast, the Judean mountains, and Mount Meron.[37]

Unleashing this pack of brash, energetic idealists brought the message of conservation to the Israeli public. Over half of the country's citizens had recently immigrated and were therefore not well informed about the nat-ural processes in their new land. The SPNI created a cadre of young ac-tivists who would form the core of Israel's environmental movement.

The experience of Uriel Safriel, one of the first SPNI “employees,” was typical. Zahavi found the recently discharged soldier a collection of odd jobs, teaching nature in the schools, working as a porter in the Eilat port, and selling SPNI membership cards. Having patched together this motley array of salaries, Zahavi wished Safriel luck and sent him south.[38] Today Safriel heads Ben-Gurion University's prestigious Blaustein Institute for Desert Research. The eminent ecology professor cannot contain the twin-kle in his eye when he remembers the general cacophony surrounding the quixotic crew that set out to protect Israel's natural world. In a young country with relatively few entrenched interests, the young rangers in fact accomplished a great deal. Safriel was supposed to focus on enforcing hunting laws and protecting the coral reef in Eilat, receiving an official ap-pointment from the Ministry of Agriculture to this end. Like the other rangers, he was limited only by his own ingenuity:

Luckily I found a sympathetic Nahal group (military-farming corps) that was patrolling along the border at Yotvata. I'd just hop on the command car and join them for the patrols and then continue to use it as my vehicle for inspections. Later a group of Bedouin were trying to smuggle firearms across the border. The soldiers caught them in an ambush and shot all their camels. All but one, which they gave to me. So I would ride it, conducting inspections up and down the coast, giving out fines to anyone I caught removing corals from the sea.[39]

Safriel also managed to make underwater observations and post signs protecting the rare doum palm trees. Although he sees his effort to fill up watering troughs for gazelles as well meaning but silly, he maintains that other initiatives were important. After he conducted a survey of the Eilat

coastline, the city government accepted Safriel's recommendation for a re-serve. The municipality built a primitive fence around the lands that today are home to Eilat's only official marine and coastal nature reserve. Zahavi found the time to come down and check up on his young ranger three times during this period.[40] Otherwise, Safriel and his replacement, Uzi Paz, operated entirely on their own during the 1950s.

The designation of Eilat's corals as “fish” is one of the more famous sto-ries in the SPNI lore from the period; it offers a revealing insight about the level of collaboration between the organization and Israeli academia. Coral, of course, consists of a hardened secretion that provides an external skeleton for polyps—marine invertebrates and no fish at all. The problem was Israeli enthusiasm for the newly discovered exotic world of the Red Sea. People wanted to take the colorful corals home with them. When the SPNI looked for a regulatory angle to curtail the practice, all they could find was the old British fishing ordinance. The legal staff at the Ministry of Agriculture were suspicious, demanding a written affidavit from a zool-ogist that Eilat's coral were indeed fish. Zahavi approached Professor Shteinitz, a proper academic and German immigrant who ran Hebrew University's Biology Department. “You want me to sign that. You're in-sane,” protested the distinguished biologist. Amotz told him: “Well, you decide then. Either you sign, or the corals will be destroyed.”[41] Shteinitz signed, and the Ministry of Agriculture allowed regulation to begin.[42]

Even with Zahavi's ingenious manipulations, salaries for the growing staff imposed a heavy financial burden on the organization. It was during his early days as Secretary that the SPNI first came to rely on government funding to defray expenses. In 1956, at one of their weekly meetings, Zahavi told Alon that the organization was short four thousand lirot and was unable to pay the regional coordinators. The Minister of the Interior at the time was Israel Bar-Yehudah, a member of Kibbutz Yagur and from the same political faction as Azariah Alon. Alon took the matter up with his friend the Minister, and the money was passed on to the SPNI through the budgets of the Regional Councils funded by the Ministry of the Interior. (It was exactly for this sort of financial patronage that Minister of the Interior Ariyeh Deri was indicted in the 1990s, despite his claims that this was how Israeli politics had always worked.[43])

The same chronic financial woes pushed the SPNI beyond its original nature-protection mandate. As frequently happens, exigency soon became ideology. For instance, the organization entered the world of informal ed-ucation and for-profit tour guiding only as a way to raise money. Prior to this, organized hikes were associated with sports and physical fitness. In 1956 Eli Ronen, an SPNI worker, discovered a transport company that

could offer inexpensive weekend charters. The guided hikes around the country brought Israelis to little-known scenic areas and generated rev-enues for the Society.[44] The menu of SPNI trips soon included family op-tions and eventually international travel. Most important, the Society began to make nature preservation and appreciation the centerpiece of the hikes, supplementing the public-school curriculum. So many SPNI work-ers were eventually employed in this area that education and hiking were quickly seen as an end in themselves. According to a study conducted by Technion researchers, by 1974 only 0.6 percent of the SPNI budget went to environmental protection activities.[45] In one of the great ironies of its history, in 1997 the SPNI was divided by claims that the management had abandoned its original mission of education for nature and Zionism.

From the SPNI's first decade, there may be no institutional innovation more associated with it than the field school. “Patent” rights in fact belong to another long-time preservation advocate: Yossi Feldman. Having just finished working on an experimental farm that recreated ancient Nabatean agriculture at Shivta, the restless, twenty-eight-year-old Feldman arrived at the Ein Gedi kibbutz, facing the Dead Sea and above the scenic desert streams and waterfalls. The kibbutz had recently moved into its permanent housing. Feldman immediately set his sights on its original wooden struc-tures, now abandoned, to create an education and archaeology center for students.[46] He gained the rights to the complex and set about renovating. When Amotz Zahavi suggested a collaboration between Feldman's school and the SPNI in 1960, it seemed the natural thing to do. The partnership between the two men had been established earlier, when Zahavi brought a group of students to Ein Gedi to spend a couple of days clearing out a garbage dump from the entrance to the oasis at Nahal David.

Being close to the border, the field school had a strong military component as well as an archaeological focus. Yet the Ein Gedi facility pioneered some of the trademark field school activities, such as trail marking and hosting school groups. In the absence of any formal government presence, Feldman's outfit took over and set up the trails along the Nahal Arugot and Nahal David streams.[47] During the week-long Sukkot holiday of 1962, twenty-five thou-sand Israelis came out, taking advantage of the newly accessible oasis.[48]

Although the field school was ostensibly a marriage of convenience be-tween an ambitious nature organization and a like-minded entrepreneur, the union had a third partner—the Ministry of Education. The initial sup-port of ten thousand lira from the Ministry of Education for the Ein Gedi facility burgeoned when unexpected government sponsorship changed the scope of this and future field-school initiatives.


The field schools enabled SPNI to reach millions of Israeli schoolchild-ren over the years and present its nationalistic message of love and com-mitment to Israel's natural world and heritage. Yet they also blurred the Society's nongovernmental status. The very fact that in 1997, for the fourth time, Israel's State Comptroller audited SPNI activities and in par-ticular its field schools implies that they had crossed the line and at least legally become an accountable government agency. This is due to the ex-tent of the government subsidy for field schools, which amounted to roughly one-third of the SPNI's budget.[49]

Many of the guides of SPNI hikes and field schools became legends in their own right. Dr. Benny Shalmon, working out of the Eilat field school for close to thirty years, is one such figure. Holding a group spellbound for hours, he points out hidden features of the insects, rocks, plants, footprints, and droppings inside a hundred-meter radius of seemingly barren waste-land. Although his approach is decidedly secular, many people describe trips with him as a religious experience. Shalmon actually sees himself as a second-generation guide and remembers the thrill in the 1960s of finally being old enough to hike with SPNI's first full-time and most renowned guide, Shukah Ravek. Shukah, as he is known, is legendary for his en-durance and apparent invincibility, surviving any number of falls, broken bones, and rappelling disasters. “So he limps a little bit, but you still can't keep up with him. I'm telling you he's indestructible,” marvels Shalmon. Ravek has more than just remarkable stamina. He also has extensive knowledge about natural history. While hiking in Jordan, Shukah actually discovered a species of acacia that had not been identified since 1891.[50]

In 1968 the army began allowing women soldiers to work as guides at the SPNI field school at Sdeh Boqer; today over two hundred women soldiers serve as the SPNI's core educational staff at its schools. Although initially their professional training was haphazard, the present three-month course produces a competent cadre of young nature guides. “Ultimately, it's a very positive phenomenon,” enthuses Benny Shalmon. “First of all, we really get the crème de la crème of Israel's youth. Also, at a time when combat positions for females were unthinkable, it allowed the army to offer women something that was intellectually more challenging than folding parachutes.”[51]

From the 1960s, field schools provided intense educational experiences for Israel's youth and a training ground for a generation of environmen-tal leaders. Danny Rabinowitz's experience as a guide in the Sinai moun-tains field school in the 1970s after his army service was a typically life-changing experience. “It was a breathtaking place, 150 kilometers from the nearest asphalt. Once a week a jeep brought food from the supermarket in

Eilat. Just twenty young people, and all we had to do was some guiding and ecological surveys. There was a sense that we were privileged.”[52]

Field schools offered a compelling educational package, but the primary vehicle for delivering the SPNI message to the public was Azariah Alon, a one-man publicity machine. Paradoxically the founding partner who chose to stay on the farm became the household name.

Azariah Alon has been a member of Kibbutz Beit ha-Shita for sixty years. He always looks the part, showing up in shorts and sandals regard-less of the formality of the occasion. Stocky, with thick, muscular legs that attest to the thousands of kilometers hiked, he is literally a walking nature encyclopedia. He thinks he may be the country's sole university lecturer with only a high-school diploma. In short, if Zahavi was the Society's or-ganizational engine, Alon (see Figure 9) was its trumpet.[53] Thousands fol-lowed when he sounded the call.

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