Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.

Reclaiming a Homeland


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.

Reclaiming a Homeland

Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.