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

Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949


From an environmental perspective, the Yishuv's intense agriculture changed the landscape. But was the change necessarily negative? From the perspective of conservation, the most outspoken champion of Zionist agri-cultural achievements was probably a Christian American—Walter Clay Lowdermilk. Arriving in the Middle East in 1938 as part of a United States Department of Agriculture fact-finding mission, Lowdermilk brought with him a remarkably advanced “ecological” perspective for the period. A world-renowned soil scientist, Lowdermilk was sent to assess what might be learned about conservation practices in ancient lands such as Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt. The picture he saw was bleak.

His impressions from Palestine, detailed in his widely read 236-page book, Palestine, Land of Promise, offer a radical contrast. Lowdermilk was as critical of erosive practices of local fellaheen as he was inspired by the stewardship of 550,000 Jews over 6 percent of Palestine's mandated lands.[118] His clearly documented record challenges ecological revisionist aspersions about pre-State Zionist farming:

Along with the records of decay in the Holy Land we found a thoroughgoing effort to restore the ancient fertility of the long-neglected soil. This effort is the most remarkable we have seen while studying land use in twenty-four countries. It is being made by Jewish settlers who fled to Palestine from the hatreds and persecutions of Europe. We were astonished to find about three hundred colonies defying great hardships and applying the principles of cooperation and soil conservation to the old Land of Israel. … Here in one corner of the vast Near East, thoroughgoing work is in progress to rebuild the fertility of land instead of condemning it by neglect to further destruction and decay.[119]

One can argue that Lowdermilk's account is a biased one. Indeed, he was so impressed by his fact-finding visit that in 1951 he agreed to return and give “a year of volunteer service to the young little nation.” This stretched on for many more years, and he went on to found the Faculty of Agricultural Engineering at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa.[120]

A less flattering view of the agriculture in the Yishuv is offered by Professor Said Assaf. He perceives traditional Palestinian farming as en-vironmentally superior, with its terracing; legume planting on shallow,

nitrogen-poor, hilly soils; and minimal irrigation. Indeed Assaf claims that the small proportion of cultivated lands in the West Bank under irrigation (still only 5 percent) remains a virtue. The region simply does not have the water resources to support the type of agriculture established by the European Zionists.[121]

Today there is considerable concern about agricultural pollution in Israel. Yet it is hard to draft a compelling ecological indictment of farmers during the pre-State period. Efforts were made to combat erosion,[122] syn-thetic pesticides were not utilized,[123] and fertilizers were limited to citrus orchards in a very limited area. Notwithstanding Zionist efforts, only a fraction of the replenishable water supply was utilized.[124] Reliance on ir-rigation in a semiarid region is hardly a compelling argument, given irri-gation's central role in growing much of the food required to feed the planet. Even in tropical areas like Florida, farmers are grateful for Israeli drip-irrigation technology that was born of this dependence.

Whether or not the intensive farming spawned by the Zionist enterprise was a desirable transformation for the land is a question that depends on one's philosophical and aesthetic point of view. Historically, however, there was nothing new about efforts to bring large, even mountainous areas under cultivation. According to one study, man-made terraces occupy a re-markable 56 percent of the mountains surrounding Jerusalem.[125] Finally, even today, Israel's environmental agencies and organizations tend to be extremely charitable toward the agricultural sector, despite the contribution of farms to groundwater contamination. This may be related to the very high percentage of former kibbutz members in leadership positions. Presumably they share a visceral identification with a bucolic landscape.

But even the most outspoken antiagricultural Green activists see farmers as a lesser evil than industrial polluters. The most-favored-sector status of the kibbutz and the moshav (semicollective farms) constrained the sprawl of many Israeli cities, forcing them to plan more efficiently. Farming has its own ecological problems, but it does not impose nearly the damage to wildlife habitats that cities do. Indeed, preserving the enormous percentage of Israeli land under cultivation from insatiable real-estate developers has become a top priority today for Israel's envi-ronmental movement.

Palestine's Environment, 1900–1949

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