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

The Forest's Many Shades of Green


Menahem Ussishkin's lukewarm commitment to trees was typical of early Zionist leaders. Herzl, having witnessed “the barrenness of the land” in 1900 during his only visit to Palestine, seemed to support anything that

offered some shade. In his diary he called for the planting of ten million trees in Palestine.[36] Yet given the many emergencies facing the Zionist movement, initiatives in this area remained symbolic. An interesting Herzlian anecdote foreshadowed future controversies surrounding Zionist forestry. During this visit Herzl participated in a tree-planting ceremony outside of Jerusalem. After his death, the cypress tree he planted was mys-teriously uprooted, allegedly by anti-Zionist orthodox Jews who found his secular viewpoint blasphemous. But the Zionists got the last word, plant-ing another two hundred saplings on the site with much fanfare.[37]

The forests envisioned by the European Zionists were decidedly European in nature. Herzl embraced forests as a Zionist issue only after discussions with Otto Warburg, a professor of botany and an expert in African and Asian flora. (Warburg was also a politician who ultimately be-came the third president of the Zionist Organization.) Warburg confirmed that planting trees would improve the country's climate and economy, and he recommended a decidedly non-Middle Eastern planting mix of African, Asian, and Australian fruit trees.[38]

The impulse to plant trees went beyond pragmatic and political consid-erations of preventing erosion and asserting Jewish ownership. There was a deeper psychological component to the JNF vision of land redemption. The Jewish immigrants saw the treeless land as more than ugly; they saw it as abandoned and awaiting a redeemer. Trees not only transformed the landscape into something more familiar and hospitable—the woods also evoked the freedom of the European settlers' youth. They were a source of spiritual renewal, a validating biological symbol of their hopes for a Jewish and Hebrew cultural renaissance.

Although forestry held a respectable place in the JNF's general ideol-ogy, it made for better rhetoric than policy. In terms of budget and orga-nizational energy, it remained a low policy priority. For example, soon after he was elected chairman in 1922, Ussishkin presented to the JNF an organizational strategy that barely mentioned forestry. Trees were consid-ered by Ussishkin to be primarily sentimental, at best an exigency re-quired because under the old Turkish law the JNF had to demonstrate pos-session of purchased land if it were to maintain ownership. Ussishkin's strategic plan for the JNF cited forestry only in passing, as a tool for gar-nering small donations from communities that wanted to name forests after themselves.[39] By 1948 trees covered only about twelve thousand dunams, or 1 percent of all JNF lands.[40]

Perhaps the strongest proof that forestry was not a serious part of the original JNF mission was the establishment of a separate “Olive Tree

Donations” fund in 1903 by the Sixth Zionist Congress. Donors could pur-chase a tree for six deutsche marks. For Otto Warburg, who spearheaded the initiative, both their longevity and the economic potential made olive trees the natural choice. Soon this fund was merged with the JNF, but it would take a full decade for the JNF to launch an afforestation project. Herzl's death in 1904, at the age of forty-four, provided the impetus (and fund-raising opportunity) for the JNF's first memorial forest east of Jaffa. The project was a dreadful failure, however.[41] Ravaged by the violence and anarchy of World War I, the wooded area had dropped from 1400 to 173 dunams, with only some fourteen thousand trees left standing.[42]

In fact, some afforestation efforts in the Yishuv that preceded the es-tablishment of the JNF were highly successful. For example, Jamal Pasha, Ottoman commander of the Jaffa region and later of the entire colony, was hardly a friend of Jewish settlement, yet he had a begrudging respect for their afforestation achievements. After visiting Rishon L'Tzion in the early 1900s, he was so impressed by the ability of groves planted there to con-tain the Mediterranean sand dunes that he granted the settlers rights to continue their efforts until they reached the sea. This decision infuriated the local Arab populations, who frequently responded by uprooting the plantings even though their own lands stood to benefit from the soil con-servation efforts.[43]

The eucalyptus emerged as the Yishuv's tree of choice during this pe-riod. Prior to 1920, some 78 percent of all JNF trees were eucalyptus.[44] The first eucalyptus seeds were sent to Palestine in the 1880s from Australia. Several characteristics soon led to their popularity. First, they are fast-growing trees. In six years they can grow twenty meters tall with a one-meter trunk radius. In 1939, fifty-five years after they were first planted, the first eucalyptus trees at the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school were close to fifty meters in height. Second, eucalyptus was seen as the most ef-fective biological assistant in overall swamp-reclamation efforts. Their thirsty root system enables eucalyptus trees to flourish in wetlands, and they have been used around the world to dry swamps.[45]

In 1900 eucalyptus trees were first introduced on a large scale by Baron Edmond de Rothschild's development agency, PICA, as a swamp-draining measure in Hadera. No forestry work was more thankless.[46] The business of planting eucalyptus was so nasty that one of Rothschild's agents decided to compensate the foresters by giving them each a bottle of cognac per day as a perk. Morale quickly improved, and although workers began to arrive at work completely drunk, this did not seem to affect the productivity of their labor.[47]


Soon the eucalyptus spread out far beyond the original towns of Petah Tikva and Zichron Yaakov. The tree was usually planted in the springtime in communities and settlements throughout the Yishuv. So common was the tree that Arabs began to call it shajarat al-Yahud, or “the Jews' tree.” The greatest enthusiasts harbored illusions of the eucalyptus providing the basis for a local lumber industry; a crate factory even sprang up briefly in Jaffa that relied solely on eucalyptus wood.[48] It was only logical that the JNF would continue this trend when it assumed the role as chief forester of the Yishuv. During the 1920s, however, the tree fell out of favor. Between 1920 and 1925, 53 percent of all JNF trees planted were eucalyp-tus. A year later the rate dropped to 32 percent, and by 1930 JNF hardly planted them at all.[49] What were the reasons for the disenchantment? Fifty years later, ecologists around the world came to loathe the Australian tree that had immigrated so enthusiastically. Eucalyptus trees were seen as adversely affecting the soil, water cycle, wildlife, biodiversity, fire cycle, and local vegetation.[50] The JNF's reasons for discontinuation, however, were more prosaic. There were fewer wetlands that needed to be drained.[51]

The Forest's Many Shades of Green

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