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


In a speech to the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces in 1949, Yosef Weitz described the state of the forests inherited by the JNF and his vision for the future. He classified 170,000 dunams of Israel's land as forest, cov-ering less than 1 percent of the country and consisting of dispersed tree stands of modest dimensions. He called for a 1700 percent increase in the nation's forestland.[105]


Weitz would have no trouble adapting to the JNF's new organizational identity and tackling the challenge of developing a forestry policy for the new nation. He had been waiting almost thirty years to do just that. For the first time his ambitious visions of a forested country enjoyed substantial political backing, and at the highest level: from the seemingly omnipotent prime minister. Not so much Zionist ideals as massive unemployment sent JNF planting into high gear. Ben-Gurion's enthusiasm for forestry is best understood within the dynamic context of Israeli demography, his Bible-thumping rhetoric notwithstanding. Almost overnight the population had grown from six hundred thousand to one million people. At the end of 1949, one in ten Israelis languished in immigrant camps. The situation in the camps was more than just a drain on national resources; it was demor-alizing both for a young country that failed to meet its own expectations and for disappointed and increasingly bitter immigrants.[106]

For many years JNF tree planting was inversely proportional to the na-tional employment situation. For instance, in the early 1960s, when the country reached full employment, plantings tapered off and work became more capital intensive. Plantings waxed again during the recession of the mid-1960s.[107] The massive wave of Russian and Ethiopian immigration that began at end of the 1980s once again put job creation on the JNF agenda.[108]

Chaim Blass recalls one of the most famous forestry stories of the pe-riod from August of 1949:“Ben-Gurion had no patience. He wanted to set-tle the country in one day. He came to Weitz after the War and told him that he wanted to plant one billion trees over the next decade—one hun-dred million a year. Imagine Yosef Weitz's frustration.”[109] In his diary, Weitz wondered whether the prime minister, who insisted on seeing the forests in political rather than botanical terms, had lost his mind.[110] Ben-Gurion was so concerned about unemployment that he pressured Weitz to plant in summertime, when the likelihood of success was lowest.[111]

Still, the JNF Forestry Department responded to the prime minister's marching orders with an unprecedented campaign.[112] Weitz, for his part, was strongly opposed to offering charity to new immigrants and saw in-culcation of a work ethic as a crucial part of acculturation.[113] Dividing its operations into four geographic regions, the JNF set up work villages where immigrants were sent to reclaim and plant JNF lands. The work was highly regimented, almost military in style, and the immigrants had to meet daily production quotas.[114]

Forestry thus became the paramount JNF task, because it was the most labor intensive. By 1950, Weitz could report to Ben-Gurion the planting of

a million eucalyptus and tamarisk seedlings for windbreaks and shelter belts in the Negev, with a 60 percent success rate. During the JNF fiscal year 5610 (1950/1951), 12,650 dunams were planted—four times the level of the previous year. In 1951/1952, the number increased to 56,400 dunams—five times the area that had been planted by JNF during its first fifty years![115] For the rest of the 1950s the number dropped to around twenty thousand dunams and six million trees per year.[116]

The JNF's accomplishments as an agricultural assistance agency during this period deserve mention along with its forestry work. The hundred new rural settlements established each year during the 1950s had a very tenuous economic basis. The contribution of JNF workers, who prepared some thirty thousand dunams a year for cultivation, was critical. The most ambitious of these projects, the controversial draining of the Huleh swamp, will be considered at length in the next chapter. This level of in-tensity eventually dissipated: During the 1960s the amount of soil recla-mation declined by 50 percent, reflecting an 80 percent drop in new settle-ments.[117] But JNF aid found other forms, including the start of a poultry industry for financially beleaguered mountain settlements.[118]

It was during the critical post-independence period that the JNF's new institutional identity came together. Three factors elevated afforestation's status during this process: its ability to offer a quick fix for unemployment; the need for the JNF to find a new organizational niche in an independent Israel; and Yosef Weitz's personal proclivities. When these factors combined with the commitment of Israel's early leaders to a pioneering culture of land settlement, and their desire to import a European natural aesthetic, JNF's new functional role was cast. With time, a more mature and sophis-ticated ecological program would emerge. But its roots remained planted in the unique circumstances that characterized the incipient State of Israel.

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.