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

The Emergence of an Israeli Environmental Movement


Few campaigns are more associated with the early years of the SPNI than the battle to create the Carmel National Park. In the 1930s the Hachsharat Yishuv agency had subdivided lands in the Carmel mountains into hun-dreds of one-dunam tracts and sold them to Jewish workers as Haifa's newest suburb. Roads were even cut through the woodlands to expedite construction. Only the Arab Revolt of 1933–1936, World War II, and the War of Independence delayed development.[54] Hence, at the inception of the State, the Carmel was an anomaly: a scenic old-growth forest, over-looking the heart of Israel's residential coastal region and sloping down the hills to the Mediterranean plains.

Early national development plans drafted by the Ministry of the Interior envisioned a modest portion of the Carmel region as a park. In the initial discussions about the future of the Carmel, nature enthusiasts were too timid to ask for the entire area, but over time the SPNI grew bolder.[55] In 1962 developers began to move ahead with their plans; it was time for the organization to up the stakes. In contrast to the battle over the Huleh, which really involved only three or four academic activists, the SPNI brought out the masses for the first time to further its case for a Carmel park. It was Boomi Toran's idea to turn Tu Bishvat, the traditional birth-day of the trees, into a series of solidarity hikes in the Carmel.[56]

The press coverage of the unprecedented “demonstration of thousands” was extensive. The cabinet responded with a call for a moratorium on all Carmel construction. This government involvement is the most likely

source for apocryphal stories about Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's role in promoting a Carmel Park legacy. In one form of the legend, when Ben-Gurion was taken to the top of the mountain, he looked upon the ver-dant landscape, and declared that the Carmel would remain a park for all future generations. Although Ben-Gurion was clearly sympathetic to Carmel conservation efforts, there is no record of such a trip,[57] and SPNI old-timers dismiss it.

Not until 1971 was the park's status resolved. Although the final bor-ders fell short of the maximalist proposal, it was still a very good deal for nature.[58] It was also more than just a major victory that preserved a lovely corner of Israel—it was a defining campaign. The SPNI leadership imme-diately understood the breadth of public support and their new capacity to take on powerful development interests and win.

It was during this period that the SPNI's historical animosity toward the JNF's pine forests became increasingly influential. The campaigns of the 1960s also provided the opportunity for the next generation of SPNI leaders to cut their teeth. No campaign was more important than the ef-forts that led to the creation of a nature reserve on Mount Meron. The area held the largest old-growth Mediterranean forest in Israel. For almost a decade, the SPNI fought to stop military bases and Druze villages from en-croaching on it. They even resisted the offer of a deluxe field school to be built in the heart of the reserve to replace the collection of trailers and di-lapidated buses that housed the Meron Field School.[59] Eventually the area was declared the largest nature reserve north of Beer Sheva.

As head of the newly formed Meron Field School, Yoav Sagi was the key figure in these struggles. During his days as a military officer for the elite Druze commando “300” unit, he had been frequently stationed in the Negev. After returning to civilian life, he spent a year at his home at Moshav Muledet and then decided to go back to Eilat, where he met Amotz Zahavi. It was a meeting that changed his life, enabling him to “combine business and a hobby.”[60] Zahavi found the twenty-four-year-old Sagi a job helping to oversee the ecological impacts of the National Water Carrier, then under con-struction. Thirty-nine years later Sagi remains a dominant figure in the or-ganization, succeeding Azariah Alon as General Secretary in 1979 and in 1988 becoming the first full-time organizational chairman of the SPNI.[61]

The 1960s were a period when the organization fully defined its iden-tity as an independent advocate for nature. For instance, in 1963 the many years of lobbying led to a prohibition of mining “zifzif,” Mediterranean beach sands. When the sands disappeared, giant sea turtles had no place to lay their eggs. That was also the year that saw the passage of the National

Parks and Nature Reserves Law. Soon thereafter, the SPNI embarked on its most famous campaign of the 1960s: a protracted effort to stop the picking of Israel's wildflowers. (This joint venture with the SPNI's new partners in the Nature Reserves Authority is detailed inChapter 6.)

It was the 1970s, however, that have been called the organization's “golden years,”[62] during which it won a string of key victories for nature. A sampling of the better-publicized triumphs gives a sense of the organiza-tion's enormous influence. In August 1971 Azariah Alon published a position paper calling for a new power station to be moved from its proposed location at the base of Nahal Taninim, or Crocodile Stream.[63] Although no longer a home to crocodiles, it is one of the few streams outside of the Galilee that remains relatively clean. A letter-writing campaign ensued. In April 1972, five hundred SPNI activists turned out for a protest at the site; the result-ing publicity far exceeded the actual size of the crowd.[64] As a result of the lobbying, a committee headed by Professor Moshe Hill was appointed to reconsider the issue. The committee ultimately suggested moving the facil-ity to its present site at Nahal Hadera, which was already heavily polluted from the discharges of Israel's only paper mill.[65] On June 6, 1972, the National Planning Council approved the new location.

In 1974 after almost a decade of hands-on work in the Galilee, based out of the Meron Field School, Yoav Sagi returned from his studies and estab-lished the SPNI's Nature Protection Department (see Figure 10). As he perceived the situation, the emergence of a strong, governmental Nature Reserves Authority had diverted the SPNI from its original mission of na-ture preservation. When a disagreement over the excessive tapping of the Dan streams with the Nature Reserves Authority blew up into a full-fledged controversy, he became convinced that the SPNI could not afford to limit itself to education. (After the SPNI lobbied the rank-and-file members of northern Galilee kibbutzim and eliciting a feasible alternative from government experts, its proposal for a modest “eastern pipeline” was ultimately accepted. With the pipes for a central line already in the field, it was the first of many last-minute victories.[66])

Among the first things he did as he pushed the organization into watch-dog mode was to appoint a staff member from every field school to take personal responsibility for nature preservation in the surrounding area. The theory was to avoid centralized control from the SPNI's headquarters in Tel Aviv, whose perspective might be colored by complicated organiza-tional considerations. Rather, people in the field, who presumably remain truer to the values in question, should drive the Department's agenda.[67] Sagi wanted a rebellious rather than a complacent crew of workers.


The organizational shift was reflected in a series of campaigns between 1974 and 1988, and according to Sagi's count sixteen out of eighteen were successful. One of the first initiatives from this period was the campaign to save the Bulbusim and the surrounding area near the so-called “Hor Har” mountain in the Negev. Bulbusim are midsized boulders, remarkably rounded, that bounced hundreds of kilometers until finally resting like statues on the desert floor. Guides from the Hatzeva Field School noticed surveying work in the area and uncovered a plan to run railroad tracks through the area to support a phosphate factory in Nahal Tsin. Once again, the Nature Reserves Authority was not inclined to stop the factory's ex-pansion,[68] so the SPNI took on the issue single-handedly. In December 1975, a thousand members made the trip down to the remote site to protest. When the factory managers displayed a surprising alacrity to ex-plore alternatives, the Nature Reserves Authority decided that it was an important site to preserve after all. In 1980 a new nature reserve was de-clared at Hor Har, which saved the Bulbusim.[69]

Yossi Leshem has been one of the most colorful SPNI leaders since the 1970s. During the past twenty years no one has had greater success in rais-ing public awareness about any environmental issue than he has in his campaign to protect birds, in particular birds of prey. “He did for birds what Azariah Alon did for wildflowers” is the common comparison. With a Ph.D. in zoology, Leshem fits perfectly the idealized SPNI stereotype of the “scientist in sandals”[70]—with one exception. Leshem is an Orthodox Jew in a predominantly secular organization.

Azariah Alon, who served as the General Secretary of the SPNI when Leshem first began working there, has never hidden his distaste for the re-ligious status quo on which Israel's Orthodox parties insist. For instance, whenever the issue of sustainable transportation arises, he invariably blames public transport's decline on the religious limitations placed on Sabbath travel. But Leshem quickly gained Alon's respect as well as that of the rest of the nonreligious management of SPNI. Leshem rose through the ranks as a guide, field-school director, head of the Nature Protection Department, and ultimately Director, from 1991 to 1996.[71]

Leshem (see Figure 11) has a gift for engaging celebrities. It began when he was hitchhiking home after being expelled from his yeshiva high-school field trip, only to bump into retired Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, with whom he spent the day. Later, as the director of the SPNI, he brought the Dalai Lama to the SPNI's fortieth anniversary celebrations. This was after years of ex-cuses by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which feared an official visit, on account of Chinese sensitivities.[72] More than once he flew international jazz

artist Paul Winter in a glider to accompany birds, inspiring him to play a con-cert for ten thousand nature enthusiasts. Leshem enlisted U.S. Vice President Al Gore in support of his global bird-tracking project for schoolchildren.[73] He drafted Israel's president, Ezer Weitzman, to support any number of SPNI initiatives. He also remains the only SPNI figure to forge meaningful con-nections with environmentalists in the Arab world.

This “chutzpah” characterized his tenure as head of the Nature Protection Department during the second half of the 1970s, after he succeeded Yoav Sagi. Among the most remarkable success stories of his tenure was the campaign to save the Um Zafah forest. The eight-hundred-dunam tract near Ramallah was one of only two pristine woodlands remaining in the West Bank. Declared a forest reserve in 1927, it was a popular resort stop for the senior British officials who expanded its natu-ral growth with cypress and pine plantings. The forest holds the largest natural growth of Jerusalem pines and catalpas in the area, nineteen mush-room types, and countless wildflowers and birds, as well as unique reptiles. Local legend holds that Adam and Eve settled here after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Except for some fire damage done by Iraqi troops who camped there during the 1948 War, the forest was well preserved.[74]

The late 1970s were a period when Ariel Sharon, then serving as Minister of Agriculture, aggressively established Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank. A group of Herzliyah residents asked to move to the Um Zafah area. The ministerial committee for settlement was fa-vorably inclined, and Tomi Leitersdorf, a noted Israeli planner, drew up blueprints for a village with one hundred wooden houses in the heart of the forest.[75]

The Nature Reserves Authority, ostensibly independent, was still be-holden to the Minister of Agriculture, who appointed its director and over-saw the agency. Reluctantly the Authority did not oppose the settlement plan, which was quickly approved. Land in the forest was appropriated; building was soon to begin. It seemed a done deal. Leshem first heard about the rapid decision while attending a jointly sponsored conference with the Nature Reserves Authority. Impulsively he chewed out the Authority director for capitulation and set out on a quixotic campaign.[76]

Leshem collected “intelligence” from friends in the army, who con-firmed that the settlement had all the necessary approvals. There were no legal loopholes. Friends in academia, on the other hand, confirmed the uniqueness of the forest and helped him put together a publicity packet re-plete with supporting expert botanical and zoological opinions. Leshem began a frenzied lobbying campaign; he shuttled scientists, politicians, and

reporters to the site in his car. Within two weeks, 150 scientists publicly supported the SPNI's opposition to the settlement. A group from the pres-tigious Technion Institute took the uncharacteristically radical step of writing a letter of protest to Prime Minister Begin.[77]

With West Bank settlement an extremely controversial political issue, it was important that the SPNI's campaign not be misinterpreted. Friends at the Settlement Department helped Leshem find an alternative West Bank site near Nahal Shiloh that was already designated for settlement. When his sources discovered that the Herzliyah settlers were actually white-collar types who were not planning on moving at all but only sought summer cottages in the forest, Leshem and Sagi approached them, to no avail.

To defuse the political issue, Leshem especially sought out backers among right-wing politicians. Knesset members Moshe Shamir and Geulah Cohen were convinced and publicly opposed the settlement.[78] The press was fully mobilized; cartoonists were called into service. Among the many editorials to save the forest was an essay by songwriter Naomi Shemer, a known supporter of West Bank settlement.[79] To preserve the apolitical character of the opposition, when leftist Peace Now activists tried to hitchhike onto the campaign, Yoav Sagi kicked them out of demonstrations.[80]

On June 1, 1979, Sharon relented. Only months earlier he had refused to meet with the SPNI about this issue, but in the face of public pressure he suddenly announced his cancellation of the project. Despite its remote and sensitive West Bank location, the following day three thousand people came to the Um Zafah forest for a demonstration, only to discover a victory party. In 1981 the forest's status was officially elevated to nature reserve.

The campaign was indicative of the SPNI's lack of hesitation about the occupied territories. It set out to protect nature wherever it could. The in-tegration of the Um Zafah forest into Israel's nature reserve system con-tributed to the SPNI's reputation at the time as a right-wing organization. “It is no coincidence that many West Bank and Golan settlements have, as a central feature, a field school set up by the SPNI,” charges Meron Benvenisti. “As instructional centers for Muledet, they were in operation well before the settlements themselves and in some cases served as a guise for projected settlements.”[81] Azariah Alon was director of the SPNI dur-ing the period that followed the Six-Day War. His own inclinations favor-ing a “Greater Land of Israel” were well-known.[82]

Yossi Leshem still lives at the Gilo Field School, one of the SPNI facili-ties located over the Green Line in internationally disputed territory. “It's

nonsense in retrospect to say that they built the field schools in order to create new settlements,” he responds. “At most, the thinking was that if you could bring 150 kids to a site, it created a greater sense of presence. The SPNI has always been apolitical.”[83] To be sure, not only does the SPNI's historical connection with kibbutzim counter such a political generaliza-tion, but so does its membership, which comes primarily from middle-class suburban Israelis, who typically vote for left-of-center parties.[84] Few Israeli organizations have been as successful in reaching out to Israel's Arab citi-zens. The Society also had no compunction about filing a Supreme Court action to stop West Bank settlement when it threatened to compromise eco-logical interests in the Nofim region of Samaria.[85] Nonetheless, for years the New Israel Fund, a liberal philanthropic foundation, refused to donate to the SPNI because of its activities in “occupied territories.”

The campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s were intense, creative, openly political (but not partisan), and conducted with an unselfconscious sense of abandon. They could also rely on the Zionist idealism that pervaded main-stream institutions during the country's first thirty years. Owing to state socialism, in most cases the enemy was either a government initiative or a government-owned industry. Developers had a sense of public duty to which it was possible to appeal. The SPNI leadership was in the right so-cial clique to approach the ruling Labor government and could package its demands in the rhetoric of national interest. At the same time, the Nature Reserves Authority enjoyed its most aggressive and popular period, mak-ing it an invaluable SPNI partner. (The Um Zafah case to a certain extent marked the end of an era.) Most important, the country was not yet as crowded as it was to become. Alternatives still existed.

The Emergence of an Israeli Environmental Movement

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