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Was the Desert Supposed To Bloom?

Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel

By Alon Tal

University of California, 546 pages, $34.95.

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‘The swiftly flowing waters of the Yarkon River enticed us to leap into them and swim, though occasionally we had to make way for a water buffalo or a camel.” Thus enthused my father, Israel Tzvi Raab, as he regaled me with stories of his childhood in pre-state Israel. Hard as I tried, I was never able, during my many visits to the Yarkon — meandering into the Mediterranean Sea close to Tel Aviv University, its name derives from the words for vegetation and greenery — to make a connection between these descriptions and the now murky stream. I thought that, as was often his habit, my dear father exaggerated. Only a faded photograph dug out of an old shoe box, showing him, circa 1927 in a knee-length bathing suit with a sleeveless top, diving head first into the current, a Bedouin shepherd with his camel nearby, convinced me of the veracity of this story.

I saluted my father and his jamuseem, the Arabic name for water buffaloes that he preferred, while recently reading Alon Tal’s excellent environmental history of Israel. Tal begins his account in the summer of 1997, when the bridge over this very same river collapsed, as the Australian athletes to the Maccabiah Games marched over it. Four died and dozens were hurt, not from the fall but from exposure to toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the water. The changes in the river embody the tremendous transformations in the Israeli environment over the past century and illustrate the quote from Jeremiah 2:7, which serves as the book’s motto: “And I brought you into a beautiful land to eat the fruit and the goodness thereof, and when you came, you defiled my land and turned my heritage into an abomination.”

Books such as Penina Glazer’s “The Environmental Crusaders” and Shaul Cohen’s “The Politics of Planting” have spotlighted various aspects of the Israeli environment, but Tal’s book is the first comprehensive one. Its 546 pages present a panoramic view of the uses and misuses of the environment, historical to the present day: The changes, the battles for preservation versus destruction and even some possible scenarios for the future are all here.

A founding member of Israel’s premier environmental legal advocacy group, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, Tal immediately jumps into the ongoing heated debates over the land, including whether it was in fact “desolate” prior to Jewish settlement and if indeed, as is often claimed by Zionists, “the desert was made to bloom.” As with many other pesky questions he tackles, here too the author avoids stock responses. With adroit use of diverse sources — including 19th-century travel books, Ottoman tax rolls and personal communications — he succeeds in illuminating the complexity of the issue. He shows the many meanings of “desolation” in the context of the entire region and the times, as well as in our current understanding of biodiversity and of the importance of deserts, which are home to many species that have developed a competitive advantage in their interactions with species less adapted to the desert conditions. Making more water available and planting new kinds of trees has caused such creatures as sand partridges, brown-necked ravens and foxes to suffer from the new competition.

Tal presents Zionism’s “mixed ecological message” and its complex ties, romantic as well as practical, to the ancestral land. He vividly describes the Zionist faith in “progress” (similar to that of other revolutionary movements) and the belief in the uniqueness of its enterprise, expressed for example in the statement that “our… Swamp Peat is Zionist Peat” and therefore transcends the laws of nature. Such idealistic notions, of course, have led to many environmental debacles. He describes Palestine’s environment before the war of 1948, and the many transformations brought about by the Jewish pioneers’ desire to “redeem” the land, along with the tremendous impact of waves of immigration and wars. For example, a massive draining project of the early 1950s drained the entire Hula wetlands in the northern Galilee, which were a unique ecosystem and home to many bird and animal species. Only in the past two decades has there been an attempt to return part of the land to its earlier state.

Tal’s stated goal is to write “a fair, engaging, and well-documented description of Israel’s environmental experience.” An avowed Zionist as well as environmentalist, he devotes much space to examining whether the two movements can co-exist. He shies away from current Israeli historiography and its “debunking of the past,” and acknowledges that an Arab writer will present the story much differently. Staying within the boundaries of his own ideological framework, he tries to be fair.

The success of his book depends mainly on the way Tal presents controversial subjects, especially the Jewish-Arab conflict and its effects on the environment. An example of his attempts to be fair-minded is shown in the large section devoted to the Jewish National Fund, an organization that has been instrumental in shaping the geographical reality of Israel. Part of the JNF’s stated mission is to reclaim lands for Jewish ownership and settlements. As a holder of vast tracts of land, it helps set settlement policies, including in the areas under Israeli control since 1967. Tal describes how the JNF evolved “in response to the vicissitudes and challenges of the Zionist movement. Israel’s forests therefore largely reflect the historical exigencies of Zionism, including the JNF’s institutional development and the visions of a few passionate leaders.”

Since its establishment in 1901 the JNF has represented to its adherents an innovative model of ecological caring, responsible for planting 220 million trees. To its growing number of detractors, however, the record is mostly of the imposition of European monoculture — planting mostly one species of trees, the Jerusalem pine, which is vulnerable to certain pests — and heavy pesticide use on an unreceptive land. To the Arab population it has also represented “the perpetrator of systematic exploitation and discrimination and a tool for hegemony in the occupied territories.” He does not sidestep the organization’s taking over of Arab lands and planting trees as a statement of Jewish sovereignty and points out that the forests have paid a price, for Arab disenfranchisement led to many politically motivated arsons. (Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua’s story “Facing the Forests” about the torching of a forest planted on the ruins of an Arab village well expresses this conflict.) Tal sees encouraging signs in the JNF’s growing emphasis on a stewardship role but states that as long as its agenda remains primarily political, Arab alienation will continue.

Successfully blending academic writing with energetic descriptions of people and events, Tal brings his subject to life. As a leader of the Israeli environmental movement for the past two decades, he excels at showcasing its personalities, culture, failures and successes. He demonstrates its similarities to other movements around the globe and its unique ideology, calling it “a curious amalgam of romantic, ruralist, pantheist, Western, and in many contexts, Jewish beliefs.” Damning the villains — developers, politicians and industrialists — whose “visions” are guided by the glow of the shekel, he also salutes the heroes. These include the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and its successful 1960s campaign to save wild flowers; biologist Reuven Yosef, who defended the bird reserve along the Red Sea while suffering physical assaults, as well as the novelist S. Yizhar, who for the past six decades has written lyrically of the land and its preservation.

In any book of such scope there are bound to be omissions. Tal only briefly mentions contacts between Palestinian and Israeli birders sharing a love for the birds who transcend national borders, and also the Arava Institute, in which students from the entire region explore the desert ecology. Perhaps his key role in establishing that innovative school leads Tal to be modest about its importance, or perhaps the current violence has dampened his faith that “ecology may provide a basis for reconciliation.” I also was looking for more information about radical groups such as Green Action which, though small, have been important in bringing many issues to light through creative campaigns.

In his final chapter, Tal asks whether Israel is headed toward a sustainable future. The past century has seen much ecological damage, yet during the last decade there has been a growing awareness of the environment, manifested in many new activist groups as well as the construction of bike lanes and recycling programs. These small but growing signs give Tal, and the reader, hope that the wave of destruction will be halted and Israel’s unique landscape and animals — such as the rock hyrax, which resembles a cross between a rabbit and a camel — will survive.

Alon Raab is a visiting lecturer in the University of Oregon’s Judaic studies program and has been active in peace and environmental work in Israel and the United States. He last appeared in these pages February 1, 2001, reviewing “Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth.”

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“It had never occurred to him that this wouldn’t be just some anonymous forest but one with a name, and not just one name either. Many rocks bear copper plates, brilliantly brushed. He stoops, takes off his glasses, reads: Louis Schwartz of Chicago…. Where exactly is this Arab village that is marked on the map? It ought to be somewhere around here, an abandoned Arab village…. The Arab explains something with hurried, confused gestures, squirming his severed tongue, tossing his head. He wishes to say that… there used to be a village here and that they have… hidden it all, buried it in the big forest.”

from “Facing the Forests” in “The Continuing Silence of a Poet: The Collected Stories of A.B. Yehoshua” (Syracuse, 1998).


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