The Struggle for Israeli Nature: Reshaping Judaism and Zionism Narratives

The Jewish intellectual world has yet to produce a leader of stature, comparable to the Pope, who might advocate for a change in our relationship with nature. During the 20th century, the Jewish people’s physical and spiritual survival was in jeopardy, leaving no physical or mental resources with which to address the earth’s survival.

Evil versus good, indifference versus action, ignorance versus the quest for knowledge. We encounter these antitheses in every Israeli environmental dispute. On one side of the divide are those seeking to cause harm or who are indifferent to the extent of the damage, while on the other side are those trying to protect, explain, and preserve.

In Israel’s 75th year of statehood, we can affirm that in most environmental controversies the state authorities choose to stand on the wrong side of the divide. Facing them on the other side is civil society, while the majority of the Israeli public is indifferent to the loss, the depredation, the catastrophe at hand. This state of affairs makes it easy for the authorities to ravage and destroy. Again and again, one wonders why this is the case; don’t we all enjoy the shade of a tree, and if so, how do so many of us consent to it being cut down?

Have dominion over the animals!

The answer to the above question results from a combination of Jewish thought and the Zionist ethos, which together constitute the dominant way of thinking in Israeli society. In the story of the Creation, in those verses so well known to every Jew, we find human supremacy over the world’s flora and fauna: “And God blessed them; and God said unto them: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). When the foundational texts of your faith call upon you to multiply so as to fill the earth and have dominion over the animals, the preservation of an extinct species of insect will clearly not be self-evident or come naturally to you.

Nevertheless, when we seek to connect Jewish thinking with environmental thinking, many note the mitzvah of bal tashchit (“do not destroy”), which appears in Deuteronomy and is later explicitly analyzed by Maimonides: “When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which thou knowest that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down, that thou mayest build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it fall” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). But the basis for this statement, as is clear even without analysis, is not concern for the actual tree, but rather for the human beings nourished by it. This is clear from the fact that immediately after this expression of concern for the fruit trees follows the authorization to destroy and cut down trees that do NOT provide sustenance.

Even the shmitta or sabbatical year, which is often mentioned as an example of Jewish sustainability thinking as it entails letting the land rest once every seven years, is not intended for nature conservation but rather to preserve the fertility of agricultural lands for the sake of the person who utilizes it for his needs. Basically, no ideas are put forth in the Bible, in Halacha or in the Mishna about concern for nature as such; nature unrelated to man, nature not perceived as a resource for human beings. Just nature.

In his article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” the historian Lynn White, Jr. argues that the anthropocentrism of the Judeo-Christian tradition – the tradition that places people above nature and regards other forms of life as subordinate to man – is what led to the depletion of the earth’s resources and to the current tragic state of the natural world (White, 1967).

But 2015 marked a turning-point in formal Catholicism’s attitude toward the environment. Pope Francis himself dedicated an encyclical[1] to environmental concerns. The encyclical included an explicit appeal to preserve the environment. The Pope linked the environmental crisis to what he identified as the moral, cultural, and spiritual crisis of modernity, and called for an effort to “heal our relationship with nature and the environment” (The Holy Father Francis, 2015).

Unfortunately, the Jewish intellectual world has yet to produce a leader of stature, comparable to the Pope, who might advocate for a change in our relationship with nature. During the 20th century, the Jewish people’s physical and spiritual survival was in jeopardy, leaving no physical or mental resources with which to address the earth’s survival. But now that a thriving Jewish state exists and is celebrating its 75th year, the time has definitely come for Israeli Judaism to engage with the environment and demonstrate concern for the magnificent non-human entities that share land, air, and water with us. This isn’t as hard as it sounds: everyday Jewish life in any case comprises a long list of obligations and abstentions encompassing all aspects of existence. Ultimately, we only need to fine tune for those obligations and abstentions so as to include consideration for the environment – if not for nature’s sake, then certainly for the sake of us human beings, as the story of the Hula marshlands will presently show us.

Conquer the wilderness!

Zionism constituted a turning point at which a new Jewish ethos developed – the Zionist ethos of conquering the wilderness. As an Israeli child in the state school system, my classmates and I imbibed the myth of the heroic Hebrew halutzim or pioneers. Indeed, my grandfather was one of them, frequently mentioned as a hero who tamed the wilderness to build the becoming Jewish state. He, like many Jews who came here from all over the world, had to contend with a hot, humid climate and merciless wild nature, living in marshlands and overcoming the formidable challenges of the varied landscapes in this region.

In the tales of valor about the halutzim, the marshes are portrayed as dangerous due to the disease-carrying mosquitoes that lived in them – but also as full of promise, thanks to the presumed fertility of the soil below. The most legendary marshlands of all were the Hula Marshlands, which merit an entire unit in the history curriculum of “the people who dwell in Zion.” In this unit one learns that in 1951 the greatest engineering project of the young nation got underway – the draining of the 62,000-dunam marshland. This was supposed to produce additional arable land and enable more water to flow into the Jordan River and from there to the Sea of Galilee. The effort paid off, and the successful draining operation became a symbol of Israeli brains and spirits’ victory over harsh Mediterranean conditions.

Today we know that what was labeled as “swamps” are in fact exceedingly rare and important sources of freshwater and CO2 absorbers within the global ecosystem. In their book Contested Natures, the British sociologist John Urry and the Dutch social scientist Phil Macnaghten argue that one of the hallmarks of modernity is the shift from the term “nature,” denoting an uncontrollable and at times even a malevolent force, to the term “environment,” i.e., nature managed by man for specific purposes of benefit to humans (Urry & Macnaghten, 1998). In Israel, nature was transfigured into “wilderness” and a source of freshwater into “swamps.”

No one disputes the good intentions of the pioneers who drained the marshes, yet the Hula “swamp” has transformed from a symbol of heroism to a marker of national-environmental disillusionment. What had been declared a victory soon proved a defeat; a defeat for all of us, as the damage caused by the draining effort rippled from the north to the south of the country. It turned out, for instance, that the peat exposed by the drainage wasn’t “willing” to take orders from humans and serving as fertile agricultural soil; its exposure caused the release of nitrates that harmed agriculture and drinking water. On top of that, peat tends to be carried by wind to other places near and far, where it ignites easily and causes fires.

Join us!

It is not surprising that the introductory chapter of Israeli environmental movement history opens with the story of the Hula Valley and of how a small group of people, led by the evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi and the environmentalist Azaria Alon, managed to see beyond the headlong race to progress that typified the era. They fought the drainage plan with minimal resources, were labeled national killjoys, and were defeated. But amid the wall of defeat two rays of light shone through the cracks and illuminated the path of the Israeli environmental movement to this day.

In the wake of the struggle, Israel’s largest nature preservation organization, the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel, was founded in 1953; SPNI’s membership now comprises some 65,000 families and individuals. Later, other good and dedicated people and environmental organizations joined the struggle. That is the first ray of light. The second is the fact that despite losing the war, these nature-loving people and organizations still won one of the battles: a small part of the area was declared a nature reserve, Israel’s first.

But human declarations are one thing, and natural processes are another. Local nature has not conformed to its announced definition as a reserve and has deteriorated despite the efforts to preserve it. Plants and animals have become permanently extinct. One example is the disappearance of a majestic raptor – the white-tailed eagle – from Israeli skies. Another species no longer present is the African darter, an elegant water bird. Even the Hula bream, a species of carp that had been endemic to Lake Hula, left us when the marshes were drained. Many other plants and animals died out along with them.

By the 1990s it had become clear that the drainage project was a mistake, and a gradual reflooding of areas outside the reserve was undertaken in an attempt to turn back nature’s clock. This worked to a degree. On November 15, 2011, an Israel Nature and Parks Authority ranger making his customary rounds caught sight of a Hula painted frog. What a thrill to rediscover an animal species that had officially been declared extinct and had even been included in the sad list of the ten rarest amphibian species in the world.

“If Jews wish to ground their approach to ecology in Jewish sources, they must come to terms with the fact that certain assumptions, widely taken for granted by secular environmentalists, conflict with Jewish tradition,” wrote the American Jewish-studies scholar Hava Tirosh-Samuelson in an article entitled “Nature in the Sources of Judaism.” “A Jewish environmental philosophy and ethics cannot give up the primacy of the human species in the created order […] In a view true to Jewish teaching, human beings must first love and respect themselves, if they are going to be able to love and respect other species. But the love of one’s fellow human beings goes hand in hand with human responsibility toward other species created by God” (Tirosh-Samuelson, 2001, 116-117).

Statements such as these infuse Israeli environmentalists with hope. Whatever your pre-conceptions are, everybody is welcome to join the environmental protection movement. It is a diverse and inclusive civil-society movement of exemplary creativity and ethics that puts its faith in all that is noble in the human spirit – morality, kindness, initiative, cooperation, and the aspiration to better governance, a more equitable economy, pleasanter cities, and healthier communities – things that Jews who take a generous approach to the interpretation of Jewish texts can unquestionably identify with. The Israeli environmental movement is a cadre of brave people who do not automatically align with the dominant discourse and who are willing to stand firm against larger forces such as the dominant culture, governmental authorities, and powerful, well-funded corporations.

When I think about these people, I am filled with hope, rather than despair; with gratitude rather than anger; and I am inspired to action, rather than being resigned to defeat. As a journalist who has been covering the Israeli environmental scene for years, I have been privileged to be present at these exciting junctures and to meet the people who show concern, who engage in protection, and who do so much for the Alytidae frog and other amphibians, or for the birds, the mammals, the plants, or even for such inanimate natural features as cliffs and unique soils. They do this with deep moral dedication. What drives them is the desire to help the quintessential “other,” who is not Jewish or even human, but absolutely needs protection and shares with us a single basic defining attribute: that of being a fellow Israeli.

Works cited:

The Holy Father Francis (2015). Encyclical letter: “Laudato Si: On care for our common home”.

Tirosh-Samuelson, Have (2001). Nature in the sources of Judaism. Daedalus Journal, 130 (4), 99–124.

Urry, John, & Phil Macnaghten (1998). Contested natures. Sage.

White, Lynn (1967). The historical roots of our ecological crisis [PDF]. Science, 155 (3767), 1203–1207.

Netta Ahituv is a journalist who covers environmental, scientific, and social topics. She holds a master’s degree in environmental philosophy.

[1] In Catholicism, an encyclical is a written text elucidating the views of the pope.