Zionism and the Environment

Article excerpt

In one of her best-known poems, Rachel (1890-1931) writes: "I have never sung to you, my land, or glorified your name, with heroic deeds or battles' booty. Only a tree have my hands planted on the silent banks of the Jordan River." (1) Several later Israeli writers also refer to the "Zionist relation to nature." From a variety of perspectives, they often consider tree-planting one of its most important expressions.

From its beginning, the Zionist movement in its attitude toward the world of nature was much more ambivalent and complex than is commonly understood. When one asks how the early Zionists related to their environment, the stereotypical answer is that Zionism glorified living on the land, draining the swamps, tilling the soil, planting forests, and making the desert bloom. This simplified picture distorts the multifaceted reality.

Zionism was born out of rejection of the Diaspora and was fueled by the many threats to the Jews. Its thinkers and leaders believed that there was no future for the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe and viewed very negatively the Jews' way of life there. Chayim Nachman Bialik refers in several poems to the pollution seen in villages in Russia. (2) The bitter reality, though, is that the life that many pioneers lived in Palestine contained elements of the dirt that Bialik had described. (3)

Differing voices

Zionism proposed that the Jews needed a place of their own, in Palestine, in order to live a "normal" life. Opinions differed greatly, however, as to what such a life would consist of. For several of its currents, the relationship with "the land" filled a key ideological role in the desired change of the Jewish people's social structure. Their adherents considered getting closer to nature and working the land an instrument for self-improvement and mental healing. In this way, they thought that a "new Jew" would be born. Although contested by other Zionist factions, this attitude was widespread and persistent.

From the beginning of the Zionist movement, however, there were many influential voices with widely varying opinions. Theodor Herzl claimed that those who wanted to turn Jews into farmers were mistaken; he considered the farmer an anachronism. (4) Later Zionist pioneers were to prove him wrong on this point.

Read with modern eyes, one specific text from Herzl's The Jewish State sounds like a strong anti-environmentalist statement:

   If we were in the situation where we wanted to liberate a country from wild
   animals, we would not do it the way the Europeans did it in the fifth
   century. We would not go out with a spear and lance against bears, but
   rather organize a great pleasurable hunt, drive the animals together, and
   throw a bomb under them. (5)

Awareness of the environment in general society

The modern environmental movement has been a mainstream force in Western society only since the 1960s. Before that, a broad interest in matters that are now labeled "environmental" was confined to marginal currents. (6) Nonetheless, many of this new discipline's motifs have ancient roots: no civilization has arisen totally devoid of environmental concerns and norms.

The main elements of the modern environmental movement's focus are the protection of nature and animal life, the limitation of the use of non-renewable natural resources, the prevention of pollution and noise, and the allocation of space. Analyzing the Zionist perspective on nature, for instance, shows that it differs greatly from that of contemporary environmentalists for all that their views coincide on some aspects.

A broad range of measures for protecting the environment has existed in the Jewish tradition for thousands of years. Judaism's sensitivity to many issues is demonstrated both in the normative and narrative parts of the Bible and in other classical Jewish texts. The environmentally most significant of these laws include the sabbatical year (shemitah), and prohibitions against wanton destruction (bal tashchit) and causing pain to animals (tsa'ar ba 'alei chayim). …