Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees today than it did 50 years ago. In many ways, this is, of course, a positive change. However, like almost anything that happens in Israel, the topic of Israel’s reforestation and other ecological efforts is politically charged and hotly debated.
We cannot fully understand this issue if we are unfamiliar with the history of imperialism and colonialism that has plagued Israel-Palestine for the past 2500 years. Foreign empires — including the Romans, Crusaders, and various Arab dynasties — not only oppressed the Indigenous populations but also destroyed the local ecology, oftentimes on purpose. For example, the Judean date palm started declining during the Roman period and became completely extinct by the early Arab period due to excessive cultivation of the land, which devastated the local ecosystem and led to desertification. Over-hunting during the 13th century also resulted in the extinction of Indigenous animal species, most notably, the lion.
By the early 20th century, foreign empires had devastated the land so much that Palestine was completely ridden with malaria.
Pre-imperial conquests and colonization, the Land of Israel had a rich zoological landscape, including animal species such as wolves, bears, deer, cheetahs, ostriches, hippopotamuses, and more. While tropical species such as the hippopotamuses went extinct about 3000 years ago, colonial and imperial over-hunting, desertification, and over-cultivation of the land led to the extinction of the lion in the 13th century. Other species such as cheetahs and bears survived until the early 20th century.
In the early days of the State of Israel, the government introduced various laws to ban hunting and trapping animals. An animal reserve was established in the cities of Eilat and Haifa to form breeding groups of endangered species. However, not all animals could be reintroduced into the ecosystem due to the density of the human population.
The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo was opened in 1940 with the goal of preserving animal life Indigenous to the Land of Israel and breeding endangered species. The zoo is well-regarded for its success and research in reintroducing endangered species, animal welfare, conservation genetics, and more.
WATER SCARCITY & MARSHLANDS
Believe it or not, the Land of Israel (Israel-Palestine) was not always a desert. In fact, it was described in the Torah as “the land of milk and honey” for a reason: because it was rich in resources. In fact, its desertification was the result of thousands of years’ worth of foreign, man-made abuse of the land.
Jewish efforts to combat desertification (as well as the malaria that plagued marshlands) began in the 1880s. However, with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the government mobilized a major effort to develop the country’s soil and water resources, using a combination of ancient Indigenous Jewish practices and modern science and technology.
Thanks to man made erosion, much of the land turned to marshes, which in turn became plagued with malaria. To combat this, the new Israeli government drained the swamps and planted eucalyptus trees, which were foreign to the ecosystem but were able to fix the malaria issue (however, introducing a foreign species to the ecosystem has disturbed the local ecology and as such is now considered a controversial move).
Judaism is an Indigenous ethnoreligion. The Hebrew calendar, for example, follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. Much of Jewish tradition is the result of ancestral wisdom on the cultivation and veneration of the land.
Ancient Jewish agricultural practices still take precedence in Israel today. A major example is that of shmita, known as the “Sabbath of the Land,” which takes place during the seventh year of a seven-year agricultural cycle. During the shmita year, Jews refrain from farming the Land of Israel, so as to give it time to recuperate and rest. This practice is ~3000 years old and only applies to the Land of Israel, the ancestral land of the Jewish People.
Given that much of the Land of Israel became a man-made desert due to foreign over-cultivation, the ancient Indigenous practice of shmita is especially important.
JUDEAN DATE PALM
The Judean date palm was a staple food in the Land of Israel for thousands of years, so much so that it became a spiritual symbol of the Kingdom of Judah (930-586 BCE). It had a multitude of uses, including medicinal uses. It was also considered a mild aphrodisiac. It’s mentioned various times in the Torah and even adorned ancient Jewish currency. However, by the 13th century, thanks to the abuse of foreign empires, the Judean date palm became fully extinct, a process that had begun centuries earlier, during the period of the Roman occupation of Judea.
Between 1961-1963, excavations at Herod the Great’s palace in Masada uncovered date palm seeds preserved in an ancient jar. Radiocarbon found that the seeds dated between 155 BCE-64 CE. Due to their location, they were well-preserved.
In 2005, scientists at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies were able to sprout several seeds. Three of the seeds were planted, and 8 weeks later, one of the seeds sprouted. The plant is known as “Methuselah,” named after the oldest-lived person in the Tanakh.
Like everything in Israel-Palestine, Jewish ecological restoration is a politically contentious and charged subject. It’s altogether impossible to find an “unbiased” source on the matter. There is no doubt that the Israeli government (and earlier Zionists) invested a tremendous amount of time and resources into the restoration of a depleted land. It’s also true that much of this was done to the exclusion of Arab Palestinian farmers and that in the decades since, the resources have not been distributed evenly.
Introducing foreign trees to drain the marshlands and combat malaria also proved controversial. While Israeli afforestation (planting trees) has been impressive and overall positive, it has also had a negative impact on desert species that took root in the land over the last several centuries.
Then, of course, there is the issue of Israeli settler destruction of Palestinian olive trees, particularly in the West Bank settlements. To further complicate the issue, many of these olive groves were planted over destroyed Jewish vineyards during the Arab dynasty periods (this, of course, does not condone anti-Palestinian violence).
I believe it’s entirely possible to celebrate Jewish Indigenous ancestral agricultural practices and Jewish restoration of a man-made desert without glossing over the exclusion or oppression of Palestinians.
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