"Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies."
Mark Twain, 1867
"Many are Israel's forsaken places, and great is the desecration. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Jerusalem is the most desolate place of all."
Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides), 1267
ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS OF COLONIALISM
Colonialism is the practice of a country or empire imposing control and power over other peoples or territories through the establishment of colonies. Colonizers impose their religion, language, economic systems, and more on the colonized population.
Colonizers generally extract resources from their colonies or utilize their colonies in other ways for economic benefit.
Because colonizers extract natural resources from their colonies, colonization is connected to desertification, deforestation, and environmental degradation. Because colonizers insert foreign organisms into colonized lands, colonization is also associated with the spread of disease, animal extinction, and more.
IN ERETZ ISRAEL [THE LAND OF ISRAEL]
Ancient Israel and Judah were highly agrarian societies. It’s no surprise then that Jewish practice, ritual, and belief is firmly tethered to the Land of Israel. The Hebrew calendar, for instance, follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. Jewish law dictates that farming in the Land of Israel must subscribe to a seven-year cycle. During the seventh year of the agricultural cycle, the land is left un-farmed to allow for it to rest and recover. Jewish holidays generally evolved from ancient harvest festivals, which is why so much of the symbolism associated with Jewish holidays is of fruits and plants Indigenous to the land, such as the Four Species.
As was the case elsewhere, the consistent colonization of the Land of Israel by foreign empires devastated the local ecology. For example: shortly following the Arab conquest of Palestine, Caliph Uthman (644-656) enacted a number of Arabization policies, displacing Jews to less fertile areas while also promoting the settlement of Arabian tribes in Palestine.
Up until the eighth century, viticulture (i.e. wine-making) had been Palestine’s predominant agricultural product. Viticulture largely sustained the Jewish population, and wine is intimately tied to Jewish ritual; however, because wine is banned in Islam, Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1021) ordered most vineyards destroyed.
Israel was not always a desert. There is a reason that it is described as “the land of milk and honey” in the Torah; traditionally, the land was rich in resources.
The desertification of the Land of Israel was the result of thousands of years’ worth of foreign, man-made abuse, mismanagement, and extraction of the land.
Israel is located in the sub-tropics and is right on the Mediterranean; pre-colonization, its ecosystem would’ve more closely resembled southern Greece.
Jewish efforts to combat desertification began in the 1880s. Israeli drip irrigation technology did, in fact, despite what anti-Zionists claim, make “the desert bloom.” You can clearly see this with your own two eyes when you visit the Negev Desert in Israel, and contrast it with both written testimony and photographic documentation from before 1880.
Israel is the only country in the world that entered into the twenty-first century with more trees than it entered into the twentieth century. Many of these trees have, however, disturbed the desert organisms that took root; however, it’s important to note that these desert organisms were not Indigenous to the land. Again: Israel was not originally a desert.
Incredibly today Israel produces 20 percent more water than it even needs. Today Israel gets more than 50 percent of its potable drinking water from desalination technology — that is, from sea water — and is considered a worldwide leader in water management and technology.
Centuries of colonial abuse transformed Israel into a disease-infested swampland.
Thanks to man made erosion, much of the land turned to marshes, which in turn became plagued with malaria. In 1918, for example, the British military lost about half of its fighting strength in Palestine due to malaria. In 1919, the incidence rate of malaria in Jewish settlements was over 95 percent.
Initially the Zionists attempted to combat the malaria issue by planting eucalyptus trees. The eucalyptus trees were foreign to the environment, which proved destructive to the desert species that had since taken root and were ultimately pretty ineffective — and sometimes even harmful.
It was ultimately a Jewish scientist named Dr. Israel Jacob Kligler who single-handedly eliminated malaria in the Land of Israel, through a program of education and epidemiology research. By 1968, Israel was declared malaria-free, the first Asian country to successfully eradicate the disease.
To this day, epidemiologists across the world study Kligler’s methods.
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. Lions hold deep significance for Jews, as the lion was the official symbol of the Kingdom of Judah.
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.
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 thirteenth 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 [Hebrew Bible].
Anytime Israel does anything objectively positive — such as eradicating malaria, reforestation, or holding the only LGBTQ+ pride parades in the Middle East — cynical propagandists accuse Israel of various iterations of “washing,” such as greenwashing or pinkwashing. In their view, Israel only does positive things to hide or whitewash its crimes against Palestinians.
This is nothing more than the projection of an ancient antisemitic conspiracy onto the world’s only Jewish state. Not everything Jews do — or Israel does — is some sinister ploy to control and manipulate people. Jews and Israel are capable of doing both good and bad things.
The accusations of greenwashing are absurd. Not everything Israel does is a secret plot to hurt Palestinians. An example: when Dr. Israel Jacob Kligler attempted to bring anti-malaria workers and educators into Arab villages, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Arab Higher Committee Haj Amin Al-Husseini prevented their entry, a situation that sometimes escalated into violence.
The Zionists rehabilitated the land for two simple reasons: (1) for survival, and (2) for their deep love of the Land of Israel. The latter makes perfect sense, seeing as Jewish identity, ritual, and belief are so deeply rooted in the Land of Israel.
Israel, Israelis, and Jews have done harmful things to the environment, just as Palestinians have. Resources have not always been distributed evenly. Everyone is capable of doing both good and bad things. None of this takes away from Israel’s outstanding ecological achievements.
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