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Environmentalism, Zionism and the Social Framing of Natural Open Spaces

by Bryan Atinsky Friday, Jan. 10, 2003 at 8:48 AM

The dominant Israeli discourses on nature and the environment act as elements that contribute to framing the public's conception of their social space. These environmental constructs, which partially stem out of, and partially become reintegrated into the Zionist nationalist discourse, are utilized by different social elements as a legitimation for both the creation of demarcated open 'natural' spaces, and the enforced retention of their 'pristine' state.

Environmentalism, Zionism

and the Social Framing of Natural Open Spaces

By: Bryan Atinsky

Much discussion in the past several years, on the issue of land and nationalist ideology in Israel, has been focused on the ways in which building and active use of land operates in Zionist ideology and action as a form of legitimation of control and ownership (Kimmerling, 1983; Rabinowitz, 1997; Slyomovics, 1998; Yiftachel, 1997, 2002). However, until recently, little has been said of the ways in which the retention of 'natural' spaces operates in Zionist ideology in much the same manner. The dominant Israeli discourses on nature and the environment, as expressed by the principal governmental and non-governmental environmental organizations, and the educational system, act as elements that contribute to framing the public's conception of their social space. These environmental constructs, which partially stem out of, and partially become reintegrated into the Zionist nationalist discourse, are utilized by different social elements as a legitimation for both the creation of demarcated open 'natural' spaces, and the enforced retention of their 'pristine' state.

When examining the environmental movement in Israel, it is important to recognize that, though it does have many definite parallels with the dominant Western environmental paradigms, there are also substantial ways in which the signification of land and environment are unique to Israel's historical and socio-cultural situation.  One of the most important aspects of this difference, as Israeli geographer Shaul Cohen points out, is that historically and presently, Israeli environmental discourse has fundamentally been interwoven with Zionist ideology:

"It is difficult to separate environmentalism and Zionism in the local context...At least for now, Zionism is inextricably bound up with environmentalism, as the demands of nationalism continue to suffuse Israeli life."(Cohen 2002: 209)

To facilitate an understanding of the way in which these terms become embedded with content and meaning, we should therefore look at the way in which the very definitions we have for 'Nature' are, themselves, socially constructed.  They are effected by, and also themselves effect one's conception of social, political, historical and cultural considerations.

"'Nature' is not nearly so natural as it seems. Instead, it is a profoundly human construction...the way we describe and understand [the] world is so entangled with our own values and assumptions that the two can never be fully separated." (Cronon 1995: 25)

Further, the meanings we hold for the terms of 'Nature', 'Environment' and 'Zionism' change over time, and are continually contested by different forces at every particular time.  These terms act as 'floating signifiers', the content of which is created in the process of contestation by various individuals and social forces. The meanings, in this manner, become temporarily anchored when, as Ernesto Laclau states:  "a certain particular, by making its own particularity the signifying body of a universal presentation, comes to occupy--within the system as a whole--a hegemonic role" (Laclau 1996: 53)

One of the major paradigms of environmental education in Israel, 'nature preservation' has at certain periods been dominant, though it must be recognized that other paradigms have evolved and are also influential at present.  'Nature preservation' was most dominant from the period of the rise of the Yishuv until the late 1960's, but still holds significant influence up to the present, especially in non-scientific quarters.  In this paradigm, nature and society are framed as being antithetical to one another--nature is that which is not influenced by man.

Environmental education of this type, based on the early Zionist call for a 'return to the land,' formed into the curriculum of shiyyurei moledet ('lessons about the motherland'), also known as yediat ha'aretz ('knowing the land', which in Hebrew has the double meaning of knowledge and physical intimacy).  This style of pedagogical approach, still an important part of an Israeli adolescent's core curriculum, is typified by learning landscape, flora and fauna, ahavat ha'aretz ('love of the land'), and camping and the tiyul ('hike'). One goes out and experiences "the wonder and otherness" of  'pristine' nature. (Schwartz 1997: 3)  However, this way of framing nature is also inherently and explicitly tied to a nationalist discourse.

Examining a recent magazine (December, 2002), written and published by youth who belong to the Hugay Sayyarut Shak"ed Shel Keren Keyemet L'Yisrael, Al-Shem Uri Maymon ('The Sha"ked Youth Scouting Groups of the Jewish National Fund, in the name of Uri Maymon' (trans. by B.A.)), we can easily discern the ways in which nature activities are interlaced with military and nationalist iconography. The nature youth group's name comes from the Sayyaret Shak"ed (Shak"ed is short for Shomrei Kav ha'Darom in English, the 'Guards of Southern Border Patrol Unit' (trans. by B.A.)) an Israeli Army unit formed in 1957 after the evacuation of the Sinai. The name of the JNF youth group (made up largely of Jewish Israelis with some Palestinian Israeli members), which conducts extra-curricular hiking, camping and nature-learning activities, therefore, imbues these activities with military nationalist symbolism.  Their tiyulim are analogous to the patrols of an Israeli Army unit, demarcating and guarding the borders of the Negev.

Connecting with the symbolism inherent in the group's name, on the first page of the magazine, setting the frame for all the following articles, is an item commemorating the life (and death) of Uri Maymon.  The first words of the piece state: "Uri died in the Yom-Kippur War...His life is a symbol of the beauty of Israeli youth." (Hugay Sayyarut Shak"ed 2002: 1) (Trans. by B.A.) The article then goes on to discuss Uri's life and achievements, and of his war sacrifice.  At the end of the article, connecting his life and actions with the actions of the present youth group, it states: "Uri was crazy about tiyulim his love of the land (ahavat ha'aretz) was achieved through long journeys, and endless tiyulim. His friends initiated these touring groups in order to continue his heritage and to bring the love of the land (ahavat ha'aretz) to Israeli youth to continue on his path." (Hugay Sayyarut Shak"ed 2002: 1) (Trans. by B.A.)

Interspersed with various poems on the topic of nature and hiking, articles on "Types of water-holes in the Negev", "The Tsin River" and various youths' descriptions of their trips, the only other article which relates biographical information of a well-known individual is a letter by Yoni Netanyahu, who died while heading the raid on Entebbe during the famous hostage episode, to his brother former P.M. Binyamin Netanyahu.  The letter, written in 1967 is titled "Topography" and is about the high importance of understanding the skill of topography:  "One of the most important things is topography...Bibi...remember...a soldier who doesn't know how to find his way in the field is dependent on others.  He isn't independent! (atzma'i)" (Netanyahu in Hugay Sayyarut Shak"ed 2002: 7) (Trans. by B.A.) The placement of this letter in the magazine renders explicit the connections being made by the youths, between the skills they learn during their nature activities, their future competence as soldiers in the Israeli Army, and sacrifice of one's life for the motherland.

Even into adulthood, these lessons become frames that influence the way individual Israelis perceive their social space.  Anthropologist Orit Ben-David writes of a tiyul to the Negev she observed, which was sponsored by SPNI (Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel).  She explains that the organizers, at one point, passed out to the participants a leaflet about the region, reflecting the same rhetorical connections being made by the youths, of the perception of untouched nature and the safeguarding of the nation's territory from outside aggressors. The leaflet states:

"This is an area of unique natural resources and primeval scenery as yet untouched by man...It is completely unacceptable that due to outside interests and alien considerations the citizens of Israel should be forced to give up this priceless scenic heritage."(Ben-David 1997: 130)

Here, though perhaps the ideology of  'a land without a people for the people without a land' may be consciously known to have been false, its "forms and images" (Cohen; 1993: 7) still influence the Israeli perception of the historical landscape.  However, unlike as expressed in the leaflet, in actual history the Negev has been populated for thousands of years.  The Nabatean civilization, which existed until the 7th century, had several cities in the Negev with populations reaching into the thousands and an overall population, by some estimated larger than the present number of inhabitants in the region.  Further, from the 7th century onward, the Bedouins have inhabited the Negev, with a 1948 population of "between 65,000 and 100,000 liv[ing] in...an area of approximately 12,000 sq. km., which they used for both cultivation and pasturing flocks." (Abu-Rabia 2002: 203)  Further, Alon Tal, legal environmental activist and Chairman of Adam, Teva V'din (literally 'Man, Nature and Law' but known in English as 'Life and Environment') states that the very character of the Negev landscape was formed by the fact that it was inhabited:

"The variety of plant types in the Mediterranean areas of Israel is four times higher than in regions with a similar climate in California.  This can be explained by the regimen of human disturbance in the former region during the past thousands of years. Among these disturbances, the grazing of domestic flocks may have an important place." (Tal 2002: 351)

Relating to the second part of the statement quoted from the leaflet above, Azaria Alon, one of SPNI's founding members, makes explicit how the performance of hiking, links the Jewish people intimately to the land, and further how this action functions as a nationalist legitimization of control over open-landscapes:

"Our link to the land is less than that of other nations, and there is no better way than hiking, especially when there is tension, to strengthen this link....There are important parts of the country which are not inhabited by Jews and they are in danger.  Hiking is thus a tool for displaying a Jewish presence in those areas" (Ben-David 1997: 141)

This way of framing environmental issues using military and nationalist rhetoric is common even within scientific circles. For instance, environmental scientist Aviva Rabinovich stated in regard to the actions of the Green Patrol against the Bedouin that they "performed an enormous mitzvah, a good deed...The war over land is painful and difficult, and it will always be.  We are fighting here. (There should be no illusions in this regard.) It's a battle for this land and our survival."(Tal 2002: 350)

Interestingly, this way of framing environmental discourse is not limited only to aspects relating to Jewish and Arab dynamics of land use.  Geographer Shaul Cohen discusses a recent situation in Jerusalem, where the city government was planning to extend a neighborhood into an area planted earlier by the JNF called the Jerusalem Forest. A coalition of 'Green' organizations, made up of the JNF, The Israel Nature Reserves Authority, SPNI, and several smaller local environmental groups, enacted a campaign against the city's plans. Here, both sides in the conflict were manipulating the traditional Zionist symbols in order to sway public opinion towards their opposite views on what should be done.

On the side of the city government, they framed the requirement to build on the basis that there was a need to show a concrete Jewish presence in all parts of Jerusalem with 'facts on the ground.' On the side of the Greens, they attempted to re-frame the meaning of Zionism to emphasize the care of the land over use of the land. On these lines, the director of the Nature Reserves Authority for Jerusalem stated, "People think that Zionism means resettling the land; and that is it.  They've forgotten that we're supposed to take care of it and not just build wherever we can." (Cohen 2002: 221)

Further, in the Green coalition's public campaign, they framed their dispute with the Jerusalem city government in the symbolism of war, using Zionist military terminology to describe their actions.  They described themselves as "standing guard (al hamishmar)" (Cohen 2002: 221) against attack on the forest, and "Citizens were encouraged to join the 'campaign', or the 'battle', to 'defend the forest from attacks.' A 'war of survival was to be fought' on behalf of the forest." (Cohen 2002: 221)  Here again, we see how terms act as floating signifiers. In this case the meaning of 'Zionism' is being fought over, where we have an Urban Zionism against Environmental Zionism.  

When looking at the use of Zionism by the Green coalition in this case, however, we must take into account that existing systems of power relations, and the rewards and hazards of acting and framing ideas in particular ways, effect and constrain the multiple possible tropes used at any point and time, into a much smaller number.  The success of any argument must take into consideration the dominant discourses and be able to manipulate them in a way that will gain adherence. In the case of these Green organizations, the use of clichéd nationalist symbols may have little to do with the ideology of the organizations themselves, but perhaps relate to their understanding of tactical possibilities when attempting to run a successful public campaign for an environmental cause.  Nevertheless, this does indicate that the inertia of the dominant discourse has the power to pull many arguments towards its own path.  In this way, the environmental organizations nonetheless reenact and reinforce the legitimacy of these nationalist tropes even if they don't necessarily accept the underlying philosophy.

The examples discussed above have shown some of the ways in which nationalist ideology works through the educational system and civil-society organizations, influencing the Israeli public's conception of and relation to 'natural' spaces. Moreover, we have seen the way that these environmental constructs are themselves utilized by different social elements as a legitimation for their own goals.


Abu-Rabia, Aref, "Negev Bedouin: Displacement, Forced Settlement and Conservation" in Conservation and Mobile Indigenous Peoples: Displacement, Forced Settlement and Sustainable Development, Chatty, Dawn and Colchester, Marcus Editors (Oxford: Berghahn Books; 2002), pp.202-211.

Ben-David, Orit, "Tiyul (Hike) as an Act of Consecration of Space" in Grasping Land, Ben Ari, Eyal and Bilu, Yoram Editors (New York: SUNY, 1997).

Cohen, Shaul E., "As a city besieged: place, Zionism, and the deforestation of Jerusalem" in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 20 (Great Britain: Pion; 2002), pp. 209-230.

Cohen, Shaul E., The Politics of Planting: Israeli-Palestinian Competition for Control of Land in the Jerusalem Periphery, University of Chicago Geography Research Paper No. 236 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Cronon, William, "Introduction: In Search of Nature" in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, Cronon, William Editor (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1995), pp.23-56.

Hugay Sayyarut Shak"ed Shel Keren Keyemet L'Yisrael, Al-Shem Uri Maymon ('The Sha"ked Youth Scouting Groups of the Jewish National Fund, in the name of Uri

Maymon' (trans. by author)), Sha"kedeeton (Sha"ked Newspaper) (Be'er Sheva; 2002)

Hayles, N. Katherine, "Simulated Nature and Natural Simulations: Rethinking the Relation between the Beholder and the World" in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1995), pp.409-425.

Kimmerling, Baruch, Zionism and Territory: The Socio-Territorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics (Berkeley, CA: University of California; 1983)

Laclau, Ernesto, Emancipation(s) (London: Verso; 1996)

Netanyahu, Yoni, "Topography" in Sha"kedeeton (Sha"ked Newspaper) (2002)

Rabinowitz, Dan, Overlooking Nazareth: The ethnography of exclusion in Galilee (U.K.: Cambridge University Press; 1997)

Schwartz, Eilon, Changing Paradigms in Israeli Environmental Education (Tel-Aviv;1997) .

Slyomovics, Susan, The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village (Philadelphia: University; 1998).

Tal, Alon, Pollution in the Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002).   

Yiftachel, Oren, "Nation-Building or Ethnic Fragmentation? Ashkenazim, Mizrahim and Arabs in the Israeli Frontier", Space and Polity, Vol. 1: 2 (1997) pp.149-169.

Yiftachel, Oren, "Ethnocracy: the Politics of Judaizing Israel/Palestine" in Constellations, Vol. 6: 3 (1999), pp. 364-390.

Yiftachel, Oren, "Territory as the Kernel of the Nation: Space, Time and Nationalism in Israel/Palestine" in Geopolitics, Vol. 7: 2 (2002), pp. 215-248

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