Looking back from age 93, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel founder Azaria Alon describes how lonely it felt to be battling against the cement-and-mortar ethos that pervaded Israel in the state’s early years
By Zafrir Rinat | Oct.01, 2012

Teva Ve’adam ‏(Man and Nature‏)
by Azaria Alon. Am Oved (Hebrew), 298 pages, NIS 94

Environmental activists around the world love to quote anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It may be said that Azaria Alon and his colleagues in the establishment of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel are living proof of the truth of Mead’s statement. Thanks to their actions, Israel has been successful, despite a high population density and an obsession with development and construction, in preserving significant spaces for nature reserves, forests and national parks.

Alon’s autobiography is a survey of his 93 years, filled to the brim with activity that continues to this day. He has witnessed the great changes that have taken place in the land where he has lived most of his life ‏(Azaria was born in Russia in 1918, and brought here as a child‏). He was part of both the rise and fall of the collective lifestyle in Kibbutz Beit Hashita, where he still lives; he raised a large family, but his life’s work is his contribution to nature preservation.

The nature society was started in the 1950s by Alon and evolutionary biologist Prof. Amotz Zahavi, along with the zoologist Prof. Heinrich Mendelsohn. The enterprise was initially intended as a way to oppose the draining of Lake Hula. In fact, the members of the fledging organization did not succeed in their goal: The Hula was drained, and was lost forever. Today it is clear that there was no justification for sacrificing this unique water source in the Middle East.

Alon describes the struggles for environmental protection and the establishment of the organization associated with him. Sometimes it seems as if he merely scratches the surface, and doesn’t delve deeply enough into the matters at hand. There are long descriptions of his family that are no doubt important to Alon and his relatives, but less interesting for readers who are unacquainted with them. It would have been preferable to expand the depictions of his fight to protect the environment.

Such additional detail is essential, considering the courageous battles fought by SPNI against the cement-and-mortar ethos that pervaded Israel in the state’s early years. Its ability to have any influence on nature preservation is an impressive achievement in itself, considering the powers its members were up against. When Alon and his associates began to act, the country’s highly centralized government almost totally neglected the places under discussion in the book. Alon describes a visit to Ein Gedi in the 1950s, at that time populated by what he terms “army outlaws.” The soldiers were so happy that anyone at all had bothered to come there that they began to fire their weapons and toss grenades, injuring one of the senior members of the nature society. South of Ein Gedi, soldiers freely hunted wild animals and almost wiped them out.

Working in the environmental organization in its early days offered neither honor nor money. On the contrary, the establishment treated the group with contempt. Only after many years of lobbying, with reliance on individual connections and the force of the founders’ personalities, did SPNI begin to make some decision makers understand that they could not pave and develop every inch of the country.

Alon, who does not allow himself to view the past through rose-colored lenses, says the group operated on the strength of emotion in its first years. “We didn’t define objectives or develop ideology; we did everything solely out of passion,” he writes.

‘Not conceived in Antarctica’

The concept of nature preservation that developed in Israel was closely connected to the construction of a Jewish Israeli national identity, Alon writes: “Nature in the Land of Israel is the foundation of the Hebrew language, of culture and the Jewish way of thinking. This nation was not conceived in Antarctica or a tropical forest. It was created in this land, with its [particular] character and all the contradictions it contains; this character must be preserved.”

SPNI also knew when to draw the line and concede preservation in favor of security considerations. Alon offers the example of Mount Meron in the Galilee as an instance in which the environmental group gave up its opposition to the establishment of a radar station and army camp. “We were summoned to air force headquarters,” Alon writes. “There we were told that the top of Mount Meron was the only place in Israel with a view of the Damascus airport, and that from there it was possible to have a few minutes’ advance warning of any possible air strike. We gave in. The radar station and army camp were built.”

The organization’s activities were also conducted in the name of a broader concept of civil society: It took Arabs into its ranks, operated under a rather weak hierarchy and preserved an extremely democratic character. At the same time, Alon believed it was best to limit Arab participation in the movement’s popular hiking groups. Among other things, he was concerned that the existence of Arab teenage hiking groups would encourage awareness of the Nakba and of nationalistic feelings − the flip side of the connection he saw between an affinity with nature in Israel and Jewish national identity.

Alon understands the limits of a return to nature that is intertwined with nationalism. Contrary to the image he acquired early on as being a believer in Greater Israel who supported settlement activity in the territories, Alon makes clear in the book that his position is more sober now. He did initially believe that it was possible to create a Jewish majority in the West Bank and absorb the Palestinians there as citizens, but at a certain point came to believe such a result was unattainable.

Alon briefly surveys the major environmental battles in which SPNI has taken part. The list of achievements is long, and includes helping turn Mount Carmel into a national park, preventing the establishment of a Voice of America radio station in the Arava in the south, and the successful national campaign against picking wildflowers. The book doesn’t offer a set environmental doctrine, but one gets the impression that SPNI has managed to improve its methods of operation and become more professional over the years. The big question now is whether it can continue its work in the future, in the context of continued population growth and the increasing demand that Israel’s consumer culture is making on natural resources.

Despite the shadow looming over the environment, Azaria Alon has more than a few reasons to be proud and even optimistic, especially when taking into account the uphill battle he and his fellow early environmentalists had to fight. One can only envy the strength of his desire to experience the beauties of the nature he aims to preserve. He expresses this in a simple but eloquent manner at the end of the book, when he describes the past winter’s heavy rains and what he was anticipating in their wake: “In Ein Anava and Nahal Arugot, orchids will blossom in a large grove that only God knows how it made its way to the desert; on Mount Negev, red tulips will blossom and the pink sun-rose will flower in its many hues. The stags will fight among themselves, Tristram’s starlings will sing, and perhaps, just perhaps, an ancestral golden eagle that we call a rock eagle will cross overhead again. We have much to look forward to.”