Israel's Society for Protection of Nature Turns 60 Amid Doubts Over Future

As mainstream organization with business model, environmental group needs to redefine itself, says co-founder.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Employees of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel through the years are scheduled to gather Thursday in Netanya for a mass event marking 60 years since the environmental group’s founding. These veteran environmentalists have many achievements to their credit, but must still deal with questions and doubts about the organization’s path in recent years.

Actions taken to protect the country’s landscapes, flora and fauna are in the main thanks to the work of the SPNI, whose founders inspired the creation of government bodies that protect nature and the environment. There’s little doubt that without their public advocacy and educational programming this country would look totally different; it would be grayer and more wilted, and empty of gazelles, ibexes and irises.

But the pressures to build and develop are intensifying, with home prices skyrocketing and Israel’s population growing. The crucial question is how prepared the organization is to deal with these pressures and how it can successfully maneuver among society’s various sectors and recruit them to fight environmental battles.

In recent years the organization has developed expertise in various environmental issues. Its Environmental Protection Division employs planners, architects, lawyers and ecologists. The organization gets involved in environmental struggles by attending building and planning committee meetings, and has expanded its operations to other aspects of the environment, beginning to focus efforts on the urban environment, for example.

But as it moved toward professionalism and efficiency, the group’s character changed; it became more part of the establishment, with an emphasis on marketing and business management. For several years its executives have not been people directly engaged in nature conservation; its CEO is a financial manager, and former MK Haim Oron serves as chairman of its executive committee. The field schools have lost their importance, and its backbone of guides with knowledge, experience and initiative has been greatly reduced. A former senior executive defined these developments as having “done damage to the DNA of the SPNI.”

Some in the organization argue that it’s become too centralized and less tolerant of freedom of action and initiative among its members. The activism of groups like Green Course, which was once part of the SPNI, no longer exists. Today’s battlegrounds are committee hearings and face-to-face meetings with decision-makers and professional planning officials. Such activity has yielded many achievements, but a large environmental group will have a hard time sustaining itself over time without broad public support, as expressed by recruiting large numbers of people to fight for the environment.

These changes worry the founding generation.

“The society is not being managed by environmentalists, but by a money man and a former politician,” says Prof. Amotz Zahavi, who founded the SPNI with Azaria Alon. “These are not the people meant to be making decisions on conservation.”

According to Zahavi, the group has stopped being a leader of environmental campaigns and is instead being dragged into battles like preserving Palmahim Beach and defending the Sasgon Valley in the Arava, where a hotel is slated to be built. He adds that the group does not have enough professional staff with the right skills and field knowledge to confront the challenges posed by development.

Zahavi is also sharply critical of the SPNI’s move toward involvement in urban environments. “The SPNI’s role is to defend open spaces. That’s the best way for it to serve city residents as well,” he says. “Dealing with the urban environment is not its field of expertise or its mission; there are other organizations that do this.”

SPNI officials refute the criticism, saying that it has many people at various levels of the organization who are committed to nature conservation, and that as a large organization it needs different types of people with a variety of knowledge and skills. The group says it has been able to recruit first-rate people in conservation, marketing and finance, and that it is currently leading some 120 different environmental battles in cooperation with local residents and organizations.

On its involvement in urban environmental issues, the organization’s management said in a statement: “At issue is the important task of preserving city residents’ quality of life through local communities and branches. This poses no contradiction to acting to conserve open spaces. The absence of such activities would mean ignoring the quality of life of the majority of Israel’s residents.”

Some of the difficulties facing the SPNI today are not necessarily related to problematic behavior by the organization; there are objective difficulties in preserving the early successes in maintaining open spaces as pressures to build and develop increase. The challenge is even more complicated when environmentalists seek to protect open spaces in agricultural areas or at the edges of cities and prevent the construction of new communities. Defending unique, remote natural sites is much easier, since the public more easily identifies with the need to preserve them.

Now, more than ever, Israel needs strong “green” organizations. The SPNI must find ways to integrate environmental activism without giving up its professionalism and deep involvement in the social and economic aspects of environmental protection. The social-justice protests proved how essential it is to connect nature preservation to the social struggle for a better quality of life, a more equitable distribution of resources and urban planning that will use resources more efficiently and reduce the pressure on open areas.

The SPNI has become increasingly involved in fighting urban sprawl, such as in the Gazelle Valley in Jerusalem.Credit: Amir Balaban / SPNI

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