Israel Used to Be Beautiful. Then Came Zionism

If the world's flora and fauna will need millions of years to rebound from the damage humanity has wrought on the planet, recovering from the ecological and aesthetic ravages of Zionism will take twice as long

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
An Israeli license plate burried in dirt
Credit: Eyal Toueg
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Israel celebrated its 74th birthday earlier this month as one of the ugliest countries in the world. That becomes readily apparent as one’s plane descends to Ben-Gurion International Airport. Spread out below is a charmless carpet of parking lots, rock quarries, interchanges, housing projects and supermarkets. It doesn’t get better at ground level: More parking lots, quarries, interchanges, housing projects and supermarkets.

In winter and spring the weeds manage to conceal the ugliness in certain places, but as summer looms, the truth will out: This country has become irreparably uglified. No one can honestly say that it’s beautiful. Well, maybe fans of horror-movie, post-apocalyptic landscapes can.

Poor planning and neglect can be found in other countries, too. But they compensate for it with spectacular wild landscapes and architectural gems. Not so in Israel. Once there was a delightfully beautiful country here, but no longer: Zionism has wrought irredeemable destruction on it. In the long term, this is the principal legacy of the Zionist project. Political regimes will come and go here in the future, as they have done in the past. But eons will be needed to undo the ecological and aesthetic harm we have inflicted on the earth. A limestone hill truncated by bulldozers is now gone forever. A lizard that has become extinct will never exist again. If it would take a few million years for the world’s flora and fauna to rehabilitate themselves from the damage wrought by humanity to the planet, undoing the damage caused by Zionism will take twice as long.

In the past it was possible to say that Israel was not wealthy enough to take aesthetic considerations into account. But that’s no longer the case. Israel is a rich country that looks like a backward one. The real estate-childbearing amalgam – a fusion of a money-machine and a hatchery for the Jewish people – runs roughshod over every flower, stream or bird. Which is ironic, because Zionism was always so obsessive about the Land of Israel and its vistas. But it took revenge precisely on those biblical landscapes that for generations were identified with the Promised Land – drying out the Jordan River, vaporizing the Dead Sea and crisscrossing the Jezreel Valley with highways.

The educational programs aimed at acquainting people with the land also contributed, in the end, to its ruination. So fond are Israel’s masses of the country’s hiking trails that they trample them underfoot. There are still some open expanses in the Negev, but even the ravines in the south and the dunes lining the coastal plain have been largely worn down by the millions of students who are dragged there on annual school outings.

Everything has changed, but the gazelle stays the same. It doesn’t get angry over what was done to its family and is neither a hero nor an unfortunate. Credit: Gil Eliahu

On Memorial Day the radio still plays songs with lyrics by Natan Yonatan, with images like “land of sweet clods of earth” or lines like “the fig tree puts forth its figs, the vulture is weary...” But the fields that stretch into the distance, about which the old songs were written, apparently no longer exist. They have been covered over with new buildings, their construction hastily approved by building and planning committees. The fig trees have withered, the weary vultures were poisoned. These days they exist only in those doleful songs.

The enterprise of uglifying Israel is a years-long legacy of Zionism. It’s the product of state socialism and neoliberalism, Jewish disdain for the visual dimension of life and the colonialist logic of fortification and settlement. There were those who warned of such an outcome. During the early British Mandate period, architect Charles Robert Ashbee, an adviser to the governor of Jerusalem, cautioned that under the Zionist momentum of settlement and development, the country’s landscape would end up looking like an Eastern European shtetl that had undergone Americanization. The German Jewish philosopher Oskar Goldberg also warned that “the religious land of biblical times must not become a land of modern industry.” And there were others. But it’s not by chance that their names are barely known today. Observations along those lines were crushed under the utilitarian logic of “developing the country.”

Ode to the gazelle

Given this vale of tears, I admire the few people who, despite everything, are trying to create a sliver of beauty amid the land of cast concrete and steel called Israel. They include the citizens who are doing battle against the ICL Group, whose phosphates plant caused the disastrous pollution of the Ein Zin and Ein Akrabim nature reserves in the Negev. Or the couple who are caring for a hyena that has the misfortune to live in an area in the center of the country that is being blanketed with buildings. Or the gay Bedouin from the north who opened a stylish café in an “unrecognized” community, wedged between gas stations and garages. But most of all, the few animals that are succeeding in subsisting and surviving.

It’s amazing to see a gazelle in 2022 Israel. Everything around has changed, but the gazelle has stayed the same. It lives among us but doesn’t know the name of the territory in which it was born. It doesn’t vote or pay taxes. It doesn’t get angry over what was done to its family, and it’s neither a hero nor an unfortunate. It wouldn’t want to light a torch in the Independence Day ceremony. It stands in an open space, lifts its head and then saunters off to look for leaves.

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