End of the Road

The environment is a worthy subject, but it's hard to have sympathy for a book that expresses more outrage over damage to the land than over the oppression of so many people living in this land.

"Sof haderekh: mota shel medina" ("The End of the Road: Death of a Country") by Tzur Shizaf, Am Oved, 314 pages, NIS 79

To live in an Arab house in Jaffa and claim to be a leftist; to suspect all of your Arab neighbors of having collaborated with the burglars who broke into your house and yet consider yourself enlightened; to think that concrete and asphalt are more destructive than fire and explosives; to equate damage done by the separation fence with that caused by Highway 6; to have more compassion for the eastern strawberry tree, the plane tree, the oak tree and the noble, scented laurel than for residents of this country, who may not be as noble or sweet scented - and then to write a book about all of it in bad Hebrew.

I confess: I am not crazy about nature lovers and I am not a dues-paying member of the Society for the Protection of Nature. I am not a fan of those who care more for the land than for the people who live in it. In a country so bloody, oppressive, brutal and discriminatory, the struggle needs to be shaped by human criteria: Human beings come before nature.

Quality of the environment is also determined first and foremost by just and ethical treatment of a country's inhabitants - not by bulldozers. After Israel becomes a just society that treats its citizens fairly, then it can address the bitter fate of flowers and lizards.

This is not to say that one cannot write a worthy book about the destruction of the Israeli landscape. But it has to preserve some human dimension and it has to be properly written. Tzur Shizaf does neither.

Where's the editor?

So is it the "end of the road"? Are we looking at the death of the country? Maybe, but not because of Highway 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway), and not because certain species of crabs are disappearing from our shores.

Let's put aside for the moment the content. Let's talk about the writing. It's been a long time since I've read a book so lowbrow, coarse and sloppily written, without the slightest attempt having been made to edit the grammar or style. When you love a country, shouldn't you also love its language? Is language not a part of a country's beauty? There are countless examples of shoddy writing; they appear on every page: "Arrogance and thinking you know it all is the reason for how this country looks"; "The Sun 'n Sea wall is the place to practice how not to give a damn about what is known as the little man"; "They shit on their own lives and stick their head under a pile of crap"; "That is maybe one of the surprising things about the Israeli beast. They never accept the blame for anything."

Not that there are no attempts at lyricism: "The bananas radiated health"; "the spring water babbled"; "the water had a dark, damp smell." But however harsh the indictment may be, it is impossible to keep mum when reading such garbled sentences as "[Nahal] Amud is one of the delightful places that the inspector who was evicted from it turned into a paradise by reconstructing terraces, fruit orchards and water conduits"; or, "the quintessence of the Syrian-African rift, one of the best places in the world." Best place for whom? Best place for what?

In the very first chapter, Shizaf presents his warped credo: "Concrete and asphalt are much more destructive than fire and explosives." Do you really mean that, Shizaf? That concrete kills? That asphalt burns? One can be against lawless, harmful construction in this country without heading off into such extreme analogies. But from someone who is equally horrified by Highway 6 and the separation fence, I wouldn't expect more. "The separation fence is an element that can't be ignored," writes Shizaf, paying lip service to the construction project that inflicts the most harm on the people, the flora and fauna, and the landscape of this country. But it is only Highway 6 that he calls "despicable." A wall that has torn families apart, separated farmers from their land, kept employees from reaching their workplace and irreversibly scarred the landscape is less harmful in his eyes than a road that may be detrimental to sea daffodils.

Shizaf gets upset about road signs and overly sharp curves. "Israel is raping the landscape?" So what about its rape of people, especially those who call themselves Palestinians? An environmentalist who can't see that is not a genuine environmentalist. Maybe that explains why no respectable green organization of the European variety has ever been established here. Over there, the greens are affiliated with a real left - not an ersatz one.

Even when Shizaf denounces the separation barrier, he keeps to his own agenda: The project could ruin Wadi Qelt, the delightful springs under Batir or even Mahras Dalal, heaven forbid. In a country where the fence was rerouted so as not to harm protected irises on Mount Gilboa, while the needs of the Palestinians living nearby continued to be blithely ignored, Shizaf's voice may find a sympathetic ear. Around here, more people will stand up for the rights of chickens in a chicken coop than for the rights of the caged Palestinians.

"Maybe it's because I know what war looks like, and how futile it is, with great masses of people and material being pulverized," he writes about the last war, again without nary a word about the killing and destruction that took place on the other side of the border. Is it too much to expect of a committed environmental activist, concerned about the future of his country and the world, to devote a few words to the destruction Israel needlessly caused in Lebanon? Over there it's not an environment?

True, a number of myths are dashed in this book, for example the myth about Lake Kinneret being a vital source of drinking water, or the importance of phosphate production, but all this is dwarfed by Shizaf's selective vision and double standards.

'I didn't know'

The author is a resident of Jaffa who lives in an abandoned Arab house. Not everyone would be mentally and morally prepared to live in a building whose legal tenants and owners are rotting in some refugee camp, and at the same time sit there and moans about the destruction of the landscape. To one extent or another, we all live on land that once belonged to someone else. But to live in a home where the lives of others were forcefully torn asunder?

"When I moved to Jaffa almost a decade before the intifada, I can't say I had any profound thoughts," writes Shizaf, "I didn't know from nothing. I never thought about war, or refugees, or feelings. I wanted to live in an organic neighborhood where the houses weren't built according to a uniform plan and I could see the sea from my window."

Stolen houses constitute an "organic neighborhood"? Now that's a new way of looking at things, I have to admit. But even now, all Shizaf sees from his window is the sea. Does he ever see the owners of the house in his mind's eye? The people who built it and handed it down from one generation to the next? Where are they now? Has such a thought ever entered the mind of Shizaf, who is out to "save the world"? "Dorit, the woman I share the house with, says that living in Jaffa is like a Turkish movie," he writes. For the original tenants of the house, I'm sure a Turkish movie would not be the first image that comes to mind.

The house has been broken into twice. Not fun. The Arabs of Jaffa are not nice. The fact that they live in poverty and deprivation, the first generation after their national tragedy, makes no difference. Who is responsible for the break-in? His Arab neighbors. Shizaf is sure they collaborated with the burglars and told them when he wouldn't be home. Would he think that way if he lived in Ramat Aviv?

His blindness reaches new heights as he looks out the window facing the sea and says: "Jaffa hasn't changed much since the days of the British Mandate." The city once known as the "bride of the sea," most of whose inhabitants were forced to flee, with only the weak ones staying behind, "hasn't changed much."

What can one say? Maybe it is the end of the road. Maybe we are looking at the death of this country.