This week I accompanied a group of Jewish educators from Mexico on an excursion to the Negev and Judean Desert. Thirty years ago, we lived for a year in Beersheba, and loved the desert; yet it has been nearly ten years since my last visit to Eilat, so I was curious as to how it would feel to me now that I have become a Galilean. Here are some impressions:
Eilat, now as then, is an ugly city in a beautiful location, only more so. Hotels and fast food restaurants have multiplied, and now there is a large indoor mall too. It is hard to find a spot from which to enjoy a view of mountains and/or sea that is not marred by commercial development -- and the architectural style of these establishments tends to be garish or bombastic, like in any tourist honky-tonk area in the world. We went snorkling, and the underwater world is still beautiful, though of course there too the beauty is being compromised by the detritus of development.
Our base in the area was Kibbutz Ketura, founded by American Young Judeans inspired by Ben Gurions vision of making the desert bloom. And indeed they have created oasis amidst the howling desolation of the Arava. Ketura runs a guest house and seminar center, similar to ours at Shorashim, with programs on kibbutz life, on dilemmas of development, on mans interaction with the desert. We experienced several of these; including a hike through the desert to a beautiful spot where, at twilight, we studied Elijahs desert experience and had some time to appreciate the quiet, listening, perhaps, for the still small voice. One of Keturas business ventures is a partnership in a fish farm (in nets, in the Gulf of Aqaba); we ate lunch in their restaurant in Eilat. I turns out that this venture is the subject of fierce controversy, as environmental groups insist that the fish farming is a major souce of pollution of the gulf and is killing the coral; indeed a week after our visit, the mayor of Eilat issued closure orders on the fish farms. The kibbutzniks argue that the claims are unsubstantiated and stem from commercial interests. I have no way of evaluating, but it is certainly ironic that these green pioneers are entangled in such a controversy.
One morning we visited Kibbutz Lotan, one of the two reform kibbutzim in the area, and toured their environmental education center. I think we were all moved by the commitment and creativity of this attempt to provide a demonstration of permaculture in Israel, using all kinds of methods to conserve resources and take advantage of the natural advantages of the area.
One of my responses to the visits to Ketura and Lotan was envy: these communities retain -- at least in the eye of the superficial observer -- a distinct feeling of halutziut - idealistic pioneering; i.e., struggling to live a value-based community life while building the nation and while coping with physical and economic challenges. On the one hand, perhaps what makes these efforts so attractive is that their location insulates them from some of the value conflicts that beset zionist settlement elsewhere in the country: here in the Arava there are no dilemmas of land ownership, of relations with other populations, of borders. On the other hand, the constant dilemma here is that of environmental impact. If the desert in its purity is both a natural and a spiritual resource, and if it is more fragile than we had thought, then every little decision of what to build and where, of what to plant and where, of what to discard and where, poses a question that must be answered seriously. It is not just us against the desert; it turns out that here, like everywhere else, it is us against ourselves.
There is something in the vastness and the power of the desert, something in its extremeness, that both attracts and repels, that is both beautiful and frightening. It puts us in our place. We tamper with it at our peril.