The other day I met with David, an architect with a particular interest with environmental issues, to discuss our idea of creating an environmental park-in-progress project here: visitors and locals, Arabs and Jews, tourists and Israelis, would work together, for long or short periods of time, creating meditation corners, study areas, environmental sculpture, etc., all over the hillside. It was a perfect spring day, and we walked together out onto the shoulder of Mt. Gilon, to the general area we would like to use. I hadnt been out there for months. The walk was truly breathtakingly beautiful. The carpet of green was splashed with every spring wildflower of the Galilee, in a brilliant profusion of red, yellow, violet, magenta, and white; they seemed to glow in the sunlight. The jagged rock formations and gnarled olive trees punctuated the lushness. The air was winter-clear, so we could see the whole panorama of the Hilazon valley out to the coast, and make out clearly the ships anchored in Haifa Bay.
It is difficult to describe the feeling. Walking through an impressionist painting. Feeling a strong desire to just sit down and stay there indefinitely. Wanting to drop everything else and start working on nothing but the park project right now. Wishing I knew Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Pied Beauty by heart. Feeling deeply grateful that this is where I live. Understanding the line in the morning service, Who daily renews, in His goodness, the work of creation... Knowing that in a few months this will be a field of dry thistles, with only the olive and carob trees remembering to be green. Wondering whether, in ten years, the development and settling of the Galilee (to which I am a party and of which I am a beneficiary) will have left any flowers on this mountainside.
There are certainly moments when I feel that what I really should do is to drop everything and join with David and others of his ilk in trying to bring the concepts of permaculture to this part of the world, where a whole people waxes eloquent about the spiritual beauty of the land, as they cover it in asphalt, cement, and litter. And I wonder why Israel has to learn all the lessons of the western world regarding environment and development the hard way, if others have already learned them. Why couldnt we build a public transportation system before we are forced to as a desperate last resort to prevent the total destruction of our air and landscape by the glut of private cars? Why couldnt we have preserved the recycling habits of an underdeveloped country for just a few years, so we wouldnt have to learn them all over again as an overdeveloped one? Why couldnt we create planning and zoning boards that could stand up to the juggernaut of commercial developers before they destroyed almost all of the Mediterranean beaches in the populated areas of the country? I guess none of these questions are particular to Israel; every developed country is now asking them. But perhaps because the country is so small, so limited in resources of land and water, perhaps because so much of Zionist thought and faith - and Jewish history - is linked to the natural landscape, the issues are starker here, the dilemmas more painful.
Moreover, there is an inherent conflict regarding the land and its development: Zionism still sees settling the land as a goal. We make the land ours again by living on it, developing it, building homes and towns and schools and roads, absorbing immigrants, building a strong economy, planting trees on barren hillsides. Zionism is activist and modern and positive. Zionism, as the Jewish Agency slogan has it, is doing. But what the land needs, if it is to stay green, is not doing, but being. It needs to be left alone. It needs to be developed less, not more.
Maybe the sabbatical year has something to teach us. Maybe we need to find a way to translate it from agriculture to development. How can we let the land rest and recover from all forms of exploitation, not just agriculture? Indeed, with respect to agriculture, it has been reduced to an inconvenience, solved by a legal fiction (if noticed at all) for most of the population. Perhaps the return to Israel as a modern state requires a modern reinterpretation of the concept of the sabbatical year. This is the kind of challenge in which Zionism can interface with liberal Judaism in creative and powerful ways...