We will dress you in a dress of cement and mortar; We will spread for you carpets of gardens; On the soil of your redeemed fields The grain will sing out like bells.
Through the desert we will carve a road; The swamps we'll dry them all up. What more we can give you, we will, What haven't we given that we still can give? -Nathan Alterman, from "Morning Song" 1934
Originally written for a Keren Hayesod (European UJA) fundraising film, this song by perhaps the most popular and prolific Israeli poet and songwriter of the pre-state and early state period was sung by generations of school children until it fell out of favor in recent years. The song's disappearance from popular culture is a striking indicator of the change in consciousness that has occurred and is occurring regarding our relationship to the land of Israel. For decades we lived on the myth that Israel had once, long ago, been a fruitful, green land in the years when we were sovereign here and cultivated and cared for the soil. But then, when we left, the land fell into disrepair and was abused armies cut down the trees, goats ate the new growth, silt plugged up the streams leaving the dismal and pathetic combination of swamp and desert that the Zionist pioneers found when they returned.
Our mission therefore was restoration, development, showing our love for the land by redeeming it from its misery. We set out to drain the swamps, to green the desert, to build passable roads, to replace the miserable hovels and stagnant villages of the Arabs with modern, orderly, healthy, towns and cities. Out of a backwater of the Ottoman empire we envisioned creating a European utopia. Of course, this vision implied that the status quo was unnatural, that what we were doing was rehabilitation, restoring the land to its original healthy state.
Reality, as is so often the case, turned out to be a bit more complicated than myth. As the twentieth century went by, we discovered that demonstrating our love for the land by dressing it in cement wasn't so romantic after all; especially when we had to carve up the mountains to quarry the limestone to make all that cement leaving that carpet of gardens under a pall of haze and smog from the quarries and kilns. And the classic case study in misguided enthusiasm for reclamation was the draining of the Hula swamp in the 1950s, perceived for years as the pinnacle of the Zionist effort to renew the homeland Until we found out that the swamp had served important ecological functions not only as a habitat, but as a filtration system for the water entering the Kinneret, and as a stabilizer for the soil in the entire valley. Dust storms, fires, soil collapse, mouse infestations our great achievement brought us a series of plagues until, in the 1990s we re-flooded sections of the valley (creating what is now a popular and beautiful nature reserve).
The Hula story is a cautionary tale about humility in our relationship with the land about the temptation to think we know more than we do. The green movement has had some impact on popular culture, but we still have not gotten over our need to show our love for or our possession of the land by bulldozing and paving it.
When you rent for years and then move into your own home, you feel this sudden liberation you can drive nails into the wall, paint the woodwork any crazy color you want the house is really yours to do with as you will. Zionism was like that. But now that we've asserted our freedom of ownership, we need to sober up and consider how to keep the house solid and livable for our grandchildren.