'The red book'

An interest in botany has proven to be good source of mutual cooperation for our very divided country.

By S. H. ROLEF
April 27, 2011 22:42
4 minute read.
Botanical gardens

Botanical gardens 250. (photo credit: Courtesy)

I am not alluding to Mao’s Red Book, nor to the book written and illustrated by psychiatrist Carl Jung. The Red Book to which I am referring is a two-volume work written by Prof. Avi Shmida, Dr. Gadi Pollak and Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir about Israeli wild plants in danger of extinction. The first volume was published in 2007, and the second appeared recently.

Of around 2,700 species of wild plants in Israel, many are either extinct (36) or in danger of extinction. The Red Book lists all 414 endangered species, and provides botanical and geographical information about them. The protection of wild plants is included in the National Parks and Nature Reserves Act of 1963, which resulted from a campaign by the Nature Preservation Society in 1956. Under the law, certain plant species are guarded, and picking them is restricted. There are 257 species that are fully protected, meaning that picking them is prohibited. Strangely enough, of the 257 species protected in Israel, only 67 are on the endangered list – in other words, whoever is responsible for updating laws hasn’t been doing his job.

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Humanity is mainly responsible for many species of plants being in danger of extinction. Intensive construction and pollution have caused havoc to flora all over the world. Admittedly, the disappearance of most plant species does not pose a threat as such, though the disappearance of their habitat – such as the rainforests – does, due to its effect on global warming. Some might conclude that only sentimental ‘tree huggers’ are concerned, and that concentrating on this field is a waste of time. I would argue that this is a very narrow approach, that the nature around us, like our culture and heritage, is all part of our identity, and that neglecting it characterizes nihilistic materialism.

In Israel there are numerous organizations and individuals concerned with preserving the country’s flora. There are also some entrepreneurs who have turned uprooting trees and plants from construction sites, and replanting them elsewhere, into a source of profit.

A surprising positive side effect of concern for flora has been to bring together Israeli groups that would never otherwise meet. An example of where this occurs is a body called Rotem, established in 1979 by Prof. Shmida. Rotem engages in documentation, research and education related to the flora of Israel, and conducts study trips all over the country in all seasons. Participants come from all over – from Eilat in the South to Katzrin in the Golan Heights – and include persons of all ages, religious and secular, settlers from Judea and Samaria, kibbutzniks, old-timers and new immigrants, professionals and people for whom botany is a hobby. Many of these people observe and register flowers in all regions of the country, collecting seeds of endangered species.

Though my own participation in these trips focuses mainly on flower photography, in Rotem I have established friendships with people I would never have met otherwise, especially among settlers from Judea and Samaria. These are precious relationships based on a common interest that supersedes ideological differences and differences in lifestyle. These encounters have led to mutual respect and personal empathy, and even though none of us has changed our position, intolerance – not to mention demonization – is totally ruled out. Though most participants in Rotem’s activities are probably predisposed to mutual respect, in our divided country in which different population groups are constantly at each others’ throats, any meeting points or common experiences – especially pleasant ones – are important in order to prevent our society from falling completely apart.

Another example of the positive effect that engagement with flowers can have is the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens in Givat Ram. The gardens play an important role in the propagation of botanical knowledge and values, and the preservation of endangered species. The gardens also host Jewish and Arab school children from both the secular and religious sectors. Weekly botanical activities for the children, initiated by Dr. Fragman-Sapir, the chief scientist of the gardens, and one of the authors of The Red Book, have been running successfully for the past five years.

But going back to the specific problem of endangered plant species – hopefully the completion of The Red Book project will encourage all the various bodies and persons concerned to increase their efforts in favor of the preservation of nature in general, and that of plants in particular, both in terms of updating the legislation and of enlisting to struggle against projects and activities that are the causes of the problem. From any direction one looks at it – society can only benefit from such efforts.

The writer is a former Knesset employee.


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