An extraordinary story

For Alon Tal, Israeli forests are models for reforestation throughout the world.

Alon Tal, Tzipi Livni Party candidate 390 (photo credit: Green Movement)
Alon Tal, Tzipi Livni Party candidate 390
(photo credit: Green Movement)

For those eager to plunge into an alternative history of Israel, Prof. Alon Tal allows readers to truly see the forest despite the trees in his newly published hardcover.

In All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present, he artfully examines the tumultuous history of the country’s woodlands, from the beginning of time through the present. The 276-page volume, best serving academics, environmentalists and history enthusiasts, was published by Yale University Press as part of the Yale Agrarian Studies Series, in October. A veteran of Israel’s environmental world, Tal is a faculty member of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Blaustein Institute of Desert Research, currently on sabbatical at Stanford University.
Remarking that in Israel “the atypical is typical,” he makes clear that so too do its forests “tell an extraordinary story.”
His comprehensive account of the country’s woodland history begins by comparing the uniqueness of Israel’s forests to that of its cultural makeup; a place with “the highest per capita concentration” of drip irrigation systems, Facebook profiles and armored tanks. Despite the small size of Israel’s forests in comparison to global woodlands, Tal says that they could indeed serve as instructive models for reforestation throughout the world.
Israel fares much better than its neighbors in terms of trees, with 8.5 percent of the land covered in woodlands, as opposed to 1.5% in the Palestinian Authority and 1.1% in Jordan. Yet while so many of the country’s forests do thrive, he says others are wrought with “ecological blunders.”
“Because of its small size and the frenetic nature of its afforestation program, Israel can serve as a time machine,” Tal explains.
Tracing back to the days of the Bible, the book describes Joseph’s two sons gaining a glimpse of their new territory, the “undulating, craggy woodlands in the Mediterranean heartland.” Trees were “treasured as a source of life and a source of wonder” during this period, and the Land of Israel featured a variety of fruit and forest trees, Tal writes.
Yet at the time, in order to be able to cultivate the land, the Israelites needed to cut down trees that were just too plentiful.
In addition to active deforestation for farming, wars became “a particularly salient driver of deforestation” as well; a situation that has repeated itself timelessly throughout the world.
By World War I, the Land of Israel had reached a situation of true ecological degradation, he writes. Yet during the 30 years that followed, the afforestation programs of the British Mandate, the Zionist settlers and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) collectively established the roots of the modern forestry system that still attempts to restore the woodlands of the Bible today.
While the Mandate period may have provided the foundation for afforestation in Israel, Tal stresses that the era was by no means “spared mayhem,” and that “trees, as always, offered an easy target” while “anarchy raged throughout Palestine.”
ULTIMATELY, THE achievements of the Mandate foresters, who proved that forests could be restored, “fired the enthusiasm and contributed to the confidence of the next wave of afforestation crusaders, as the new State of Israel set about writing the next chapter,” Tal writes.
Since 1961, KKL-JNF has been the sole authority over afforestation activities in Israel. Along the way, its foresters encountered many trials and tribulations – such as unwittingly planting Jerusalem pine seeds in the 1970s and 1980s that grew into feeble trees, Tal explains. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, the organization underwent a transition from oldtime to sustainable forestry, in which the purpose of cultivating woodlands was no longer about lumber provision.
Tal’s book also takes a specific look at the afforestation effort led by KKL-JNF in the Negev desert, which began when the organization planted some 40 million trees, mostly Aleppo pines, during the 1960s in Yatir. As desertification affects between 10% and 20% of the world, he shows how the expertise honed in Israel toward regenerating arid soil has become popular in the international community.
While the afforestation model has proved hugely successful, it is not without heavy criticism, particularly due to its potentially adverse effects on local biodiversity.
“No area of controversy remains as unresolved as the issue of afforestation in semi-arid zones where the battle lines are clearly drawn,” he writes. “Many nature advocates would like to call off the celebration.”
Tal cannot, of course, present a comprehensive coverage of Israel’s woodlands without taking a look at the debacle that was the Carmel Forest fire in December 2010 – the “most ferocious forest fire in the country’s history” that claimed many lives. The Carmel Forest constitutes “Israel’s quintessential Mediterranean forest,” with woodlands that survived the Turkish rule and offer “a sprawling network of craggy evergreen hillsides sloping down to the Mediterranean Sea.”
Despite the destruction of the Carmel landscape caused by the fire, Tal argues that “it would be wrong to characterize these events as ecological catastrophes.”
Without the disturbances of forest fires, regeneration and renewal of healthy ecosystems could never occur, he says. Implementation of fire prevention methods, such as pruning forests to curb fire spread and planting fire resistant oaks and carobs in strategic locations, still remain crucial, however.
In addition to examining the states of the trees themselves, he paints the portraits of the many human faces who have immersed themselves in the maintenance of Israel’s forests in the past and today – from a deep critic of forestry practices to a “bodyguard” of the trees to a Beduin community newly discovering the woodland lure.
“To be sure, the Bible authenticates the long history of trees and woodlands in the land of Israel,” Tal writes. “But only recently have Israelis had an opportunity to establish a real relationship with them.”

All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present

By Alon Tal
Yale University Press
276 pages; $50