Bird’s-eye view

Those who say Israel is the center of the world wouldn’t be wrong. From a birds eye view up in space, we see Israel is the bridge between Africa, Asia and Europe. Israel’s placement on the planet has awarded our tiny country with landscapes, flora and fauna from all three of these continents. Our little land boasts a huge variety of trees, flowers and animals found in the likes of Africa, Asia and Europe. 

In the past, not having bottled mineral water, people traveled via the rivers. Israel has no major river, but it does have springs, wells and dew from the Mediterranean. Israel’s geographical placement and adequate water supply enabled it to serve as a natural intersection for ancient mighty empires, who either set out for war or to build trade. Strategically placed at the international crossroads of the whole planet,  Israel was the ideal location to share the ground-breaking ethical ideas with those who pass through. 

Zooming in from space, let’s focus on the land promised to the Jewish people: “A land flowing with milk and honey.” The land of Israel was not like Europe with cows grazing on lush green fields to turn their meal into milk. Milk came from goats who had nothing to eat but dry plants. Many people would turn their nose up at such a milk today, because it was not lactose free. But in those days people made do with what they had. 

Honey was most likely a syrup made by boiling dates. Dates are one of the Seven Species which God promised the Jewish people. The Seven Species are vital to fulfilling the commandments and celebrating the Jewish festivals. Before eating one of the Seven Species – or something made from them – throughout millennia we have said a blessing which is unique to each. 

Jewish people are a nation where past, present and future are inseparable. A few years ago, a 2000-year old date pip was discovered on the desert fortress of Masada. Over time, scientists cultivated it, pampered it, sang it to sleep and watched it turn into a palm tree. They even named it Methuselah after the oldest person in the Bible. 

The desert is a place where even atheists say their prayers. Not just atheists, religious people too. The founders of the three monotheistic religions all had life-changing encounters in the desert. The Bible has 7 different names for a desert according to the dryness of the region. One arid area is called “Zia” from which probably comes the word “Zion.”

There are four desert regions in Israel, each with a slightly different climate, caused by altitude and rainfall. The scorching Aravah is the home to several kibbutzim which astonishingly export more fruit and vegetables than anywhere else in Israel. The Judeaen desert for the most is uninhabited. Much of the Negev is set aside for the Israeli military. The Wilderness of  Zin offers Israelis “glamping,” a cross between glamour and camping where people can rent a luxury air-conditioned tent with premium mattresses and feather pillows, and settle down under the stars. 

As a youth, David was hunted by King Saul in the desert. He fled to Ein Gedi, a subterranean African ravine which has animals and plants found in Africa and nowhere else in Israel. From here he wrote some Tehilim, or as is known in English, the Psalms. With an abundance of springs, the kibbutz at Ein Gedi today supplies Israel with millions of bottles of mineral water. 

Another magnificent desert landscape is Machtesh Ramon. It is a scientific consensus that this vast hole in earth’s surface was caused by a deluge of water. The amount of water need to do this is so mind-boggling that some geologists think it could have happened by a flood – dating back to the time of Noah. 

Despite the beauty of the desert, it is also a danger. At great detriment to their health, tourists sometimes think that “a cup of tea” at the end of the day is enough to stay hydrated. But even in freezing night temperatures, the desert dehydrates. The results of not drinking 4 litres of water during a winter day are nearly as bad as not drinking 7 litres during the summer: headaches, throwing up or visits to the hospital. 

Aside from springs, ancient wells and cisterns, there are three masses of water in Israel: the Jordan River, the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the Dead Sea. Each one influences the other. Starting at the foot of Mount Hermon, 4 springs form tributaries converge into the Jordan River. The river gains velocity and continues south, descending down through the Jordan Valley into the Kinneret, the lowest fresh water lake in the world. From there it winds down the Jordan Valley, part of the Syrian African rift, the geological border between Africa and Asia. 

The banks of the river Jordan in the southern end are made of a soft marl stone. A few times in history, the banks have collapsed enabling the likes of armies to cross unharmed. It could well be that this is what happened to allow the Children of Israel to crossed over, but that we will never know. 

The Jordan River ends up in the Dead Sea, a salty lake with no outlet. There, the water sits in the the lowest place on earth and is rendered undrinkable. To the Jewish people, the Dead Sea is known as the Salt Sea, because it is viewed as a source of life. Armed by vision and determination, a few Polish Jews came to the land in the 1920’s, set up tents around that “sea” and mined the salt, potassium, potash and magnesium for life-saving causes. Today much of the minerals from the Dead Sea are exported as fertiliser for farmers in Africa.

Golda Meir once joked that Moses led the Jews through the wilderness for 40 years to the only place in the region without any oil. From Abraham’s quarrel with Abimelech right up to the present conflict, the hostilities in the region have mainly been about water – and not oil. Just as Abraham made a peace accord with Abimelech, Israel’s willingness to share her water technology with the Kingdom of Jordan also brought about a peace agreement. 

From kindergarten to the army, Israelis have it drummed into them to drink enough water and never to waste it. Necessity has birthed innovation, and has seen the invention of drip irrigation and recycling sewage for agriculture. The Kinneret was never clean enough to drink. With the restoration of the Jewish people to our homeland, Israelis devised a way to pump the water in the lake up hill, clean it, then channel it through pipes to supply communities as far south as the Negev desert.  The Negev desert – of all places – is now the primary region for fish farming.  

Zooming in to a finer resolution let’s take a look at the trees and flowers which grow in the land. Trees are one of earth’s most precious commodities. In Biblical times they were often the only source of shade and a give-away that water was near.

Just as the Dutch used their ingenuity to reclaim much of The Netherlands by draining the water, Israel has reclaimed her land by planting trees. A staggering 260 million trees have been planted over the last few decades, awarding Israel the prestigious title of being the only country on earth with a positive growth rate for trees. 

One of the most fascinating trees in Israel is the acacia. Out of all the trees in the land, it is the only one which isn’t prone to the dreaded woodworm. That made it ideal wood for building the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. Interestingly, the Biblical word for acacia is an Egyptian word, which is a word Moses would have known because he grew up in Egypt. 

Trees in Jewish sources have a subliminal and often theological message. Isaiah compares the Jewish people to a “Good Olive Tree.” Specifically, an olive tree is powerful metaphor because it is possible to cut off all the branches or even set fire to it, but that won’t destroy it forever. The olive tree can only be destroyed if it is completely uprooted from the land. Despite attempts to destroy the Jewish people through pogroms, persecutions and the Shoah, the Good Olive Tree is still here. 

Before defeating Sisera in battle, the Bible says the prophetess Deborah sat under a palm tree. Specifically noting a palm tree was intentional. The palm was a harbinger of victory. When the Romans destroyed Judea in the first second century, they celebrated their victory by plagiarising our Bible; they minted a coin with a Jewish woman weeping under a palm tree.  

Wild flowers are so cherished in Israel that speeding down the highway with the phone in one hand and a beer in the other, is considered less of a sin than picking a protected species of wild flower. When spring comes, hundreds of thousands of Israelis make their way through back-to-back traffic to enjoy the “peace and quiet” of nature reserves. They do this along with the other hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have come from the other direction, also to admire anemones, orchids, daffodils, iris, roses and tulips. 

The Gilboa iris grows only on Mount Gilboa and nowhere else in Israel. The balsam plant is another rare plant and the source of the ancient world’s most expensive perfume. Recently the plant is the subject of much excitement due to its rediscovery, and the possibility to recreate the much desired perfume. 

For our final resolution, let’s look at the animals who the trees and flowers need so badly. Our inter-continental flora are hosts to mammals and birds found in Africa, Asia and Europe. The rarest is the Arabian leopard, who, along with the Nubian ibex (which puts on weight if it eats too many leaves) roams the mountains of the south. The weird rabbit-sized hyrax mentioned in the Psalms, is a rodent that loves the desert, Mount Carmel and the rocky Golan Heights. Because of its extraordinary non-rodent characteristics – including a couple of tusks, scientists zoologically relate the little chap to the elephant. 

Over the last few decades Israel has invested much effort into preserving wildlife. The nature society has even made efforts to reintroduce species of animals mentioned in the Bible which had become extinct in the land over the last few hundred years. These include the Fallow deer, the ostrich, the white oryx and the Griffon vulture. 

There are about 190 nature reserves in Israel. The Hula reserve in the north of the Jordan Valley sits in the middle of very important agricultural land. The eco system is no less important than agriculture, so Israel set aside this piece of land for a nature reserve. The valley sits on the world’s major migration route for birds. Just as civilisations have done throughout the ages, birds also pass through on their way to and from Africa Asia and Europe. Twice a year Israel’s skies are filled with 500 million feathered visitors who stop in the valley to rest and feed. 

There was and always will be, so much more to Israel than meets the eye.