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The Nature/Culture Dichotomy Revisited: Contested Visions of the Desert in Israeli Culture

Sun, December 16, 4:15 to 5:45pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cambridge 2


The romantic framework which emphasizes the nature/culture dichotomy identifies the desert as embodying nature that has remained untouched or unspoiled by human activity. As the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amihai writes, the desert is "pure landscape, net landscape.” Other Hebrew idiomatic expressions relate to the desert as “primordial landscape” or “Genesis Land,” thus invoking its association with the mythical origins of biblical times. As a site of nature, the desert is imagined as existing outside the flow of linear time, and resistant to historical and cultural change. This vision of the desert gave rise to new Hebrew desert folklore and the view of the Bedouins as providing a symbolic bridge to the biblical forefathers. Yet a counter-vision of the desert applied a negative view to its nature as inherently hostile to the Jewish settlement and its civilizing mission. The Hebrew settlement discourse articulates the conception of an ongoing struggle between the desert and the settlement and calls for the continuing need to protect the settlement from the desert and its destructive nature. Within the settlement discourse, the positive view of nature is conflated with planted trees and cultivated gardens. As environmental scholar Alon Tal notes, the tendency to blur the distinction between “nature” and “agriculture” in Zionist settlement discourse ignored the association of the latter with culture (which is linguistically displayed in the English concept but not in Hebrew). The rise of the Israeli environmental movement introduced a new awareness of the tension between the settlement mission to “make the desert bloom” and the need to “protect nature” from the onslaught of the settlement on the open, natural landscape. These contrasting visions in relation to the desert at times lead to open conflicts and legal contestations and at others coexist side by side, selectively used in different situations. This paper will analyze the different approaches to the desert and the contested visions of nature/culture relations by drawing on a variety of examples drawn from Israeli settlement, environmental, and tourist discourses.


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