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UW Religion Today: How Israel Brought Back Its ‘Wild’

June 14, 2017
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By Paul V.M. Flesher

Wyoming has always been wild.

Our state contains broad stretches of wild areas. Our mountains, forests, prairies, rivers and streams support native wildlife. To be sure, humans have had an impact, but that impact has not ruined its wildness.

Israel is a different history. Like all lands around the Mediterranean Sea, its inhabitants cut down all its forests in the early centuries of the common era. This became the new normal and, well into the 20th century, little of its terrain was wooded. In the area around the famous Jezreel Valley, aerial photographs from 1948 show that the Manasseh Hills to the west had no trees.

But, then things changed. The young country of Israel wanted a new land and, so, they planted forests full of pines, evergreens and deciduous trees. Most species came from Mediterranean lands, but few were native to Israel.

In many areas, the plantings were wildly successful. Trees planted in the years after independence in 1948 have now matured and stand tall on the landscape. Their roots hold the ground in place; their leaves fertilize the soil; they help the soil hold moisture.

These new environmental conditions have enabled many native trees and bushes to return. When you walk about these forests looking for archaeological remains, as I have done near the Jezreel Valley in recent weeks, you discover that growth is everywhere -- too much, even!

Israel’s native bushes and brush favor thorns. The country’s weeds are varieties of thistles. Its vines also have thorns, usually growing across paths at knee or nose height. All of these are sharp and painful during the growing season. But, when the heat sets in and the weeds die, the barbs become even more excruciating.

However uncomfortable this is for humans, animals flourish in this new landscape. Many native species have returned on their own accord, without any attempt at reintroduction.

Up north, I watched a gazelle bounce shyly away behind an olive tree near the Lebanon border. On the Golan Heights, just a couple of miles from Syria, a hyena evaluated how dangerous I was. (He waited still until I passed and then moved on; he deemed me no threat.)

Here, in the Jezreel Valley, I hear jackals every night outside my window. They mate for life but do not run in packs, so I am hearing a couple call to each other. Their voices are higher pitched than coyotes and sound more like a yowl rather than a long howl.

One native species has returned and flourished in these new forests, despite human disapproval. That is the wild boar. Nearly everyone on our survey team has heard the grunt of a boar before it slipped away in the undergrowth. But, I had a different experience.

Working my way down a steep hill one morning, I was struggling to move thorny vines so I could pass between a low tree and the thorn bushes around it. I uttered a great sigh of relief as I finally got to an open area. 

Suddenly, a loud sound of something(s) crashing through the woods arose in front of me, (thankfully) moving away from me. Then, when the sound reached the open area at the valley bottom, I saw a herd of more than 15 boars. In front were two females, followed by many piglets and then three large, male boars bringing up the rear.

Given that Orthodox Jews believe that pigs should not touch the land of Israel, the growing presence of wild boar presents a conundrum. Despite this, the Jerusalem zoo displays a boar; a sign on its pen reads, “This is not a pig.”

In the end, despite the lack of any plan or intent, the planting of forests in Israel has brought back both native plants and animals. They have enriched the biological diversity of the country tremendously, showing the resilience of nature. Israel’s wild is not what it once was -- too much has changed over the centuries. But, the return of the plants and animals has created a new “native” environment.

Flesher is a professor in UW’s Department of Religious Studies. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the web at To comment on this column, visit

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