The Old New Land and the Birds

Theodor Herzl, one of the most surprisingly prescient men who ever lived, called the land of Israel the Altneuland: the Old New Land. What a perfect name for this amazing, beautiful nation! Look on the right. There’s a start up incubator with 15 offices producing radical ideas that will change the world. Look on the left and across the street: an 11th century Crusader castle. Everywhere one looks there are signs of this curious co-existence between the past vs the future.

This fundamental struggle seems to find its way into every conceivable conversation about politics or cultural shifts or power or religion, and so forth. I suppose most international conflicts these days have something to do with the values of the past colliding with the forces that seek to limit, change, or utterly extirpate them. It’s just that in Israel the dialectic sometimes seem so big.

Today our Israel group set out for the Hula Valley. This is the remarkable area that was once swampy land filled with malarial mosquitos. In a huge reclamation effort in the 30s, the swamp was drained, thus opening the Hula valley to more agriculture. unfortunately, messing with the water level caused some very negative effects on the ecology years later. Chemicals were running off Hula Valley fields into the Sea of Galilee.Peat bogs were catching on fire underground.

So what did they do about it? The JNF took advantage of some heavy flooding in the Hula Valley in the 90s and kept flooding the land, a sort of “forward into the past” motif.

The result, sans mosquitoes, created an old new land, something the same but different. One unintended consequence was that migrating birds on their way from Europe and Asia to Africa began stopping for a rest in this new, shallow clean water — and stopping to snack on local farmers’ produce. So now a spectacle appears every winter in the Hula Valley. About 100,000 cranes arrive between December and February and are fed about 2 tons of corn a day to keep them happily fed. And today, we saw them.

I’m not sure the kids were all that captivated by the scene. Most people don’t care about the scenery or the view or the spectacles of nature until they’re pretty far into adulthood. But it sure captured my attention… This endless scene of majestic birds resting here, changing their centuries old migration patterns. Old new things. New old things. Happening every day.

I feel drawn to Israel, like a bird making the rounds. Again. There’s something about taking the pulse of the nation, about getting a sense of how people are feeling. It’s landing at Ben Gurion Airport and looking at the building expansion out the window which appears to be double the current structure. It’s the lush green fields indicating good rains this winter. It’s the prosperity. It’s the anxiety. It’s watching our children begin to appreciate that this place belongs to them in a complicated symbolic sense. Israel is for the birds that keep coming back.

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