Dr. Liron Shani, Environmental Anthropologist: 
Studying Israelis and Their Relationship to Nature

acacia and arava
An acacia tree in THE Arava landscape.
Photo by Noam Ofran

Dr. Liron Shani, 2016-2017 Israel Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and Lecturer in Anthropology at Brandeis University, says his time in the United States has been invaluable to his work in environmental anthropology. “First of all, environmental anthropology and sociology still don’t exist as fields of study in Israel,” he explains. “Being part of these academic fields here will help me to further develop them in Israel when I go back, in 2018.” In 2016, Shani completed his dissertation at Tel Aviv University and was awarded the Max Gluckman Award for outstanding dissertation by the Israeli Anthropological Association.

Settlers, environmentalists, and “green Zionism"

Why be an environmental anthropologist in Israel? As it turns out, the study of people and their relationship to the environment and the land is closely intertwined with Zionism and national identity in Israel. This June, at the Association for Israel Studies annual conference, Shani will be presenting the paper “Nationalizing the natural: The Israeli space between environmentalism and landalism,” co-authored with Dr. Shai Dromi, a sociologist at Harvard University. This talk will be part of the panel “Land, Nature, and the Palestinian/Arab Other in Jewish Culture,” chaired by Schusterman Center founding director Ilan Troen.

The paper, based on Shani’s MA research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, compares two groups’ attitudes toward the natural environment. One is a group of Jewish-Israeli settlers who had been evicted from Gaza in 2005 and were working to establish a new community within Israel’s borders, east of Lachish. The other is the environmental activists who opposed the community’s establishment. “Each side feels that they are the true environmentalists,” Shani argues, “but they speak differently about nature. The settlers say they love the land, love living close to the land, planting trees, hiking. But environmentalists see the planting of the trees, even settlements themselves, as harmful to nature, biodiversity, and open spaces.” Environmentalists propose a “new, green Zionism,” one that preserves open spaces for the next generation of Israelis. But settlers – not just mitnachalim (settlers beyond the Green Line), but also more left-leaning mityashvim (settlers within Israel’s recognized borders) – point out that preserving what they call “open spaces” means prohibiting Israelis from building new communities. Many even accuse “green Zionism” of being a kind of post-Zionism.

liron's family
Shani's family, farmers in the Arava region, late 1970s

Shani also heard similar arguments during his dissertation research, conducted while at Tel Aviv University, on the tensions between agriculture and the environment in the Arava, the desert region in southern Israel where Shani was born and raised. The Arava region still supports itself from agriculture, and it is one of the last regions in Israel to do so. It therefore lends itself well to studying how people there define “nature” as opposed to “culture.”

The distinction between nature and culture has become central to the social sciences, and scholars have argued that universal human culture is structured by a perception that nature and culture are two distinct, dichotomous categories. But today, some prominent social scientists argue that scholars should abandon the nature-culture distinction, since the dividing line between nature and culture is gray or nonexistent. They argue that because humans are part of nature, and because the natural environment is interconnected with human civilization, the distinction between nature and culture is not useful as an analytical tool. Shani disagrees with those who offer this contention. He finds it useful to examine the nature-culture distinction—at least in Western culture—and argues that it is very much alive in people’s minds in the Arava. In his article “Liquid Distinctions,” recently accepted for publication in the Anthropology Quarterly, he more closely examines how groups play with the definitions of “nature” and “culture,” including environmental groups who negotiate this border with one another. Does planting an acacia tree near a house count as nature conservation? Do nature preserves need to be completely separate from cultivated land?

Growing the field, and new projects

Shani is guest editing, with Natalia Gutkowski and Rafi Grosglik, an upcoming special issue of the Israeli journal Israeli Sociology on the anthropology and sociology of the environment. He does so with the intention of bringing the environment into sociological and anthropological research in Israel, emphasizing that his ability to guest edit this issue “is very much thanks to ideas I was exposed to here in the US,” both at Brandeis University and as a research associate at MIT. One example is the human/non-human discussion in anthropological literature. “The concept of the human and the non-human is almost nonexistent in the academy in Israel,” Shani explains, “but it is very much present in the American university, and I have been able to explore it here.” His recently published article “Of Trees and People: The Changing Entanglement in the Israeli Desert,” for example, considers the acacia tree’s position within the social fabric of Arava communities.

arava fields
Fields in the Arava and the Arava Stream.
Photo by Noam Ofran

He is also exploring the idea of the human and the non-human in the context of biological pesticides, i.e. the use of bugs created in labs to eat other bugs in the fields, replacing the use of chemical pesticides. Should these bugs be considered natural or man-made? Additionally, where do we draw the line between native species and invasive species? This has relevance for how we define the concepts of “native” and “invasive,” which in turn raises questions about culture, politics, nationality, globalization. When do you start to see people as “native” to a region? After 100 years? After 1,000 years?

Next year, Shani will be working at MIT in the departments of Anthropology and Science, Technology, and Society. Nearby, in Biology, he may find someone to study for a future project—on Israeli biologists. He plans to examine the role that cultural context plays in framing scientific research. “There are plenty of cultural differences between Americans and Israelis, and it may extend to how they think about the natural environment. Does it also lead to differences in how biologists interpret the natural phenomena which they research?”

In closing, Shani emphasizes that the environment and nature are very relevant to our understanding of cultural and social phenomena. In the present era of climate change, and with growing recognition of the human impact on the environment, he believes that understanding this is now more important than ever.

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