This Trail Started There – Dr. Assaf Selzer

This Trail Started There

Dr. Assaf Selzer, Department of Israel Studies, University of Haifa

The first significant buds of ideological rambling in the Land of Israel appeared during the British Mandate, with the rise in national-Zionist activity in the wake of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate for Palestine. The General Organization of Workers in Israel (Histadrut) carried the banner of this culture: the traveling teachers who operated on its behalf disseminated information about the land among workers' groups, in cities and in villages. In what little leisure time they had on holidays and Saturdays, these workers flocked in their thousands to the open space, exploring places from the ancient past and recent present. The activity of “Yediat HaAretz,” literally – “Knowing the Land,” included providing ideological interpretation to the variety of phenomena seen in the landscape. Its scholars covered it all – geology and botany, zoology and history, folklore and hydrology, material culture and archeology. The aim was not to formulate new knowledge (as befits the examination of these disciplines in the framework of scientific scholarship) but rather to bestow meaning onto national existence.

As they developed and disseminated the "knowledge of the land,” others continued to walk the trails and expanses of the country, not to interpret the phenomena in ideological contexts, but to satisfy their various needs and conquer its territories through their feet. These include, among others, youth movements and defense forces (for example, Palmach expeditions). Meaning, even when the country and its phenomena were the arena of purposeful interpretation, the rambling continued for other reasons too.

On the eve of the War of Independence (November 1947), following difficulties and obstacles in the navigation of the desert areas, the first trail was marked. At the time of its marking, it had a simple objective – to show the way. After the war, the trail and its marking were left outside the country’s borders, but a little over a decade later the idea of marking trails was resurrected. Trail marking was meant to ensure the safety of hikers, but also to bring them closer to various places and contents. The idea of marking trails was also (and mostly) circulated amongst many populations through maps drawn by Field Schools. Thus, under the mission statement of the Field Schools’ activity, namely “instilling the love of the land and the values of its landscape,” the desire to bring hikers closer to the land (“knowing the land”) has been translated into a trail.

The trails offered an opportunity to encounter a plethora of phenomena, but in the absence of a clear mediator (such as a tour guide), the trail has lost its added value: an ideological translation of phenomena, befitting of the knowledge of the land. Thus, the glow of “knowing the land” has faded, leaving it a hollow motto whose physical manifestation was the trail. But the markers did not stop. Alongside the spreading use of the trails, the mapping of the country and the regulation of the trails by a public committee kept going strong.

When the "trail" became commonplace, the next stage was formulated – the Israel National Trail. The inauguration of this trail (1995), a little less than half a century after the first trail made its debut, marked the triumph of infrastructure over information. The trail planners were people of principle and made (and are still making) sure to move in areas that were not under political dispute, mostly in open areas, and to offer hikers encounters with a wide range of "knowledge of the land" phenomena. The success of the trail surpassed all expectations. The infrastructure provided by the trail serves many populations – from young people after their military service to groups of adults and individual hikers. All of them hike the trail, each for his or her own reasons. While originally created with the intention of laying the foundations for knowing the land, its users imbue it with additional meanings (much like the participants in the piece Israel Trail: Procession).

The success of the Israel National Trail as a thematic path motivated the creation of other thematic trails (Jesus Trail, Golani Trail and others). These constitute an attempt to build on the idea of infrastructure (the trail) as the basis for enhancing the hikers’ knowledge of a certain subject or area, resonating the dream of the “knowledge of the land” founders. Another instance of the attempt to reinstate the prominence of ideologically-mediating information is the forming plan to delineate an East-Israeli trail. Here, we once again see the desire to use rambling in nature as a means of instilling an ideological outlook.

The trails marked throughout Israel and the Israel National Trail in particular, which are the replication and local adaptation of ideas we know from other countries, started as an attempt to translate the extensive activity surrounding the knowledge of the land into an infrastructure. As the years passed, with the decline in ideological tension and the rise in leisure culture, the trail defeated the ideology. Born in order to bring those who walk in it closer to ideological contents, today the trail is used for many purposes. It seems that the attempt to mediate the land only through the prism of ideology is not sustainable. Many walk the Israel National Trail and use it as infrastructure, but do they know the country? Not necessarily. The trail that was created in order to serve “the knowledge of the land” has become the main thing, rather than the means.

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