As a person who grew up around plebeian pigeons and pet parakeets, birds were hardly on my mind when I moved to Israel. But as I acclimatized slowly to events on the ground of this paradoxical country, so did I gradually become enamored of its stunning skies. Israel receives a mind-boggling half a billion aviary visitors per year, making it one of the best bird paradises on earth.
On this 60th birthday of the state, the country's birds highlight its beauty and its bloodshed. Birds over borders – they so easily cross the lines that people dispute and at which they put up barriers, mines, barbed wire and fences.
Multitudes of pelicans, storks, cormorants, flamingos, herons, eagles, kingfishers, skylarks, warblers, egrets and cranes are among the species migrating from Europe, Asia and Africa. At first I was daunted by enthusiasts carrying scientific guides, adept at spouting Latin and Greek names. But I stopped trying to memorize the names of the birds; it was enough to share the day with them.
Official celebrations as Israel turns 60 include parties, platitudes and accolades. But in private this diamond jubilee is being approached with circumspection. Existential questions pervade this young/old country, even in areas that on the surface appear uncontroversial and apolitical.
Even birds have become involved. After the decision to choose a national bird in conjunction with this anniversary, the public was invited to pick from among ten endemic species. One local bird took an early lead as front-runner – blue as the national flag, and with a melodic song. But when its full English name became known it became embarrassingly politically incorrect. In today's political reality a contestant called the Palestinian sunbird clearly could not win.
Internet ballots feature photos of the candidates. I immediately recognized my favorite bird and for the first time learned its name. In other countries the hoopoe is considered exotic; here it is merely another local resident. My little girl and I had first seen this gorgeous creature with regal tufted crown years ago, not in a zoo or a nature sanctuary, but humbly hopping on our front lawn like any everyday robin. So I cast my ballot for the bird that has shared our life.
Birds have played a modest part in joining Arabs and Israelis together. In the brief years promising peace, scientific endeavors such as tracking migration were joined by Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. With the recent threat of avian flu, Palestinians and Israelis temporarily put aside their differences to collaborate on preventing outbreaks.
Birds may inhabit the heavens, but they do not control them. They have watched as war has damaged their sanctuaries and filled their skies with airplanes and bombs. They have even figured in an attack. U.S. photographer, Gail Rubin, fell in love with Israel's migratory birds. She was in the habit of spending long, solitary hours on deserted beaches waiting for the best shots. In 1978 members of the Palestine Liberation Organization infiltrated the shore, stormed up the beach and hijacked a bus. Among the 35 civilians who perished in that attack was Rubin, holding her camera. Since then, the Gail Rubin memorial center at the kibbutz where she was killed has introduced generations to the birds Rubin adored.
Sixty is not an age for unmitigated celebration. Sixty-year-olds no longer take birthdays for granted and this anniversary includes taking stock of what has been achieved and what has not.
Israel has been populated by persecuted people welcomed from around the world. Moreover, the biblical phrase of bringing them "on the wings of eagles" is a modern metaphor used for the ingathering of the exiles. One of Israel's stated aims is to become a normal nation like any other. Indeed, it too has its share of prosaic birds such as aggressive crows, stealing as much as they can get away with.
And what of the dove, proverbial bird of peace? The rock dove, the collared dove, the stock dove and the laughing dove all call Israel home. But their symbolic cousin, the long-suffering dove of peace, still hovers on the sidelines patiently awaiting its cue.
Helen Schary Motro is a U.S. writer and lawyer teaching at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law.
E-mail Helen Schary Motro at firstname.lastname@example.org.