JERUSALEM (AFP) — In Israel, where the decades-old Middle East conflict has long forced residents to choose between hawks and doves, not even a campaign to select a national bird is immune from political controversy.
For the next six months Israelis will be choosing from among 10 local birds, with the winning feathered creature becoming the country’s emblem at its 60th independence day anniversary in 2008.
But when selecting a single bird that best portrays the Israel’s character, voters face a real dilemma as almost no avian can escape parallels to sensitive social and political realities.
A transitory station for hundreds of millions of birds migrating from cold Europe to warmer Africa every year, Israel boasts an array of local species, some of which are on the verge of extinction.
The contest front-runners, chosen by a convention of bird lovers last week, are the night owl, red falcon, spur-winged plover, Griffon vulture, finch, kingfisher, hoopoe, nightingale, warbler and the sunbird.
“We were surprised to see that some extremely well-known birds which carry a certain cultural weight, such as the dove, did not appear on the final list,” said Amir Balaban, head of the Jerusalem birding station.
Pictures and descriptions of the birds have been made available on the website of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), and the public at large will be able to vote online or by phone for a favourite bird.
Schoolchildren and a panel of experts, politicians and intellectuals will also vote for their favourites, and naming the winner will be based on a combined result from the three groups.
By the time the campaign ends on Independence Day next May 8, more than one million Israelis are expected to have voted, says the contest’s head organiser, Tel Aviv University ornithologist Yossi Leshem.
But like so many things in Israel, even the choice of a bird appears to be tainted by the country’s intractable conflict with the Palestinians and its deep-running internal social problems.
“Yes, every bird has something quirky about it — I don’t know why,” Leshem admits.
The beautiful white owl is an extremely smart predator that helps farmers rid fields of unwanted rodents and possesses a “remarkable reproduction ability,” according to the SPNI website.
But it has “quite an aggressive character” — and “aggressor” is how Palestinians and Arabs often refer to the Jewish state.
The yellow-tailed nightingale, one of Israel’s most common and lovable birds and unique to the region, is described as “unbelievably friendly, brave, uniting in the face of danger.”
But the nightingale is also “extremely territorial and doesn’t allow anyone near. It builds its nest while flaunting its beauty outwardly, even if it is empty from the inside.”
On top of that, it “steals all the bedding for its nest from other birds” — bringing to mind Palestinian accusations that Israel is stealing land from their future state by expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
And if that were not enough, the nightingale’s name in both Hebrew and Arabic is Bulbul… a word children on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide use to refer to the penis.
The prominent Griffon vulture, with its wingspan of more than two metres (yards), is one of the country’s largest birds of prey and is hailed for being “purely monogamous”.
But its numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years because of poisoning in the north and in the Judean Desert. It also feeds on carrion and dry bones — not the best image for a country to assume.
The hoopoe is “a beautiful bird with a crown on its head. It is mentioned in Jewish tradition in legends on King Solomon.” But its nest stinks.
Finally, the local sunbird sings beautifully and is coloured bright blue, as is the Israeli flag. But its full name is… Palestine sunbird.
Leshem, who also jointly with the SPNI heads the Latrun international bird migration research centre, says that the national bird must have specific criteria.
“Does it represent Israel’s character? It has to be a permanent resident in Israel and raise its chicks here. Its name must appear in Jewish tradition. We also have to see how attractive its colours and singing are.”
The burden to be carried by the chosen bird will be heavy.
“We want the national bird to become a symbol of Israel which will appear on stamps, phone cards, coins and medals,” Leshem says.
Gitit Weissblum of the SPNI hopes the winner will not be a cause for controversy or a subject for mockery.
“Beauty is not enough. We want it to be a bird that represents the good things in this country and the great character of the Israelis,” she says.