Israel’s Stephen Harper visitor centre officially opens

Former prime minister Stephen Harper speaking at the official opening of the Stephen J. Harper KKL-JNF Hula Valley Visitor and Education Center in the northern Galilee.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper may be a fading star in Canadian politics, but when it comes to Israel, he’s still burning as brightly as ever. He was honoured on Nov. 6, at the official opening of the long-awaited Stephen J. Harper KKL-JNF Hula Valley Visitor and Education Center in the northern Galilee.

Speaking at the event, Harper quoted his late father, who told him that, “No group of people, for its size, has contributed as much (to) humanity, and in so many fields, as have the Jewish people.”

In 2013 the Jewish National Fund (JNF) of Canada thanked him for his unwavering support for Israel and the Jewish people at its annual Negev Dinner in Toronto. According to JNF Canada’s president, Wendy Spatzner, that event was the largest dinner honouring a Canadian prime minister in history. The event raised millions for the Hula Valley visitor centre.

Harper visited the site during his trip to Israel several months later, to tour the area and lay a cornerstone, which officially kicked off construction of the centre.

The Hula Valley, which originally contained a marshy lake, was part of a massive JNF land reclamation project in the 1950s. Its swampland was considered unproductive and dangerous because of its potential to foster malaria-carrying mosquitos. Drying out the region and turning it into productive farmland became a powerful symbol of the Israel’s rebirth.

However, though no one realized it at the time, draining Lake Hula had devastating ecological consequences: several native species were driven to extinction. In the 1990s, JNF started working with local farmers and residents to turn part of the area back into a wetland.

Restoration and conservation have since created a thriving ecosystem in the area. Local plant and animal species are thriving in the restored wetlands. And in 2011, the Hula painted frog, which was thought to be extinct, was spotted, alive and well. The Hula wetlands are also a natural filter, preserving vital fresh water in the Sea of Galilee.

But what the Hula Valley is best known for today is bird migration. Its marshes serve as an inviting rest stop for the nearly five million migrating cranes, pelicans, storks, flamingoes and nearly 400 other species that pass over Israel every spring and fall.

According to Daniel Atar, the world chair of KKL-JNF, the restoration is bringing much-needed tourism to the area. It is part of the organization’s plan to bring one million new residents to northern Israel. As Atar said at the opening, “This new beautiful centre is going to … lift up the entire economy for the whole area of the northern Galilee.”

Over 250 people attended the event, which was held in an air-conditioned tent due to an unseasonable heat wave. Among the many Manitobans present was Paula Grieef, a naturalist from Stonewall, Man., who does a lot of work in the Oak Hammock Marsh, the Hula Valley’s “sister marsh.” She said the visitor centre there recently signed a second memorandum of understanding with the JNF, aimed at mutual tourism efforts.

Though the ribbon has officially been cut, the visitor centre won’t actually open to the public for at least another month, while staff work out last-minute details.

Delays have plagued the project from the start. In early 2018, four years after Harper’s initial visit, The CJN visited the site, only to find that construction had practically stalled. At the time, JNF Canada CEO Lance Davis estimated that the centre’s interior would be finished by late summer 2019. He explained that the delays were due to upgrades in the original plans, which brought the total cost from about $12 million to about $25 million.

Now almost complete, the visitor centre’s exterior presents dramatic marshland-inspired architectural details, while its airy interior features the latest virtual reality, multimedia and interactive exhibits. There’s also a conference space and the 220-seat Laureen Harper Auditorium, which was named after Harper’s wife.

The Hula Valley has an estimated 400,000-plus annual visitors, which include bird and nature lovers from Israel and beyond. Visitors can explore the area on rented bikes or golf carts, or in a tractor-pulled mobile hide, which is used for bird watching. The birds have learned to ignore the hide and don’t see it as a threat, letting visitors enjoy dramatic close-up views. According to JNF officials, plans are in the works to extend the centre’s capability to engage in more scientific research of birds and their migration patterns.

At a gala dinner in Jerusalem on Nov. 5, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Harper for his ongoing efforts on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people, saying, “Stephen, you have stood up for our values time and again. You’re still doing that today. And we welcome you once again to Jerusalem.”

Harper compared the reclamation of the Hula Valley and the birds to Israel itself. “Here in Israel, we have … a human story of reclamation and migration,” he said. “Millions of people of Jewish faith and background have undertaken this journey back to their own land. In terms of human history, this is one of the greatest human restoration projects ever.”