Central to the Zionist narrative of nation-building, and used politically by Israel, the Jewish National Fund and settlers, the tradition of tree planting is being repurposed by Jewish activists as a tactic to oppose the Israeli occupation and show solidarity with Palestinians.
Every year, Jews around the world observe the holiday of Tu Bishvat, colloquially referred to as “the birthday of the trees.” But this year’s Tu Bishvat, which fell on February 4, was quite different for many; for the first time, multiple groups used the holiday as an opportunity to talk about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the status of Zionism.
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The relationship between these two things – trees and Zionism – might seem obscure. In actuality, however, Jewish anti-occupation activists are reviving an old tactic: planting trees as a statement of political perspective. The Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Zionist organization that, among other things, runs the Taglit-Birthright program, has for years used tree planting to strengthen the relationship between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel. It has become frequent practice for Jews to donate money to the JNF for tree planting – not only on Tu Bishvat, but also to mark the occasion of other major life turning points – births, deaths, weddings, bar and bat mitzvah, among others. The JNF website boasts that it has planted more than 240 million trees in Israel.
The practice of tree planting embodies not only a specific tactical offensive, but also symbolizes an entire narrative central to Zionist ideology. The same JNF website, in explaining why tree planting is a priority, states, “When the pioneers of the State [of Israel] arrived, they were greeted by barren land.” The narrative of barren land is absolutely central to the narrative of Zionism, as is the accompanying narrative that until the arrival of Jewish settlers, the land was empty not only of agriculture, but also of people. These tropes operate in Zionist discourses in order to discredit the vibrant histories of Palestinians in the land now occupied by Israel.
In 2006, the JNF signed a 49-year lease agreement with the State of Israel, which gives the JNF control over 30,000 hectares of Negev land for the development of forests. The Negev territory is historically disputed land. The JNF also plants on land confiscated from Palestinians. Susan Nathan’s 2005 The Other Side of Israel argues that planting trees, especially in the spaces where Arab villages existed before the 1948 war, is a tactic of erasing the history of Arab occupancy in what is now considered Israel. Shaul Ephraim Cohen alleges that part of the JNF planting regime is aimed not only at displacing Muslim Palestinians, but also at disrupting nomadic Bedouin ways of life (p.121).
In addition to tree planting, tree uprooting is another political tactic utilized in the region. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that more than 7,342 olive trees were damaged between January and September 2014 (and tens of thousands over recent years). Over 100,000 Palestinian families rely, either directly or indirectly, on the olive harvest for their survival. Tree uprooting has thus emerged as a tactic of dispossessing Palestinians from their land as well as punishing, intimidating and terrorizing those who resist. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and vigilante settlers have used tree uprooting as a terror tactic in recent years.
It is in relation to this conjunction of forestation and Zionism that anti-occupation Jews are reactivating the tradition of tree planting. This February, no fewer than three Jewish organizations devoted their efforts to planting in the Palestinian territories with the express purpose of opposing the occupation. On February 4 and 6, Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) donated saplings to Palestinian communities in Turmus Ayya and Yasuf. These two villages were chosen because they were both targets of settler and IDF uprooting campaigns in January. A reported 5,000 trees were uprooted in Turmus Ayya and 50 olive trees, each more than 30 years old, were uprooted from Yasuf. Jewish activists from RHR not only donated the saplings, but also assisted in the planting as their celebration of Tu Bishvat.
The organization Tru’ah has launched a similar campaign. They hosted a Tu Bishvat interfaith tree planting on January 17 for rabbinical, cantorial and yeshiva students and their families. Their event includes a study of ancient Jewish texts that discuss trees and agriculture.
Lastly, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence has initiated a tree planting campaign that will be undertaken from February 15 to 20 outside of Bethlehem. This campaign brings a delegation of more than 20 Jewish anti-occupation activists from around the world to plant olive saplings at the Tent of Nations, a family farm where the IDF uprooted 1,500 olive trees. Director for the Center for Jewish Nonviolence Ilana Sumka surmised that the uprooting at the Tent of Nations was due to its proximity to a nearby settlement: “We can only guess why the Israeli military – which gave Tent of Nations neither advance warning nor compensation – would destroy 1,500 fruit trees on private Palestinian property. A new road to the nearby settlements, or perhaps a new settlement altogether? I can’t think of a good reason for the destruction of those trees or a good reason to antagonize a peaceful family.”
The tactic of tree planting, once a hallmark of Zionist nation-building, has profound consequences for the development of Jewish anti-occupation politics. In repurposing this strategy, tree planting for Palestine solidarity has the potential to highlight the various ways in which political ideologies are cemented and practiced, the ways in which diaspora Jews are frequently complicit in occupation politics, and the rooting discussions of occupation in narratives of ongoing land dispossession.