by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Trees matter, and Israelis, of all people, should understand why.
On May 19, 2014, Daher Nassar, a Palestinian farmer in the West Bank, awoke to find that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had bulldozed about 1,500 of his trees. “I had figs, apples, apricots, olives, grapevines,” Nassar told Haaretz, speaking about his ruined orchard in the valley below the Palestinian village of Nahalin and the Jewish settlement of Neve Daniel. “Why would they destroy them?…I raised those trees like I raised my own children.”
Palestinian trees have been the casualties of Israeli politics for decades. The Nassar uprooting drew an international outcry, and groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights, T’ruah, B’Tselem, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation track such events. But most American Jews seem unaware that Israeli authorities can summarily deem Palestinian areas to be “state lands,” order them evacuated and mow down their trees if the land appears neglected or its ownership can’t be documented to Israel’s standards. According to news accounts, the IDF in March bulldozed dozens of olive trees in the northern West Bank village of Tayasir, bringing the total number of trees destroyed across the region in one month to nearly 2,000.
Palestinian families who have lived on their land for generations but can’t furnish official ownership papers, or who have exhausted their appeals in the Israeli legal system, are powerless to stop the IDF from systematically destroying their ancient orchards to expand Israeli control over the West Bank (ostensibly for security) or to build settlements, separation walls, settler-only roads and sewage systems. (In the Nassar case, the IDF claimed that an appeal by the family hadn’t been properly filed.)
In addition to government-sanctioned actions, Palestinians for years have lost trees to harassment by militant Jewish settlers. Israeli settlers in recent months uprooted hundreds of olive saplings in the Palestinian town of al-Shuyoukh in the southern West Bank; settlers from the town of Immanuel uprooted 450 saplings in and around Deir Istiya in northern Salfit; and others attacked agricultural lands east of Turmus Ayya and cut down about 5,000 of 8,000 olive tree saplings—reportedly under the protection of the IDF.
This isn’t new. In the fall of 2003, The Guardian reported that armed Jewish settlers from Eli attacked Palestinian orchards in Sawiya, south of Nablus, and destroyed 1,000 olive trees, some dating back to Roman times. Abdula Yusaf, the owner of the trees, said, “The settlers came down the hill with knives and guns. They slashed open our sacks and emptied the olives onto the ground. They put guns against our heads and made us stand there while they did it.”
Yusaf said of the plundering mob, “We used to think they just wanted our olives, but it’s about land… By cutting the trees, they can say the land is neglected.”
In 2005, a special investigative team submitted a map to then-Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz showing locations where settlers had burned, uprooted or cut down hundreds of olive trees, blocked the water supply to Palestinian villages or physically terrorized Palestinian farmers. Israel’s then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz complained repeatedly to the defense minister, the public security minister, Shin Bet, the IDF Chief of Staff, the Central Command and the West Bank District Police. Then-Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised “to stop these hooligans.” But settler thuggery has persisted largely undeterred. According to various sources, about 1.2 million Palestinian trees have been uprooted since 1967, impoverishing families who rely on the olive harvest for their livelihood.
The Torah instructs that even in a time of war, fruit trees must not be destroyed unless the trees are being used as bulwarks to protect a city under siege (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). Rashi, the 11th-century authority, said that since the tree is not an enemy, we have no right to destroy it or make it suffer because of disputes between human beings. The 10th-century sage Abraham Ibn Ezra read the same verse to mean that we must not cut down trees “for man is the tree of the field”—that is, our lives as human beings depend on trees.
By either interpretation, one might expect religious Jews to respect olive trees owned and cultivated by human beings who, though not Jewish, were created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. Yet religious Jews are the most frequent perpetrators of terror attacks on trees that are used neither as “bulwarks” nor as cover for would-be snipers but as sustenance for Palestinian life and livelihood.
Even beyond their economic importance, the significance of trees to a people’s identity, culture and history should be obvious to every Jew of conscience. Just think of what trees have meant in the growth and development of Israel.
Since 1901, the Jewish National Fund has planted hundreds of millions of trees and American Jews have bought hundreds of millions of tree certificates in the name of bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations and weddings. In lieu of making aliyah, diaspora Jews put down roots in Israel by planting trees. Visiting dignitaries also plant trees. Israeli forests have been named for rich donors, for martyrs of the Holocaust, for Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, for Menachem Begin, for victims of AIDS and 9/11. In short, trees carry meaning.
In the late 1980s, during a wave of arson forest fires attributed to Arab militants, Mordechai Ruah, head of the JNF Forestry Department, said, “When I go into a forest and see a burnt tree, I actually hear it crying… I really feel the pain.”
Today, when ancient Palestinian olive trees are burned by Jewish fanatics or razed by IDF bulldozers, it’s not enough to feel their pain. We should cry out in protest and feel ashamed.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate was published in May.