Tomorrow is Tu Bishvat. Weather permitting, trees will be planted by
schoolchildren and youth movements in numerous locations throughout the country,
continuing a custom which predates the establishment of the State of Israel and
which has come to symbolize one of the classic mantras of the Zionist movement:
“the greening and re-blossoming of the landscape.”
For young children in
pre-school and first grade, this has become an annual event in which, even if
they do not fully understand the message, they are able to leave the discipline
of the classroom for a few hours, dig some soil, make a lot of noise and a lot
of dirt and, at the same time, plant a sapling.
The annual ceremonies are
just a small cog in the large national projects of reforestation and “land
reclamation” which have been central to the activities of the Jewish National
Fund (Keren Kayemet LeYisrael) for almost a hundred years.
Many of us
grew up in homes in the Diaspora where it was common to have a JNF box, along
with other charity boxes, in the house in which we would put small change every
week before the onset of Shabbat. This, we were taught, was our own small way of
making a contribution to transforming the Israeli desert into an oasis. Jewish
donors were often called upon to help rehabilitate landscapes after events like
the Carmel forest fire.
Until recently, anyone flying out of Israel from
Ben-Gurion Airport will have noticed the interesting exhibition of JNF-KKL
posters which adorn the long walk from the security check areas to the duty-free
halls, depicting these themes of landscape reclamation, the greening of the
desert, the drying of the swamps.
The posters were all parts of JNF and
Keren HaYesod fundraising campaigns over the years.
The posters offer a
fascinating insight into the way in which the pioneering Zionism of the
pre-state and first three decades of statehood was portrayed, often drawing on
Soviet-style images of the Russian peasant toiling at the soil.
has also been criticism of the way in which planting takes place in two distinct
spheres – the ecological and the political.
The slogans of “making the
desert bloom” or “greening the undeveloped landscape” have, in retrospect, often
been shown to be ecologically unfriendly.
Historically, the earlier
JNF-KKL functionaries believed that it was necessary to transform the aridity of
the Middle East into a copy of the green European landscapes. As a result, they
imported types of trees which were not suited to the local landscape and which,
in the long term, required large amounts of irrigation, putting pressure on
another scarce environmental resource – water.
The delicate ecological
balance was, in some cases, damaged, while micro-climates in and around urban
areas or new forest plantations were transformed from dry to humid, to the
detriment of the local populations. Even today, there are disputes between the
KKL and the various environmental agencies, such as the Nature Preservation
Society, over the continuation of planting in areas deemed inappropriate by the
It is ironic that, despite their different political outlooks,
the nature protection organizations often form a coalition with security and
defense agencies to prevent the use of land for development projects by the KKL.
They use their joint lobby in the country’s national planning authority to
prevent reforestation (or building) on land they feel, each for their own
reasons, would be better left open and untouched, allowing nature to take its
This ties in with the second form of critique; the fact that
the JNF has traditionally planted trees and forests in those areas which are
considered to be of national and strategic importance.
Since the original
mission statement of the JNF when it was founded in 1903 was to ensure that the
land would be controlled by the Jewish collective, later to be the State of
Israel and the Israel Lands Authority, the planting of forests has been used as
a means of ensuring national control of land in unsettled areas.
be along border areas (which is one reason why satellite maps of the region
clearly show the line of the border even in the absence of fences or walls), in
the peripheral areas of new settlements, or in areas which are contested between
Arabs and Jews, notably in Beduin areas of the Northern Negev. As I drive south
from Jerusalem via the Hebron bypass route to Beersheba, I see a wall of trees
to my left in the Yattir and Lahav reforestation projects stretching into the
distance, marking out a border which the JNF cannot cross.
designated as forest cannot be built on and will not be granted permits by the
country’s planning authorities.
The political objectives of tree planting
is not something new. It was discussed in detail in an excellent PhD thesis by
Shaul Cohen some 20 years ago in the Department of Geography at the
Hebrew University, entitled: The Politics of Planting: Israeli-Palestinian
Competition for Control of Land in the Jerusalem Periphery
Biblical texts concerning warfare, one of the most serious prohibitions concerns
the commandment forbidding the uprooting of fruit trees, and it is unfortunate –
and self defeating – that the Israeli authorities have occasionally resorted to
the uprooting of Palestinian orchards, on many occasions justified on defensive
grounds. This runs against the whole Zionist political ethos of the importance
of trees and the development of the natural landscape and raises serious
questions concerning our commitment to this most important of
Most of us see Tu Bishvat as a pleasant minor festival, where
we can watch our children (or grandchildren) plant trees and we can spend the
day (or week) eating the many fruits of this bountiful land. Within the Sephardi
communities, there is an order of service, akin to the Passover seder, where
families gather and make blessings on as many fruits as possible. Like all
festivals, it has become commercialized, and shops and supermarkets spend the
two weeks leading up to Tu Bishvat cashing in on the sale of dry fruits and
As we mature as a country and a society we should
equally be aware of the additional social and political implications of our
planting ceremonies. We should undertake them in such a way as to ensure that we
contribute in a positive way to the delicate ecological balance of this region,
and we should not use political reasons of land control as an excuse for
planting, regardless of the ecological implications.
Tu Bishvat, which is
also the birthday of the Knesset, should be transformed into a national day of
ecological awareness, with appropriate educational programs for all those
schools which undertake planting ceremonies, bringing the message of the day
into line with contemporary global concerns of environmental
preservation.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at Ben- Gurion University. The comments expressed are his alone.