Borderline Views: The politics of planting

Tu Bishvat, which is also the birthday of the Knesset, should be transformed into a national day of ecological awareness.

A KKL-JNF sign near Jerusalem 390 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A KKL-JNF sign near Jerusalem 390
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
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.
But there 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 latter.
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 own course.
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.
This may 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.
Land 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 Prof.
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.
Reading the 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 resources.
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 related products.
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.