Friday, February 4, 2011

Peace 1 of 3: Olive Trees and Olive Branches (With More Pictures!)

One major agendo for me in Israel has been to get educated about the persistent conflict between Israel and its neighbors. There's a lot to learn, and I've been trying to expose myself to whatever I can without forming too strong an opinion yet. In the incarnation of the conflict, I'm finding myself inclined to view Israel as much more the aggressor, much more the villain, even, but that's probably not a helpful way to look at things. Mostly, I'm just trying to maintain hope that there are solutions.

Anyway, I've been to two interesting peace/conflict related events in the last couple weeks, and I'll be going to one more pretty soon, so I'm going to take my next three posts to recount what I've seen and reflect on the issue a little bit. 

January 20th was the holiday of Tu B'Shvat, the Birthday of the Trees, traditionally enjoyed with a feast of fruits and wine and often the planting of new trees. (I always thought the "Birthday of the Trees" label was nonsense Hebrew School fluff, but I realized this year that certain agricultural laws reference the ages of trees, and I guess we needed some kind of convention for when exactly a tree turns 3 years old.) The night of the 19th I had my four glasses of wine and variety of fruits, then I got up early the next morning to plant olive trees in Palestine.

Settlers (Jewish Israelis who have moved into towns in the occupied West Bank) have an ugly tendency to harass their Palestinian neighbors, and one of their favorite methods is to cut down the olive trees that constitute the livelihood of many farmers. A group called Rabbis for Human Rights organized a trip to replant the trees destroyed in one particular town as a gesture of peace and a celebration of Tu B'Shvat.

Olive trees are pretty remarkable plants. Full-grown, they're not more than fifteen or twenty feet high. They look something like this:

They can live for hundreds of years, surviving some pretty terrible conditions, and they just seem to have character about them. Take a look at this one. Couldn't you just have a conversation with it?

Here are a few that were cut down:

With the rabbis, and the good will, and the subversive use of canon, I expected this to be a profound spiritual event. We were gonna help the planet, fix the Middle-East problem, and get a good workout while we were at it. It didn't quite go that way, in the end. 

My friends and I did plant one little olive tree baby and attach a prayer to its trunk. It was much smaller than the pine saplings and whatnot I've seen for sale at Home Depot, and the hole was already dug by the time we got there, so planting a tree was a whole lot less work than I expected.

The prayer was provided by Rabbis for Human Rights. Written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, it said:
May it be Your will, O God, who has made us responsible for the deeds of our hands, that this tree will live and grow and bear fruit in peace;
May this tree, which was planted in Your holy land by the hands of those who desire life by demanding peace and pursuing peace in Your great and holy Name (Psalms 34), remind us to keep the words of Your holy Torah concerning trees:
Even in time of war “you must not destroy the [fruit] trees by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you must not cut them down; Are the trees of the field human beings, (able) to come against you in a siege?” (Deuteronomy 20:19)
For the Torah itself is “a tree of life to them that hold it tightly…its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace" (Proverbs 3).
As this tree spreads its branches, may You spread Your blessings over this Land, helping us ensure that justice and human rights abound for all her inhabitants as we foster the development of the Land for the benefit of all its inhabitants;.  a Land blessed with  freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets recognized by Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
May You guide us in the paths of peace and give us the insight to see Your Image in every human being, whether Jew, Muslim or Christian, whether Israeli or Palestinian. Help us realize that “We were not brought into this world for conflict and dissension, nor for hatred, jealousy, harassment or bloodshed. Rather, we were brought into this world in order to recognize You, may You be blessed forever” (R. Nahman of Bratzlav).
You can see that here, too, RHR is using religious canon to make the argument for peace. The political right so often claims exclusive religious authenticity; I like seeing my team show up with scripture for once.

But the mood at the event wasn't especially religious or spiritual, or even all that peaceful. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights thanked everyone for showing up. Then the Palestinian farmer whose trees we were replacing spoke for a few minutes about his intent to resist the settlers at all costs, planting 70 new trees every year for the 70 trees of his they'd cut down. Then we all stood around and took pictures of each other for an hour or so, planted a few scattered trees, and went home.

I think I see 5 people with cameras in this picture, plus one audio recorder (and my own camera, of course). I was just trying to get a shot of Drew, the guy in green.

I bring it up because all of the cameras and press at the place really bothered me, at first. I thought I was so clever, bringing a camera and planning to blog about the event, but it seemed like it ruined the whole thing to have everyone there for the story, and not so many there for the trees.

My buddy Getzel (the mensch on the left, here) cleared that up for me.

Getz pointed out that, well, there's a half-decent chance that these trees are gonna get cut down, too, quite possibly before their first birthday. Even if they live to adulthood, helping one Palestinian farmer keep his livelihood is wonderful, but not very likely to make a difference in the world, speaking big-picture-ly. But spreading the idea that cutting down your neighbors trees is no good, and reminding people of the Jewish commitment to a healthy land and helping our neighbors is pretty good. The creative use of canon might be spiritually powerful, but it makes for good press, too, and it spreads the commitment to peace, and the possibility of compassion, to people who might otherwise tune out pro-peace messages. The image he left me with, staying Tu B'Shvat appropriate, was of planting seeds in public opinion which might produce much more than olives.

By that standard, we might have been reasonably effective. I overheard a lot of people at my Yeshiva talking about the tree-planting, and apparently it got a lot of attention in Israeli press. Settlers started demonstrating outside of Rabbi Ackerman's house, calling him a traitor and yelling at his neighbors, mostly making themselves look bad, which brought more attention to the tree-planting and Rabbis for Human Rights. But I only found this one article in English-language press, and most people's minds are made up already. It's only a few folks in the middle who might be swayed by something like this; everyone else sees more evidence for their own position.

There are really two questions to consider about something like this:
Was it Good?
I think so. Cutting down people's olive trees is bad. Replanting them is good. Using Jewish traditions to reach out for peace is good. Provoking anti-peace extremists into embarrassing protests might be good. But it was definitely confrontational, for all that it wasn't violent. I think sometimes that RHR's strategy is to bully the people on the right to win over the people in the middle. That might strategically sound, but I worry it's not the right way to win, if winning means bringing real peace.

Was it Effective?
I don't know. I still hope so. The lack of English-language coverage is dismaying. I know it got covered more in Hebrew, but it couldn't have been that big a story if it didn't spread. I have no idea, really, how many people heard about it, and how many of those people would be moved. But I do think the story is great, of restoring someone's livelihood using powerful Jewish imagery. I'm sure that touched somebody else out there. If it only served to push some people inclined towards coexistence a little bit further along (like it did for me), I guess that'll have to do.

Next time
An NVC (Non-Violent Communication) training by the Dead Sea: Israelis, Palestinians, and Internationals drinking tea and singing Kumbaya (Weak) but really listening to each other's needs (Not so weak. Hard).


  1. Hey Yotam, good work! There is one thing I'd like to point out in your exploration of the conflict that bothers me a little. People are always very ready to blame the Israeli government for the horrifying acts of renegade settlers (like cutting down trees). Why isn't there the same inclination to blame the Palestinian government for the acts of renegade terrorists (like killing people)? Why is identifying blame at this point even useful? Haven't both sides done enough harm for us to say that figuring out who the primary aggressor is seems irrelevant? You either want peace or you don't, and regardless of what side you're on, if you don't want peace, no matter your defense, you are part of the problem, and if you do want peace, you are part of the solution.

  2. I completely agree with your last sentence. It's very much about people who want peace (whatever peace ends up looking like) and people who don't, and trying to turn the latter into the former.

    When I said I see Israel as the primary aggressor, I meant that to specifically to the way things have been in the last few years (I've since edited the text to make that a little clearer). Looking at the broader story, I don't see any way to blame this group or that group more, or any value in trying to. But with the way things stand at the moment, it seems like the Israeli government is doing more to perpetuate the problem than the Palestinian government, such as it is. I think that more peace-making power, accordingly, lies with the Israeli government and settlers than with the Palestinian government or people. Does that address your concern?