Tu Bishvat, often referred to as the “new year for trees” or the “birthday of trees” motivates many of us to plant trees. Okay, so I did not personally plant anything this year. Not because it’s a shmita year (the sabbatical year when land isn’t cultivated), but because this year on Tu Bishvat, I wanted to plant seeds of justice. I did donate money to support a tree replanting project on a Palestinian farm in the West Bank. As my mouse clicked the “Donate” button, I felt a mixture of excitement, passion, and anxiety mixed with fear and uncertainty.
Supporting the cultivation of Palestinian land is something quite new for me.
On the other hand, supporting the cultivation of forest land in the Jewish State of Israel is something quite natural for me. Growing up in a Conservative Jewish household, my community placed an emphasis on the cultivation of the land of Israel. I saved money and brought extra tzedakah (charity) to plant trees in Israel, courtesy of the Jewish National Fund, or JNF. For my bat mitzvah project, I asked folks to donate trees in my name. I daydreamed about all the glorious full-grown trees living in a lush forest, with little name tags beside them, hundreds donated in honor of “Lonnie Kleinman’s bat mitzvah.”
I never stopped to think about the types of trees that might be planted in the ground or the possibility of my money supporting an invasive species in an arid desert.
I never stopped to think about the land itself and who it may have belonged to- that by planting trees on disputed territory, JNF was essentially claiming land that may not have belonged to them – land that may actually belong to Bedouin communities (such as El-Arakib in the Negev).
I never dreamt that “making the desert bloom” may not be the most sustainable option for a country that has struggled with a chronic water shortage for years.
Then one day, I stopped to think about it. I learned a little bit about JNF’s initiatives and realized that their cause may not be one I can support any longer. I threw away my little blue tzedakah box, a staple in my home for decades, and sought out new avenues to engage with the land I hold so dear.
As I learned more, one particular venture stood out to me.
This year, I’m not planting a tree in the holy land through JNF. Instead, I’m planting a tree with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. The center is replanting trees uprooted by the Israeli army on a Palestinian farm in the West Bank.
In May of 2014, some 1,500 fruit trees were uprooted by the Israeli army on the Tent of Nations farm. I remember waking up to the news and feeling my heart break. Immediately my mind jumped to Deuteronomy 20:19 “When is war against a city you have to besiege it for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its fruit trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. “ I thought of all the fruit that would not mature- of all the meals that would not be provided.
I had the great privilege of visiting the Tent of Nations with an Encounter trip last spring. The Nassar family has been on the land for more than 100 years, and helps run this very special place. Located in Area C of the West Bank the land is a place where Israelis, Palestinians, and International visitors can all come together to learn and engage. Often these events take place around a shared meal. The Nassar family has devoted their lives, land, and time to activities that promote understanding across cultural, religious, and national lines. Painted on a rock at the front of the farm reads “We refuse to be enemies.”
By replanting unjustly uprooted trees from this land, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence not only supports ecological justice, but also seeks to “work to advance the efforts of Palestinians and Israelis who are utilizing nonviolent activism as a means to end the Israeli occupation, to advance equality and for a just and lasting peace.” They pledge to “partner with those who reject the use of violence, Palestinians and Israelis alike, and instead turn to creative, proactive strategies that advance equal rights and foster dignity.”
Today, when I imagine planting trees in the holy land, I no longer imagine lush forests in the Negev. Instead, I dream of fruit-bearing trees on the Nassar family farm. This image is one more closely tied to my Jewish identity, one informed by a vast trajectory of text and history that supports justice and dignity for all. Tu Bishvat specifically reminds me that we are all a part of an interconnected, interdependent world. An injustice anywhere affects us all. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This year, take a stand and plant seeds of justice in our world, plant a tree.