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Replanting Trees, Rebirthing Peace

"We plant the trees that say a Jewish state must flourish free alongside the Palestinian state."

It's the week of Tu B' Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, and we are in the land of Israel. We Jews from America have come to plant trees.

We both grew up with the little blue pushke of the Jewish National Fund to pay for planting trees in Israel, and one of us came to Israel long ago in 1967 to plant a tree in a JNF forest in Jerusalem.

But this is new. For we are planting in very different places from those of the past. Three of the places are in Israel proper, according to the 1967 boundaries -- and even there, in extraordinarily different sorts of communities. Two are outside the Green Line, one in a Palestinian village and one in a Bedouin settlement in areas under Israeli occupation.

We are part of a delegation of ten rabbis and about sixty other Jews from American and Europe, who have come to help Rabbis for Human Rights plant trees in defense of the rights of human beings. We have come in solidarity with Israel and with this brave group of dedicated rabbis - the only rabbinic organization in Israel that includes Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and renewal rabbis, all committed to ensuring that Israel fulfill its vision as a country that exemplifies the moral values of Judaism. RHRâ*™s work is so well-respected in America that the rabbinic organizations of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative denominations have all endorsed its efforts.

Several of these RHR rabbis are Americans who have made aliya and devote their professional and personal lives to the Jewish people, Zionism, and Israel. They protect the human rights of foreign workers in Tel Aviv, poor Jews in poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Bedouin nomads in the Negev, and Palestinians in West Bank villages. They advocate for justice and they teach Israelis about the Jewish tradition and human rights.

We are in Israel in solidarity with them at a time when, for fear of violence, very few Jews are visiting Israel. We share those fears, but despite them we have come to show our solidarity with our brothers and sisters who live in fear, and our commitment to an Israel that is Jewish, just, and democratic.

RHR had warned us that between the possibility of heavy rain and the possibility of bullets raining down on us, all plans would be flexible. This we learned right away. After celebrating Shabbat together, we intended on Sunday, the day before Tu B'Shvat, to visit Hares, a Palestinian village, to plant olive seedlings where trees had been uprooted.

But during the night before, several Palestinian riflemen had shot an Israeli traveling on the same road that we would be using to approach Hares. The village elders called RHR to say the day was not good for visiting. We took time to mourn the victim of this terrorist attack, and to feel the deep sadness that even a mission of peace and compassion could be disrupted by an outburst of violence. And we changed the day's direction.

We headed instead to Katamonim, a Jerusalem neighborhood of Eastern Jews who still live in poverty, crowded in a neighborhood with only one patch of green space.

The Katamon neighbors have been protesting, with the help of the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel. They want to preserve this place where the Breath of Live wears faces gleaming green. It is a place, they say, in which human beings can also get to catch their breath.

We have come to stand with them, planting carobs and pines to defend this place with their lives.

Then we went deep into the Negev. On the way, our bus-driver turned up the radio news of an enormous suicide bombing in Jerusalem, close by the Sbarro Pizzeria that was destroyed months ago. "Only" one person killed - a miracle, someone muttered, considering the size of the blast.

The chill on the bus is palpable The Israelis with us call their loved ones to check that they are not hurt. All of us think we could easily have been there. One murmurs, should he go tomorrow as he had planned, to buy a kipa in the shop nearby? What terror awaits us yet this week? The terrorist has won some of us are terrified.

But from our terror we renew our sense that all sides must open hearts and ears to hear each other. Here in the Negev, Bedouin communities live in "unrecognized villages." Tens of thousands have lived there for generations, tilling small plots of land, moving from small villages in black goat-hair tents to where their sheep and goats can graze. Since 1948 they have been Israeli citizens.

But the government of Israel has refused to connect their villages with the electric grid or the water system, refused to pave the streets. Only after years of court appeals and orders has it provided teachers for their children or access to the national health plan.

Why? The government is trying to force the Bedouin into large settlements like the slum "development towns" new immigrants are sent to. This would leave empty large stretches of the Negev, in which the government could perhaps then settle Jews.

But the Bedouin have refused to leave their tiny villages, poverty-stricken though they be. They are practicing a form of quiet nonviolent disobedience.

With them we planted olive trees to affirm their ancient connection to this earth.

Next day, we traveled to another Bedouin settlement, this one outside the boundaries of the state. Here the Jehalin tribe have twice been forced from where they live

In 1974, their tents were destroyed, their wells blocked up, in order to make possible the erection of a Jewish settlement called Maalei Adumim. The settlement is now a small city. Banks, concert halls, houses like an American suburb, all beckon with enormous governmental subsidies to Israeli Jews who cannot afford a house in Tel Aviv. The money not spent on the Bedouin of the Negev, the money not spent subsidizing the development towns for new immigrants, is spent here.

Then in 1998 the Jehalin Bedouin were exiled once again, even from the places to which they had retreated as Maalei Adumim rose high above their shattered, plowed-under homes. Now they live in a shanty-town. For months they lived in freight containers, ten to a container. Now they have used tin sheets, timbers from dumps, strips of plastic, to build homes. They use sputtering generators to bring some electricity at night. (They cannot "waste" fuel or stretch the generators' use-life by running them in daylight.)

Here we planted a hundred trees, which as they grow may provide some income to the Jehalin. For in this land, olive trees are not mere decoration. Their oil and fruit can pay for a year of schooling for a child, can provide a dowry for a daughter.

With our own hands -- hands more used to computer keyboards and the social workers' handshake and the rabbi's turning of pages in an ancient book -- we dig with a pickax, carry trees in tender arms, pick our way through foot-deep mud, place trees in the holes, pat the earth into shape around them, unbend weary backs to grin and sing and pray with each other and the Jehalin.

As our bus left the encampment, someone pointed at the sky. There had just arisen an enormous rainbow, reaching from horizon to horizon. Just as we had cupped these seedlings in our hands, God had stretched out great curving arms of light to give us living hope. One of the rabbis called out the ancient blessing, "Blessed is the One Who remembers the covenant that unites God and human and every breathing life-form, blessed is the One Who renews all Creation!"

Our task grew still heavier. We went to visit Hares, the Palestinian village that had been our first intended destination. It is overshadowed by a huge nearby Israeli settlement, Ariel. The people of Hares report (and Rabbis for Human Rights and B'tselem, a human rights organization trusted as reliable by Israelis of all political opinions, confirm) that the settlers and soldiers have been harassing them, perhaps in the hope they would give up and leave, making it easier to annex this district to Israel in any final peace settlement.

For weeks at a time during the past sixteen months they have been blockaded so that vegetables and fruit could not enter the town, teachers could not enter to teach the children, the youth could not leave for nearby colleges. The army and some settlers have come to maraud, beating the mayor and other elders, killing a teen-ager and two adults.

And uprooting the trees. Some trees have been destroyed in places where it is possible some Palestinians were throwing stones or shooting rifles at Israelis using the Jews-only bypass roads that insulate the settlers from Palestinian life. But it is also clear to anyone who looks that hundreds of trees have been uprooted in areas of the village far from the roads, where no sniper or rock-thrower could use their cover.

The Torah teaches (Deut. 20 19-20) that even in time of war, fruit trees must not be destroyed. It is a realistic Torah, not utopian, for it adds that if trees are being used as bulwarks to protect a city under siege, they can be destroyed. One can almost hear the very same ethical debates in which we are engaging today.

But the bottom line is that Israelis have destroyed trees here that are not being used as "bulwarks," and that such attacks make total war -- against the earth itself; against all citizens, not just those who use violence; against the very future. For generations past, these olive trees have been not only fruitful sustenance but also beloved family members of the families of this village. Now thousands of them will be dead even after the day, may it come speedily, when a peace treaty has been agreed upon.

So we have come to replant trees where they cannot be used as cover for violence. We bring with us too a table to help furnish the empty, impoverished community center with a glimmer of dignity. As we enter the town, dozens of schoolchildren appear at their windows, cheering and waving to greet the Jews who have come to listen and to plant. As we wave back, Rabbi Arik Ascherman of RHR retells a story One reason he feels impelled to do this work is that an elder of Hares had brought his young son to Arik, teaching the boy "There are Jews who come without a gun or a bulldozer, who come as friends. Remember!"

The elders speak, explaining that they want to live in peace with Israel, that the occupation must end, that they are not terrorists. They speak in generalities. Later one of us wonders why they did not talk in detail about their lives under siege. And from a Palestinian who has accompanied us, we hear the answer there is a film crew with us, filming all our journeys. The elders were afraid to say on film what their own lives had been like. Who knows what might happen to that film, who knows what uses might be made of it? We blink. We had forgotten what it means to live under military occupation.

But there is still some real-life talk. Among us is the mayor of a small town in California. The mayors meet, grin, talk in a corner quietly about the problems that they share and those they don't.

Where and what to plant? -- Olive trees do not flourish if they are planted in the midst of heavy rain. And it has - thank God!! - been raining, in a land where drought has been all too constant a visitor. So it is agreed that we will plant just ten trees, a minyan, the symbol of community, and return again when the earth is not so muddy, to plant hundreds.

And we also plant a time capsule. From the Palestinian villagers and their Jewish visitors we gather slips of paper on which each has written a prayer, a blessing, a hope. We reverently place them in the earth beneath the newly planted olives, as Jeremiah once buried in a pottery jar a deed of redemption of the land, just as it seemed to be forever lost.

Our prayers are for redemption of our peoples and the land both peoples love.

One more planting visit that we undertook In Israel, a few years ago some forests have been torched, probably by Palestinian arsonists. Here too we bring our concern, our commitment, to the future of both families of Abraham. We plant the trees that say a Jewish state must flourish free alongside the Palestinian state.

Between the earthy acts of digging, planting, we have gathered to learn. We meet with activists of peace and human-rights groups, a spectrum of opinion as broad and colorful as the rainbow that had blessed our work. We turn our attention to the future.

Our visit has been fruitful. We have learned from our brother and sister Israelis, as well as from our Palestinian cousins, how Rabbis for Human Rights and their co-workers need our support to keep struggling, without violence, for justice and for Judaism. The fruits of their work hold the seeds of hope to ensure the renewal of the soul as well as the body of the Jewish state, to renew the vision of a Zion that is redeemed through righteousness.

Those seeds of hope are what we must be planting now as we return to America and Europe the seeds of peace, the roots of compassion.

Rabbi Brian Walt is the spiritual leader of Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia, and the coordinator of the newly forming Rabbis for Human Rights/ North America. Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, a network of American Jews who draw on Jewish wisdom toward healing the world, and is the author of Godwrestling -- Round 2 and editor of Torah of the Earth.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center

The Shalom Center is a North American network committed to draw on Jewish wisdom, old and new, in order to pursue peace, justice, and the healing of the earth.

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