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I. Articles

Replanting Trees, Rebirthing Hopes for Peace

By Rabbi Gerry Serotta
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

In late January, Rabbi Gerry Serotta participated in a tree-planting mission to Israel, sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights. He was one of the representatives of the Reform Movement within the delegation. Several other Reform rabbis participated as well. Here is part of his story.

We were ten rabbis from North America, ten rabbis from Israel, and sixty others who came to plant trees in Israel to commemorate Tu B’shvat, the holiday of the trees. We planted trees in Israel and trees in Palestinian villages; we planted trees with Jews and with Palestinians.

We came in solidarity with Israel at a time when, for fear of violence, very few Jews are visiting Israel. We shared those fears. Despite them, we came to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters and to demonstrate our commitment to a vision of Israel based on the Jewish values of justice and democracy.

Before our trip began, we were warned that, between the possibility of heavy rain and bullets raining down on us, our plans might change. We learned this immediately. After celebrating Shabbat together, our plan was to visit Hares, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, to plant olive seedlings where olive trees were uprooted.

But the previous night, Palestinian snipers had shot and killed an Israeli traveling on the same road that we would use to approach to Hares. The village elders called to say that it was too dangerous for a visit. We mourned and said a prayer for the victim of the attack, and felt a deep sadness that even a mission of peace could be disrupted by an outburst of violence. Instead, we visited a Bedouin community in the Israeli Negev to do some tree planting. The Bedouin insisted on baking bread for us and seemed to appreciate the ability to serve as hosts and interact with us.

On Monday, Tu B’shvat, we headed first to Katamon, a Jerusalem neighborhood of mostly Mizrachi Jews, many of whom live in poverty, in crowded, dilapidated housing. The only large, green space in the neighborhood was slated for the development of luxury high-rise apartments. The residents of Katamon were demonstrating to preserve this as a place for their children to play. We joined in their protest, planting carobs and fruit trees. I planted a pistachio tree on a steep slope in the thick mud and hoped for the best. Israeli schoolchildren arrived to continue the planting as we left.

Following our visit to Katamon, and after receiving a security clearance, we visited our original destination, Hares, the Palestinian village. It is overshadowed by the nearby Israeli settlement of Ariel. The people of Hares report, and Israeli human rights groups confirm, that settlers and soldiers have been harassing them, perhaps in the hope they would leave, making it easier to annex the land to Israel in a final peace settlement.

For weeks at a time during the past seventeen months, the Israeli army has imposed a blockade on the village of Hares. Fruits and vegetables cannot enter, school teachers are not let in, and students cannot leave for nearby colleges. Some settlers have come to maraud, beaten the mayor and other elders, and killed a teenager and two adults. Some also uprooted olive trees.

Trees were destroyed in places where Palestinians used them as cover to aim rocks or weapons at the bypass road used by settlers. But, it was also clear to anyone who looked, that hundreds of trees were uprooted in areas far from the roads, where no sniper or rock-thrower could use their shelter.

The Torah teaches us that even in time of war, fruit trees must not be destroyed: "When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down." (Deuteronomy20: 19). It adds that if non-fruit trees are needed for the siege, they can be destroyed. One can hear the echoes of the ethical debates from long ago in what we were engaging.

The sad truth is that Israel destroyed olive trees that were not used for cover, and such attacks are an act of war against the earth and against people. For many generations past, these olive trees served not only a source of sustenance but also beloved family members of this village. Now thousands of them are dead.

We replanted olive trees in places where they could not be used as cover for terrorists. We also brought with us a table to help furnish the empty, impoverished community center with a glimmer of dignity. As we entered the town, dozens of schoolchildren appeared at their windows, cheering and waving to greet the Jews who came to listen and to plant. As we waved back, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights, recounted a conversation he had witnessed between one of the villagers of Hares who had brought his young son to meet Arik, telling him: "There are Jews who come without a gun or a bulldozer, who come as friends. Remember!"

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

We also planted a time capsule. We gathered slips of paper from the Palestinian villagers and the Jewish visitors on which each had written a prayer, a blessing, or a hope for the future. We placed them in the earth beneath the newly planted olive trees, as the prophet Jeremiah once buried, in a pottery jar, a deed of redemption of the land, just when the land seemed to be forever lost. Our prayers were for the redemption of our peoples and the land both peoples love.

The following day, we traveled to another Bedouin town of the Jehalin tribe, this one just a few miles from Jerusalem. They have been forced from their homes several times. In 1974, their tents were destroyed and their wells blocked up to allow for the erection of a Jewish settlement called Ma’aleh Adummim.

That settlement is now a small city filled with banks, concert halls, and houses like an American suburb. Government subsidies for living in the settlements beckon to Israeli Jews who cannot afford housing 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 forced to move once again. They were permitted to set up what is essentially a shantytown near a local garbage dump. For months, they lived in freight containers, ten to a container. Now they have tin sheets, timbers from dumps, and strips of plastic to build homes. They use sputtering generators to produce some electricity at night.

Here we planted a hundred olive 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 and provide a dowry for a daughter.

As our bus left the encampment, someone pointed to the sky. There had arisen an enormous rainbow, reaching from horizon to horizon. Just as we had cupped the 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!"

We undertook one last planting visit. A few years ago, some pine forests were torched, presumably by Palestinian arsonists. We planted the trees to show our commitment to a Jewish state, to say a Jewish state must flourish, alongside a Palestinian state. Here too we brought our commitment to the future of both families of Abraham.

Our visit was fruitful. We learned from our brothers and sisters in Israel, as well as from our Palestinian cousins. We learned how organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights and others need our support to keep struggling for justice and for Judaism. The fruits of their work hold the seeds of hope to ensure the renewal of the soul of the Jewish state, to renew Isaiah’s vision of a Zion that is redeemed through righteousness. Those seeds of hope are what we must plant as we return to America and Europe: the seeds of peace, the roots of compassion.

A postscript: Planting trees in a week where people were planting bombs may seem like a naïve, symbolic gesture at best. We should remember that war can be perpetrated from any distance, close or far away. But peace can only be achieved through close human contact with our enemies. As my six-year old son reminded me recently, we should never use weapons against an enemy unless we try to turn them into friends first. We need to do our part whether we live in Israel or here in America. For those looking for a way to be involved in the mitzvah of haba’at shalom, of bringing peace, I welcome your inquiries and comments.

Thanks to Rabbis Brian Walt, Spiritual Leader of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, and Arthur Waskow, Director of the Shalom Center, for their contributions to this account.

Background info on Rabbis for Human Rights:

Rabbis for Human Rights is the only rabbinic organization in Israel that includes Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal rabbis, committed to ensuring that Israel fulfill its vision of Judaic values. RHR’s work is well-respected in America -- the rabbinic organizations of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative denominations have all endorsed its efforts.

Leading Reform rabbis in Israel have been involved in RHR’s activities since it’s founding in 1989. Movement leaders like Rabbis Uri Regev, Robert Samuels, Levi Weiman-Kelman and Shaul Feingberg serve or continue to serve as chairs or members of the Executive Board.

RHR seeks to 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. It advocates for justice and teaches the Israeli public about the Jewish tradition of human rights.

RHR is does not have a specific position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It aspires to be a defender of human rights for all the inhabitants of the land of Israel/Palestine. It is a true inheritor of the traditions of Abraham and the Prophets, Shomrei Mishpat, guardians of God’s just teachings in the world.

For further information, please head to: http://www.rhr.israel.net/overview.shtml