A time to (re)plant: Jews raise money for W. Bank trees

Bay Area Jewish activists have been collecting money to plant trees in the Holy Land, with no little blue boxes involved.

The money collected — almost $5,000 so far — is not going to the Jewish National Fund, long known for using the sky-blue coin box or pushke to collect money for forests in the Jewish state. Instead, these funds will go to Palestinian farmers in the West Bank village of Hares, to replant their olive trees that were uprooted by the Israel Defense Force or by Jewish settlers who live nearby.

Co-sponsored locally by A Jewish Voice for Peace and the Coalition of Jews for Justice in Israel and Palestine, the Trees of Hope Campaign is based on the injunction from Deuteronomy 20:19: "Even if you make war against a city, do not destroy its trees."

And on Sunday, May 20, Jewish and Palestinian activists will plant an olive tree together in Berkeley's Cedar Rose Park.

Often, the Israeli position is "we have to cut the trees down; terrorists are shooting from behind them," said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, the Israeli organization that began the trees campaign in February. The group — with a Web site at www.rhr.israel.net — consists of 90 rabbis from all movements, plus rabbinical students.

The American-born former spiritual leader of Reform Congregation Beth Hillel in Richmond was in town this week to raise awareness about the tree-planting campaign.

"We don't deny there are security issues," he said, adding that his organization is strongly against all forms of violence. "However, there is a difference between a genuine security need and an all-out war against innocent civilians."

In the West Bank village of Hares alone, which is near the settlement of Ariel, 1,500 trees have been uprooted, Ascherman said. The trees were more than 100 years old, and each one had been producing a can of olive oil worth $75 each year — a large amount to its owners.

Ascherman pointed out that the rabbis were not replanting the trees themselves, but instead are giving the money to the farmers because of the commandment of Shanat Shmita; the Torah injunction prohibits Jews from planting during a sabbatical year, which takes place every seven years.

"Olive trees for Israeli Jews don't mean much; they're part of the view," said Ilan Vitemberg of Oakland, an organizer of Trees of Hope, who is himself Israeli. "They don't realize what a wound it leaves for the Palestinians. Many of the families depend on them for their livelihood."

In addition to the money raised locally, another $35,000 was raised nationally, through a full-page ad in the New York Times that ran April 1. That campaign was launched around Tu B'Shevat by Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

Here in the Bay Area, organizers of the Trees of Hope Campaign sent letters to area rabbis beginning at Tu B'Shevat, to ask for contributions.

At least five area rabbis responded with checks either from their congregational or discretionary funds, with some synagogue religious schools also getting involved, according to Naomi Puro, a Berkeley organizer. She also received checks from as far away as Ohio and Kentucky.

Julie Emden of Oakland, who is a member of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Berkeley, is active in the Renewal congregation's Middle East peace committee. She also teaches sixth grade in its religious school.

Kids raised at Kehilla have grown up hearing the congregation "pray for peace in Israel and Palestine and for a shared Jerusalem," she said, "so this isn't new to them."

Emden, who worked as a counselor at a camp in Colorado for Jewish and Palestinian girls called Building Bridges for Peace, said that experience was a good vehicle for talking to her class about the tree-planting campaign.

Independent of the trees, which was a schoolwide fund-raiser, her class chose to donate their tzedakah money this month to building a playground in the West Bank.

Talking about her camp experiences helps her students understand, she said, because "they're learning about it on a human level, not on a political level. They learn how we can see each other as human beings, with respect and dignity."

Just this week, kids from the Kehilla religious school collected another $35, all in coins, she said.

Meanwhile, back in Israel, Ascherman is committed to raising awareness among Israeli Jews of what goes on in the territories, since he is one of the few Jews who is neither a soldier nor a settler who goes there.

If he had the money, after feeding some of the Palestinians who are not able to buy food because of the siege, he would run a weekly ad campaign in the major Israeli newspapers, saying: "Here are the things you don't know." For a country so obsessed with news it has hourly updates on the radio, its citizens know absolutely nothing of the terrible suffering the Palestinians endure beyond the Green Line, he said. "I believe a lot of people would feel differently if they only had the factual knowledge."

While he acknowledges that providing humanitarian relief, protesting and speaking to the average Israeli are all important, Ascherman has come to believe that nothing is as effective as active resistance — whether that means helping to rebuild an Arab home that was demolished or removing an IDF roadblock, with bare hands, if necessary.

To his critics — and there are many — who accuse him and his colleagues of harming Israel, he says that on several occasions when he's visiting a Palestinian family whose home was demolished, the parents will bring out their children to meet him.

"To a 10-year-old boy who has just seen his parents humiliated by Jews, we're showing him that Jews have come to help rebuild, shoulder to shoulder with them. We're doing it for our own souls, but also for those Palestinians who have given up on all Israelis."

Ascherman, who has been arrested twice recently for dismantling roadblocks put up by the IDF and has received death threats, explained his motivation this way:

"A few years from now, when my 2-year-old daughter, Adi, asks me, 'Daddy, where were you when these terrible things were happening?' I want to be able to say that I did something in the face of this kind of evil that is so contrary to every Jewish value that I hold dear. I want to be able to say I did whatever I could."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."