He can see Israel’s forests for the trees and the planet

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

One of the most tangible Zionist acts for generations of diaspora Jews has been dropping coins in those little blue-and-white Jewish National Fund boxes, thus helping to “plant a tree” in the Holy Land.

But planting trees in Israel, like anything else in that complicated land, has never been simple or straightforward, but fraught with political, national and environmental implications from the beginning of the British Mandate in 1918 until today.

Alon Tal

Noted Israeli American environmental activist and academic Alon Tal outlines this complex tale in his newest book, “All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present.” As someone both inside and outside the main agency empowered to reforest Israel on behalf of the Jewish people — he once sued the JNF on whose board he now sits — Tal is uniquely positioned to critique the country’s forestation process, laying bare its mistakes as well as its noteworthy successes.

In 1948, he writes, forests covered 2 percent of Israel’s territory. Today trees cover 8.5 percent of the land — approximately 247,000 acres — in a country that is 97 percent drylands, making Israel’s forestry experience very relevant to the half of the planet where water is scarce. (For example, just 1.5 percent of the Palestinian territories and 1.1 percent of Jordan are forested.)

But the “worth” of Israel’s forests goes beyond the dollar value of the timber they produce (15 percent of Israel’s total lumber consumption). The added value extends to soil restoration and other environmental mitigations, fruit production, grazing for animals, habitat for honeybees, carbon absorption, and the immeasurable recreational and cultural benefits forests offer to human beings.

“We tend to forget that the environmental agenda is also a social agenda,” says Tal, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who is spending the year as a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

This wide array of benefits was not uppermost in the minds of British foresters in the early 20th century, who planted trees during the Mandate period primarily to halt soil erosion. Nor were they prioritized by the early Zionists, who sought to plant as many trees as possible, as quickly as possible, to stake their (Jewish) claim to the land. That led to the densely planted pine forests that have been much maligned, not always fairly, he says.

Monocultures aren’t as pleasing to look at, are more vulnerable to pests and other disease, and don’t support the variety of flora and fauna demanded by a true eco-system. But, Tal notes, they do grow fast.

Since the early 1990s, Tal writes, the goals of Israel’s foresters have widened to include a more sustainable vision of “greening” the land, to paraphrase David Ben-Gurion. While pines are still being planted in the arid south, oaks and other broad-leaved trees are being planted in the north of the country, to create a more heterogeneous woodlands mosaic.

And while Israeli Arabs have long had a contentious relationship with the JNF and the forests it plants — often on their land — Tal points out that more and more Arab families now enjoy those same forests, which remain free and open to the public.

“So much of our natural heritage is out of reach of many Israelis,” he says, noting that national parks and nature reserves charge admission. “It’s an important statement that our forests are open.”

Israel’s forests also have religious value. On Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees celebrated this year on Thursday, Jan. 16, many Israeli families go to the woods and plant trees. The JNF sets aside saplings and woodland space for this activity, echoing the decades of Zionist-inspired tree plantings funded by Jews from outside the country.

So what about those blue-and-white boxes? Tal says it’s “definitely” worthwhile to keep dropping coins in them, to continue the process of planting trees — the right kind, managed properly. “I give personally to the JNF,” he adds, to mark deaths as well as celebrate auspicious days. “It’s a good thing for Israel, and good for the planet.”

There are almost 75,000 acres currently designated as forestland that have not yet been planted in Israel, he says. Just three years ago the JNF board adopted a 20-year plan that seeks to significantly increase planting efforts to reach almost 4,000 acres of trees per year. The international Jewish community can help move the process along, he says, by making it a priority and by helping to find the funds to keep Israel’s forests strong and healthy.

“It’s entirely doable,” Tal says of this plan to complete Israel’s afforestation within 20 years. He points out that in its first two years, in the midst of wars, economic hardship and social challenges, the fledgling state planted more trees than were planted during the entire British Mandate. “A country that had no resources was able to do it, so we can do it today,” he says.

Tal’s book is subtitled “Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present,” and he takes that legacy seriously. Each chapter opens with a biblical quote related to trees, underlining the early Israelites’ intense involvement with the natural world.

“They had a connection to nature we can only aspire to,” he says. “That appreciation was expressed in the Psalms, in metaphors, in many places. It’s something I admire. The visceral connection to the land is part of our heritage. We’re coming back to these values today.”

“All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present” by Alon Tal (368 pages, Yale University Press, $45)

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].