Sunday, February 05, 2012

Tu B'Shvat Higgiah


Wednesday is Ti B'Shvat, the "New Year for Trees." What started out in the Talmud as simply the end of the fiscal year for tithing fruits, evolved over the centuries into a mystical marking of the spiritual within nature, a Zionist holiday of "upbuilding the Land of Israel" by planting trees, and most recently into a general environmental/ecological awareness day. Planting trees in Israel/Palestine, of course, is a way to do all three. Planting them yourself, would perhaps be the most spiritual, but for those with limited the time or energy donating money is a reasonable and effective proxy. (Did you know that planting trees is one of the most effective ways to offset carbon emissions, and mitigate global warming?)

So, if you can, go plant a tree in your back yard or a local park. But if not, consider contributing to have a few trees planted in Israel/Palestine. But, be careful who you donate to. I recommend you donate to Rabbis for Human Rights Tu B'Shvat tree planting campaign.

This year, Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel will plant more than 3000 olive trees in the Palestinian Territories; throughout the year, rabbis, rabbinical students, and lay people volunteer to plant trees, and to harvest olives side-by-side with Palestinian farmers.

Rabbis for Human Rights will also be leading a tree planting initiative in the Negev this Tu Bish'vat in support of Bedouin Israeli citizens whose homes are threatened with demolition. These citizens live in villages that pre-date the State of Israel, but that have never been recognized by the government. By helping these “unrecognized villages” plant trees, we help to create agricultural and environmental sustainability there.
Donate by clicking here.

This initiative was brought to my attention by my old friend Benjy, who also reminds us of why donating to the Jewish National Fund on Tu B'Shvat (or any other time!) is a bad idea: indeed it is completely unethical.
As progressive Jews, many of us have very warm associations with the Jewish National Fund (JNF). From its establishment in 1901 it has been an important link between world Jewry and the practical projects of the Zionist social movement. Many of us grew up with the blue-and-white collection boxes in our homes -- a symbol of popular participation in the Zionist movement. The JNF fostered the practical program of the socialist Zionists and made it possible for kibbutzim to emerge as a uniquely Jewish contribution to twentieth century socialism. Finally, the JNF is associated in many of our minds with the romantic stories of the early Zionist pioneers.

Like most Jews, few of us paid attention to the details of JNF policies and activities. We were in general sympathy with the goals of the JNF.

We can no longer ignore the particulars. To be honest with ourselves, we must admit that our vision of what Israeli society can and should be is not compatible with the policies and goals of the JNF.

In 1989 the Ethical Jewish Giving Project established two main criteria for "ethical giving" to groups in Israel: (1) the distribution of funds should not go to agencies or institutions that discriminate against Arab citizens of Israel, and (2) the money should not support Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The JNF fails on both counts.

The JNF discriminates against non-Jews. Practices (some of which made sense before the establishment of the state) are unacceptable in a society based upon democracy and equality. The JNF owns 17% of all "public" land in Israel and participates in the administration of over 90% of Israel's "public" lands. Once acquired by the JNF, land becomes an inalienable part of the Jewish national heritage -- that is, it may not be sold or leased to non-Jews.

The JNF has the right of first refusal when any public lands not owned by it outright are sold or transferred. The JNF has exclusive responsibility for land development. Non-Jews, regardless of their citizenship status, are not eligible for JNF services. This means they cannot lease or sublease JNF-owned lands or work on these lands. They are not eligible for development funds or services. Land development in the Palestinian sector of the economy must be privately financed whereas Jewish settlements receive large grants and loans as well as continuous technical assistance. Jews who have never lived in Israel have more of a claim on these "public" lands and development funds than do Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The JNF supports the occupation and helps to finance the illegal settlements in the territories. Since 1978 most JNF activities have been involved in acquiring and developing land for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The JNF has collaborated with the Israeli authorities in expropriating Palestinian lands, razing cultivated fields and bulldozing orchards, and denying equal access to water sources.

Jews who are committed to a prophetic vision of peace and social and economic justice must call upon our community to stop underwriting policies that are destroying the social and moral fabric of Israel. Our histories, traditions, values and sentiments have created a special bond between us and Israel. Israeli and North American Jews share a concern for each other's secure future and ethical character. Contributions to the JNF (and the UJA) jeopardize both by actively discriminating against Palestinians and by supporting the occupation.
So on Wednesday, plant a tree yourself, or donate some money to have one planted. And eat some fruits, to remind yourself of the bounty of trees - and all of nature - and of our dual duty: to protect the planet and to increase justice.

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