The Fate of Fruit Trees
by Ilana Sumka
Looking over the rolling hills of the West Bank, the Palestinian man speaking to our Jewish group said: “In our culture, we have a tradition of planting fruit trees, not for ourselves because they won’t bear fruit in our lifetime, but for our children and our children’s children.”
Members of my Jewish group smiled at each other, appreciating the familiarity of the concept. We have a similar Talmudic story about a man who plants a carob tree, not for himself but for future generations.
It was a warm, sunny day and our group of rabbinical and yeshiva students were visiting the Palestinian farm and community center called Tent of Nations during an Encounter program. The chasm between Jews and Palestinians often feels so great that having an authentically shared moment made it a sweet memory.
That memory just turned bittersweet. Last month, the Israeli army uprooted some 1,500 fruit trees from the Tent of Nations. Daoud Nassar now owns the land, which has been in his family for more than 100 years, with papers dating back to the times of the Ottoman Empire.
We can only guess why the Israeli military–which gave Tent of Nations neither advance warning nor compensation–would destroy 1,500 fruit trees on private Palestinian property. A new road to the nearby settlements, or perhaps a new settlement altogether? I can’t think of a good reason for the destruction of those trees or a good reason to antagonize a peaceful family.
I know the Tent of Nations well since I’ve been there dozens of times. I’ve shared meals with the family and participated in peace-building programs. I even asked Daoud if I could celebrate my birthday there one year, because I needed a spot that my diverse group of Israeli, Palestinian and American friends could all reach. He welcomed me and my friends with open arms and hot tea.
The Biblical injunction against uprooting fruit trees couldn’t be more clear: “When in a war against a city you have to besiege it for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its fruit trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” (Deuteronomy 20, v. 19)
It’s disheartening to see pictures of rubble and dirt where a healthy, thriving terraced ravine alive with fruit trees once stood. As the Jerusalem director of Encounter, it was my job to scout out local Palestinian leaders and community centers that would host our groups of 40 or more Jewish leaders. The Nassar family’s Tent of Nations quickly became a regular stop on Encounter programs in the West Bank. It’s a special place. Its motto, painted on a rock at the entrance, states: “We refuse to be enemies.” Indeed, the Tent of Nations is one of the few places where Israelis, Palestinians and visiting internationals can all meet. It’s accessible by location because it’s in Area C, a part of the West Bank where no one needs a permit to enter, and it’s accessible by design because the Nassar family has dedicated their lives and their land to educational activities that promote understanding across lines of conflict.
The Nassar family’s lawyer will do everything he can to seek justice via the Israeli court system. I wish I could say I was optimistic about the outcome of his efforts in the legal system, but considering the absence of a legal process that pre-dated the uprooting of those trees, I’m not. Nonetheless, I do think it’s important that the Nassar family utilize the legal system. However it will cost them thousands of dollars in court fees during a time when they’ve just lost a source of livelihood.
I grew up “planting” trees in Israel via the Jewish National Fund, JNF. Now it’s time for me to plant trees for the Palestinians, too. According to the JNF website, it costs $18 to plant a tree in Israel. I intend to do my part to let the Nassar family know that those bulldozers of the Israeli army do not represent my Jewish values.
Ilana Sumka recently served as the Co-Executive Director of Encounter in Jerusalem, an organization dedicated to Israeli-Palestinian conflict transformation. She is currently working on a book about her seven years in Israel.