What is the connection between the eucalyptus tree and Jewish-Arab relations? It is a question that even trivia experts would be hard pushed to answer. It is not a Zen koan, however, a question that is meant to remain unanswered. There is an answer, and it is grounded in geopolitical relations in Israel.
A poster hanging in a nursery for eucalyptus trees reads, "Eucalyptus - an economic, ecological and political alternative." The poster also explains that the eucalyptus, a tree imported from Australia to dry the swamps, helps "preserve the land on the individual and national levels." It does not indicate which nation is meant, but the clear implication is that it helps protect the Jewish nation against the Arab nation that threatens to take control of the land, that planting eucalyptus trees can ensure the land remain under Jewish cultivation.
The eucalyptus is a metaphor for the depth of the conventional wisdom that views Israel's Arab citizens chiefly as a threat that must be countered. According to recent polls, a significant percentage of Israelis support encouraging Arabs to emigrate and restricting their democratic rights. This concept is being perpetuated by representatives of the government and by academic researchers. A few examples:
Prof. Arnon Sofer and Yevgenyah Bistrov of the University of Haifa recently published a study entitled, "The State of Tel Aviv - A Threat to Israel," in which it was claimed that "the national margins are being removed from Jewish sovereignty," while the Tel Aiv region continues to develop as an indifferent bubble that drains resources from the periphery. In a letter attached to the study they noted: "This document is intended for all responsible Jewish citizens." The letter was printed on the letterhead of the university, which has a large number of Arab students. They, of course, are not supposed to read the report since they are not Jewish and presumably not responsible, either.
About two months ago a meeting on the subject of drainage problems was held at the government compound in Be'er Sheva. It was attended by experts and by representatives of state and local government. During a discussion on drainage in Bedouin communities, one of the participants related with evident relish an exchange with someone who mentioned the threat posed by Qassam rockets on the nearby town of Sderot; the response was, "Give us the Qassams and take the Tarabin." The reference was to the Negev Bedouin tribe, some members of which have been involved in illegal activities in the area. The mayor of one of the Bedouin towns, who was also at the meeting, heard and said nothing - probably out of habit.
Two weeks ago a conference on the quality of water used for agriculture was held at the Israel Trade Fairs and Convention Center in Tel Aviv. The Arab threat made an appearance there as well when the director-general of the Agriculture Ministry, Yossi Yishai, warned in the opening speech that if economic problems preclude agriculture in the Negev, national lands will be lost. He did not say so explicitly, but it was obviously a reference to the Bedouin takeover of state lands in various regions in the Negev.
A reminder to all politicians, researchers, mayors and government officials: The Declaration of Independence, which was written during the toughest war fought by Israel, explicitly states that the Arabs are to be citizens with full rights. They are entitled to receive aid in all areas of life, and are obligated to respect the law like everyone else. Problems such as poverty, illegal building, squatting on state lands and the general sense of discriminatory treatment are to be fought through civil measures.
The relations between Israel's Jews and Arabs and sensitive and highly charged, but it is wrong to heighten the feelings by undermining the civil status of the Arabs. Those who do not cease treating Israeli Arabs as a threat will eventually make them into a threat, and then even the eucalyptus trees won't help stop the conflagration.