Why Israel's Choice for National Tree Is So Destructive

We do not deserve the olive as our national tree

The national tree. After uprooting, it will reappear at the entrance to a fancy villa.
The national tree. After uprooting, it will reappear at the entrance to a fancy villa. Credit: Emil Salman
Tomer Dekel
Tomer Dekel

Recently, slightly under the radar, the Jewish National Fund held a competition to choose a national tree for Israel. Like nearly 150,000 other people, I voted. But in retrospect it turned out that I hadn’t taken my role seriously enough. I didn’t urge friends and relatives to vote, I didn’t share my feelings with them, and in fact I abandoned the contest arena to deal with everyday affairs. The results were disastrous.

The winners in similar national competitions have been patently unharmful. The national bird, chosen in a 2008 competition sponsored by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, is the hoopoe; five years later the anemone was voted the national flower. Those symbols, drawn from the local landscape, are attractive and encourage people to identify with them. They are not bogged down with heavy layers of meaning. And that’s the ideal situation for such a symbol: empty and full at the same time.

This time around, seven candidates were short-listed in the JNF competition, meant to mark the 120th anniversary of its founding: the palm, terebinth, cypress, Mount Tabor oak, fig, eucalyptus and olive tree. My two choices – everyone could vote for up to five candidates – were the terebinth and the Mount Tabor oak, the unchallenged king and queen of our local landscape. Both embody innumerable variations of love, mutual support and sensual exhilaration. Around them flourish daisies and garigue shrubs, and woodlands and forests sing hymns of praise to them. The choice of either would signify happy trails and an unmediated encounter with this place and with its long and unbroken natural and human history.

I initially flirted a bit with the eucalyptus, a true Zionist hero. Doesn’t the existence of that migrant Australian tree, dry and modest, which is capable of flourishing in every corner of this land, including the southern Negev, reflect the existence of our country? I also harbored feelings of fondness and sentimentality for the palm, the cypress and the fig. All are trees that could serve as fascinating symbols, with their diverse metaphorical baggage.

Even so, it wasn’t hard to guess what the winner would be. I have nothing personal against the olive tree, which triumphed. Like most inhabitants of this land, I too admire and revere it. That it garnered a third of the votes is not surprising. But its choice as Israel’s official national tree is calamitous.

Reuven Rubin, "Olive Harvest," 1967.Credit: Courtesy of the Reuven Rubin Museum

Of all the trees that reached the finals, the olive tree carries the most baggage as a symbol. The reason is simple: It symbolizes history and belonging, both our presence in this land thousands of years ago and our return to it.

Already in the early 1920s artists of the Land of Israel school of painting, personified by Nahum Gutman, Reuven Rubin and others, depicted the mythic landscapes of this land. The olive tree was a major fixture of the land of the Bible envisioned in those paintings, as it gave expression to a powerful yearning for lost and forgotten terrain.

But the overwhelming majority of the olive groves rendered in those paintings and in that imagined biblical place actually belonged to the Arab fellahin who lived here. That symbol, which was revived more than 100 years ago, had its genesis in a lie. It wasn’t the land of the Bible: The scenes painted were those of farmlands of the Arab villages that existed here. Perhaps that’s what the land of the Bible looked like, though it’s more reasonable to suppose that it didn’t. One way or the other, the groves constituted a mythological land and history that belonged to other people.

In the decades that followed, the residents of the pre-state Jewish community and later the citizens of the nascent state turned toward an ethos of progress and development. But that biblical land still remains an imaginary image: We encounter it on hikes in the Galilee, in a touching photo of the Judean Hills or in a naïve landscape painting. The splendid, ancient olive trees that populate our imagination were mostly planted by indigenous Arab villagers. Their thick trunks were toughened throughout centuries, nourished by determined fathers; their rounded bodies were pruned and chiseled by generations of faithful sons.

It’s true that tens of thousands of acres of olive trees were also planted in the State of Israel, some for agricultural purposes, some for afforestation and others in public parks and private gardens. Israel’s agriculture-related industry is a world-class model of progress and technology. A large proportion of the young olive trunks undergo aggressive shaking by powerful machines during harvesting. An Israeli farmer who finds that his olive grove is no longer profitable, will not hesitate to uproot it. Arab families, by contrast, will hesitate to take that step. They will not uproot the groves of their forefathers, except in rare cases, because of an urgent need on the ground or an economic offer they can’t refuse.

Walid Abu Shakra, "Roots of an Ancient Olive Tree," 1985.Credit: Yigal Pardo

Cases of that kind have been multiplying of late, as demand soars for thick-trunked olive trees in private gardens. The price of one such tree can reach tens of thousands of shekels. After being uprooted, it will be perfunctorily planted at the entrance to some luxurious villa, and around it will be laid carpets of East Asian grass and dense tropical foliage. You guessed it: The tree is placed there as a symbol of attachment to the local landscape and to Jewish history – the “villa in the jungle” conjoined with the ancient olive tree. In recent years some have gone so far as to prune the branches of transplanted trees so they look like a cheerleader’s pom-poms. The olive tree has now become a status symbol – for whosever is bigger, older or fancier.

I would be remiss in not taking note of the place held by the olive tree among the messianic strain of Israeli society, in particular in the West Bank, where it has become a means of war. In the archaic perception of a zero-sum game, the owner of it is the owner of the land. The sanctifiers of the land will not balk at burning that tree or that land for the sake of their messianic vision.

The innocent olive tree, which thrives in our climate and provides a beloved livelihood for people in many countries of the Mediterranean Basin, has in Israel become a crude and mostly meaningless national symbol. Among many local communities, the local cult surrounding olive borders on idol worship. Its choice as Israel’s national tree is vacuous and kitschy in the best case, and messianic and destructive in the worst case. We do not deserve the olive as our national tree.

Tomer Dekel is an artist and a gardener.