Can't See the Forest for the Plaques

A visit to JNF forests reveals that they serve more as memorial sites than as open recreational areas.

The entrance to the center of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (JNF), at Eshtaol in Rabin Park, was blocked by burning tires on Monday, Tu Bishvat. JNF representatives, the "field workers" in that area of the Judean plain, were demonstrating against discrimination and class differences, as they put it, between themselves and "administrative workers." They claim that for the same work, they receive half the salary earned by their colleagues, members of the "upper class"; they have no job tenure, no promotions, and they are not allowed contact with the Histadrut labor federation. They are discriminated against even in the number of meals they receive per day: one meal, as opposed to three for the "administrative people."

Field workers are responsible for digging pits and preparing saplings for Tu Bishvat. This year, the strikers in the Judean plain region did not go out to dig, but instead were dispersed among the central planting sites - in the Ben Shemen and Jerusalem forests - in order to protest discrimination.

But the protests were not noticed at the planting site in Rabin Park itself, as buses brought groups of visitors to celebrate Jewish arbor day. "We came here to plant, because this is the Land of Israel," said settlers from the West Bank and Gaza who arrived on an organized outing. The pine saplings they planted were as slender as grass. The irony is that at the same time, large trees are being uprooted in the areas where they live, under the policy of "exposure," whereby the army uproots trees in Palestinian areas to prevent their being used as hiding places for terrorists.

Beyond the tire blockade, the JNF building looks out over a beautiful landscape. But next to an improvised parking lot, there was a surrealistic sight: At the base of a green, Tel Aviv-style dumpster, next to some empty plastic soda bottles, stone monuments shaped like obelisks lie on their sides like uprooted trees.

The story of these monuments, which were set up in 1999, is sad, even grotesque. Originally, they were meant to perpetuate the memory of Boris III, the King of Bulgaria during World War II, and his wife Queen Joana, "for their activity in saving the Jews of Bulgaria during the dark days of the Holocaust." After a protest by Holocaust survivors from Bulgaria, Yad Vashem established an investigative committee to examine the king's past, and it determined that he was involved in crimes against the Jewish nation. The monuments were removed, and they have been left near the garbage dumpster in Eshtaol for over a year.

Forests of stones

But even without these monuments to the royal couple, the forests of the JNF are overloaded with plaques that resemble gravestones, statues dedicated to individuals and large memorial walls. Sometimes it seems that the forests serve more as giant memorial sites than as green and open parks designed for rest and recreation. The monuments memorialize Holocaust victims, war dead, donors and their families - both living and dead. Some have donated money in honor of a son's bar mitzvah, others in honor of the 50th anniversary of the state. Some contribute money for planting trees, and others for building parking lots, tranquil corners, birdwatching and firefighting lookouts, or for paving roads, building reservoirs or balconies and buying fire extinguishers.

Most of the monuments look very much like gravestones. The current fashion is a stone obelisk. Sometimes they are placed precisely at the most beautiful spot on the landscape, thus hiding it. Every donation is accompanied by a sign, and every item has a name. The only unmarked objects are the vestiges of stone walls and hedges of sabra (prickly pear) cactus, which testify to the destruction of dozens of Palestinian villages that once existed in these areas.

On the Burma Road in Rabin Park, they used donations to build the Co-op Blue Square Parking Lot, which is located in a forest named after Uri Ilan. Many forests are named after famous people, and others after Jewish communities in the Diaspora, like the American Jewry Forest or the Italy Forest. A Martyrs' Forest that covers the two banks of the Kisalon River, "was planted as a memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust," as the guidebook to the forest says, and it contains six million trees. At its heart stands a bronze monument, the "Scroll of Fire," 8.5 meters tall and weighing about 12 tons. A natural cave in the area has been named B'nai B'rith Cave, and a stone bridge is called the Bridge of the Bureaus, in honor of the bureaus and women's organizations of B'nai B'rith that contributed the funds for planting most of the forest.

Parks are also sites for memorializing prime ministers. Rabin Park covers an area of 15,000 dunams in the area of Sha'ar Hagai, extending from Nahshon and Bekoa to Shoresh. Near Bekoa one finds the Defenders Forest, in memory of those who fell in Israel's wars, to which most of the memorial sites in Sinai were transferred after the peace treaty with Egypt). An entire region is actually a memorial site. In the center is the Burma Road, which contains monuments, signs and many battle sites, including the famous remains of armored cars that were destroyed as they tried to bring help to besieged Jerusalem in 1948.

Important guests plant trees in JNF forests and turn them into symbols. Actor and director Roberto Benigni planted an olive tree in the Jerusalem hills as a gesture to the Jewish people. The Turkish and Cypriot foreign ministers planted trees in Israel side by side, as a symbol of coexistence. After the September 11 catastrophe, 18 trees were planted in the Independence Forest in Jerusalem, in memory of those who perished. (The number 18 is the Hebrew numerological equivalent of the word hai, meaning life.)

Anyone can be memorialized in JNF forests. The type of memorial depends on the size of the donation, says Avinoam Binder, who is responsible for donations. Planting one tree costs about NIS 20, and the donor gets his name inscribed in the "Golden Book." For a donation for 500 trees, the donor's name is inscribed in the "Book of Parks." A donation of at least $5,000 merits a sign or an inscription on the memorial wall. One thousand trees become a grove named after the donor or the person being honored, while 5,000 trees make a small forest, and 50,000 trees are a major forest.

Although the memorial forests are meant to last forever, it often happens that the forests and the monuments are uprooted in order to pave roads or build new neighborhoods and communities. In such cases, says Binder, an alternative site is agreed on with the donor.

Many donors prefer to perpetuate the memory of their dear ones in forests situated in or near Jerusalem, says Binder. The JNF does in fact plant trees at sites on the other side of the Green Line, but cannot use donations from abroad for this purpose. Foreign donors, he explains, do not get tax exemptions for donations designated for "controversial areas," so they prefer to acquire memorial sites for their dear ones in areas whose status is not in dispute. Keren Kayemeth, says Binder, finds donors with the help of its emissaries abroad. On Tu Bishvat, the plantings were open to the public, at no charge, and the JNF also plants trees in honor of every child born in Israel: Every tree, even if it lacks a sign, has a name.

Since its establishment 100 years ago, the JNF has planted 220 million trees on about one million dunams all over the country. JNF officials explain that Israel is the only country in the world "which is greener at the beginning of the 21st century than at the beginning of the last century." About 55 percent of the trees in JNF forests are pines. Many of them contracted diseases over the years and died, and others became victims of forest fires.

Collective memorial

Binder says that preference is now given to broad-leafed trees like oaks and carobs. However, as one could see at the planting sites on Tu Bishvat, they are still planting pines, considered the most beautiful forest trees. Pine forests and their fate have become symbolic of many of the sins of Zionism, and they are the subject of modern critical discourse. Turning them into large memorial tracts has added fuel to the fire.

In an article published in honor of the exhibition "Shaping Memory," which was displayed three years ago at the Ascola gallery in Tel Aviv, cultural expert Sigal Barnir wrote that "this forest that has today become our `natural' landscape, covers over the landscape encountered by the first Zionists when they arrived in Israel, the landscape that Ben-Gurion called the shame of the wilderness - a landscape that was foreign to them, threatening, disappointing. This feeling of foreignness was in contradiction to the feeling that this place has always belonged to the Jewish people, and still does. The afforestation activity played a central role in forming a new identity for the place, while erasing and ignoring the Palestinian landscape and texture of life. While the forests covered natural landscape and left no reminder or remainder of the villages that had been erased, they were turned into a collective Jewish memorial space."

Perpetuating memory in forests, says Barnir during a walk in the JNF forests in honor of Tu Bishvat - forests that seemed enchanted, as in a Northern European fairy tale, rising above a white cloud that floated over the hills - is a Jewish-Israeli phenomenon. It has few precedents of similar dimensions anywhere in the world - with the ironic exception of Germany after World War I. Barnir wrote her article about perpetuating memory in the JNF forests during Israel's 50th anniversary year, a year particularly fraught with memorialization. She ended it with these words: "On the personal level, the desire to be memorialized in a forest is understandable. But we have to reexamine the significance of the experience of memorializing and of death in the forest, which casts a shadow over the feeling of freedom of being out in the open spaces. When we create a public space that is sanctified and dedicated [to the dead], aren't we denying ourselves the possibility of a normal life of tranquillity in nature, of peace?"