A Tu Bishvat Reflection on Jewish-Palestinian Tree Wars

An entire halakhic literature has developed around trees. Stealing produce from a Jew or a gentile is absolutely forbidden by the Torah, and wanton destruction of trees is prohibited by the Bible. But there are grey areas.

Daniel Bar-On

The birthday of the trees always has something of a fairy tale quality to it. It may have started out as the start of the tax year for Temple tithing, but under the influence of the Kabbalists, Zionists and environmentalists, Tu BIshvat developed into a day of planting and celebrating the beauty of the trees and fruits of the Land of Israel.

While traditionally, trees are symbols of life, peace and tranquility, in recent years, they have taken on controversial and sometimes sinister connotations. Israelis and Palestinians both claim that the other side plants olive groves in order to expand it borders and encroach on the other's land. In the past, settlers have alleged that Palestinian terrorists used the olive harvest as cover for sneaking into settlements to carry out attacks. The resultant security measures sometimes define olive groves adjoining Jewish settlements as closed military areas, so that even innocent Palestinian farmers are forbidden from entering their orchards to harvest their fruit. If they manage to gain a court order permitting access, they may find that fruits have already been taken or their trees have been uprooted, cut down or burnt in "price tag" attacks.

While most of us are barely aware of these disputes, an entire halakhic literature has developed around them. Stealing from a Jew or a gentile is absolutely forbidden by the Torah. Likewise, wanton destruction of trees is prohibited by the Bible. But there are grey areas. Supposing people plant trees on stolen land or they allow the use of their olive groves as a base for launching terrorist attacks, does that render the trees legitimate targets? Or if Palestinian owners are denied access to their land, which prevents them from harvesting their produce and the olives will in any case rot on the trees, is there any harm in taking them?

Most rabbis who respond to these questions do so with halakhic accuracy and civic responsibility. They caution their students to use the appropriate legal channels to pursue their rights, rather than acting unilaterally or carrying out vigilante attacks.

In his responsum, Rabbi Ariel of Ramat Gan cites a beautiful midrash. When God promised Abraham that he would inherit the Land of Israel, his nephew, Lot, imagined that this gave the family immediate license to enjoy all its fruit. Abraham, differed. He understood that despite his divinely ordained ownership of the land, he had moral obligations to the existing landholders. He muzzled his camels to ensure that they did not eat anyone else's crops, and he never grazed his flocks on land that did not yet belong to him.

Believing in the importance of the Jewish State does not give us license to overstep our legal rights, or to undermine the rights of Palestinians to their private property. Rabbi Ariel praises the work of organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights who assist Palestinian farmers by harvesting olives on their behalf and handing over the produce to its rightful owners, thus creating a Kiddush Hashem – a sanctification of God's name.

While the Bible's laws prohibiting chopping down trees include some exceptions in times of war, essentially these are commands for peaceful behavior. Rabbi Aryeh Levine once walked in the fields around Jaffa with Rabbi Kook who was then chief rabbi of the city. When Rabbi Levine mindlessly plucked a flower, his companion rebuked him, reminding him about the importance of sensitivity to every part of God's creation. This sensitivity lies at the heart of our relationship to all of creation and most importantly to other people. It is expressed by the Sefer Hachinuch (Book of Education), which explains that the command not to chop down trees symbolizes the nature of truly religious people; "The way of the righteous is to love peace."

The Land of Israel is currently a place of conflict. Where necessary, we Jews must fight to defend our legitimate rights. But Tu Bishvat is also a powerful reminder that, "the Torah is a tree of life for all who cling to it, its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peaceful." The national religious community is justifiably proud of its passionate Zionism, its contribution to the army and to the defense of the state, now we must also take the lead as seekers of peace and justice in the land.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel and director of the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.