Opinion |

As Fires Rage, Israel Needs Less Pine and More Coexistence

איימן עודה
Ayman Odeh
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Scorched trees in the Judean Hills this week.
Scorched trees in the Judean Hills this week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
איימן עודה
Ayman Odeh

I’ve been reading the horrible news about the fire in the Judean Hills, a blaze that suddenly turned the green forest black. The height of the flames is matched by the sorrow over an area so precious to anyone for whom this homeland is dear.

In the hot and dry climate produced by global warming, the danger posed by conflagrations is becoming a reality for many countries. Any fire can be carried by the dry wind and consume thirsty pine trees.

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Israel’s pine forests are the fruit of a Jewish National Fund plan from the 1950s, led in part by Yosef Weitz, who was dubbed the father of the forests. Weitz’s story has been told in the new documentary “Blue Box,” directed by his great-granddaughter, Michal Weits, which I have just seen. The film explores the great-granddaughter’s horror when she discovers that the father of the forests is actually the father of population transfer.

The film begins with the director’s pride for her great-grandfather’s work, particularly on Tu Bishvat. Every year on this Jewish Arbor Day, even we Arab children planted trees in elementary school and joyfully sang: “Tu Bishvat has arrived / The holiday of the trees. / The land is imploring us / The time has come to plant. / Everyone, take a tree / With shovels we’ll break ground.”

As with us school kids, Weits didn’t ask questions. She was proud and at peace with her ancestor’s enterprise until she discovered his other name, which left her no rest and sent her searching for clues in the 5,000 pages of his diaries. The notions of making the desert bloom and “a land without people for a people without a land” that she was educated to believe confront the reality that her great-grandfather described in his diaries. That reality also appears in archival photos in the film, of land being cultivated and full of life.

Like the great-granddaughter, the great-grandfather saw the contradiction between theory and reality and decided to resolve it with his ugly expression “my people first.” Weits reads the diaries and is shocked: There is no room in the country for two peoples. We need to evict the Arabs. Not a single village should remain, not a single tribe.

The vision of population transfer in the diaries leaves no hope. Weitz acknowledges the bleeding rift between the two peoples and asserts that it is so wide that it will never be healed. Weitz was the one who convened the transfer committee and was among the proponents of absentee property legislation, the theft law that allowed the expropriation of Arabs’ property and the land of their ancestors without providing them even the right to appeal.

In 1950 he launched the huge JNF forestation plan with the planting of 80 million trees. Weitz pushed to destroy the empty homes that remained in all the uprooted villages, and the JNF sought to plant trees to hide the abandoned sites. Thus, as David Ben-Gurion said, tree-planting became the national sport.

The pine tree was the main symbol of the new fund; it grows quickly and doesn’t need much depth to strike roots. Like the British before it, the JNF chose the pine tree instead of expanding the natural Mediterranean woodland that grew in the Judean Hills. The pine looks nice, but it’s a foreign implant in the local environment and endangers it because it’s especially flammable in our dry, hot climate.

When I left the film about the father of transfer and the forests, I saw the newspaper headlines about the terrible fires in the Judean Hills. I heard the cruel laugh of both history and nature, as if they were saying that we humans can’t fashion history or nature to jibe with our political aspirations.

Alongside the terrible headlines about the fire, I saw a no-less-painful headline about the Polish law blocking the returning of the property of Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust, one of the most brutal genocides ever. This is part of the Polish government’s effort to evade its country’s partial responsibility for the war crimes, and to hide the historical truth behind a blatant lie.

The film ends with Weits writing in her great-grandfather’s diary: I have a feeling, grandfather, that the day will come when someone starts asking questions. I was full of appreciation for Weits, who became the one asking these questions, seeking the truth and holding a mirror to herself, her family and all Israeli society.

Throughout the film, Weits shows the painful searching process that many will need to achieve coexistence in this country. It’s a process of exposing the truth, but beyond that, it constantly seeks to achieve justice and reconciliation that will permit a healthy and equitable society based on recognizing the national rights of the two peoples.

Along with the JNF, Weitz fashioned Israel in the image of the pine tree, a European implant alienated from its Middle Eastern environment. Weits’ search for a solution opens a window to a different society, one naturally attached to the place like the Mediterranean woodland. Only a truly joint society and state, connected to their environment and land, will bring justice to both peoples. Only this will let us face joint challenges together, like the coronavirus and climate crises.

Ayman Odeh is chairman of the Joint List alliance of Arab parties.

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