Reclaiming a Tu B’shvat of Liberation

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Tonight is the eve of Tu B’shvat, the Jewish festival that celebrates the “New Year of the Trees.” According to the Talmud, Tu B’shvat marks the dividing point for the tithing of the fruit from trees for the year to come. Throughout the centuries, this festival has been announced by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms that proliferate throughout the central and northern parts of the land of Israel.

As a celebration of the natural world and the tentative beginnings of spring, Tu B’shvat has been celebrated in different ways during different eras of Jewish history and through a variety of Jewish cultural contexts around the world. But with the rise of the Zionist movement and the establishment of the state of Israel, Tu B’shvat has become, for many Jews, almost exclusively associated with the Jewish National Fund’s fund raising efforts to plant pine forests throughout modern-day Israel.

In a recent blog post, my friend and colleague Cantor Michael Davis underlined the darker legacy of this particular Tu B’shvat observance, noting that the JNF’s mission to create Jewish facts on the land has led to tragedy for the Palestinian people:

My first home in Israel was in a little village in the Jerusalem hills. On the bus to school in Jerusalem, I could see the pine forests stretching from the crest of the hilltops down to the dirt trail at the base of the slopes. Sometimes, I would go on hikes along these trails, passing through the deserted stone buildings of Lifta at the entrance to Jerusalem. Close up, I could see the man-made stone terraces hidden by the trees.

Occasionally, you would come across broken stone walls tracing the shape of a ruined house. The pines blurred the lines of previous ownership and concealed the destruction of Palestinian civilization that happened with the birth of the State. (Over) 80% of the forests were planted after the birth of the State of Israel, many of them on land vacated by the departing indigenous population. Some 80% of the Palestinian population left in 1948, never to return. And this project continues with JNF’s focus on land in the Palestinian areas of the State of Israel in the Galilee and Negev and the secretive planting of trees in the West Bank. (In a call-in interview that JNF just posted on YouTube, the organization’s CEO, Russell Robinson, does not answer a caller’s question about JNF tree planting over the Green Line.)

I was particularly struck by Cantor Davis’ observation that the forests of the Jewish National Fund forests are not fruit-bearing, but pine:

It is deeply symbolic then that the early 20th century Eastern European settlers chose a non-native, barren tree. Symbolically and in a real sense, this foreign tree displaced the olive trees of the indigenous population.

Might there be a way to decouple Tu B’shvat from this destructive legacy of colonialism and disenfranchisement? I’d like to suggest one possibility:

I’ve long noticed the power of celebrating this “harbinger of spring” in the colder climates of the northern-hemisphere diaspora, where we are barely one month into winter and the landscape is filled not by the white of newly-budding almond blossoms, but by the white of snow-covered trees.

While some might think this would be an unlikely setting to celebrate Tu B’shvat, I actually find it quite profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the midst of a Chicago winter. It comes to remind us that even during this dark, often bitterly cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees. In the chilly diaspora, we can celebrate the invisible forces of liberation reborn underground even as the prison of winter seems to reign above.

Thus we observe Tu B’shvat as a welcome reminder that spring will always follow winter; that even in the coldest and darkest of times, the unseen power of liberation will inexorably rise up.

I encourage you to reclaim Tu B’shvat as a celebration of liberation: seasonal, spiritual, political, or all of the above.

Click here for more information on how you can support tree-planting for justice, not disenfranchisement.


Why I’m Boycotting SodaStream

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Israel’s settlement juggernaut continues at full speed, creating apartheid conditions on the occupied West Bank while making a mockery of any hope of a two state solution. Since no nation or institution seems willing to hold Israel accountable, it seems to me the least any concerned citizen can do is to refuse to patronize companies that directly profit from this brutal and unjust occupation.

At the moment, Exhibit A is SodaStream – a company that produces home carbonating devices. Promoting its product as eco-friendly, SodaStream is sold in 39 countries in 35,000 stores worldwide, including Macy’s, Bed Bath and Beyond, Bloomingdale’s, Sears, and Kmart.

It is also manufactured in the Israeli settlement of Mishor Adumim.

A bit of history: Mishor Adumim is the industrial park section of Ma’aleh Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank.  The land for both of these settlements originally belonged to the Palestinian towns of Abu Dis, Azarya, Atur, Issauya, Han El Akhmar, Anata and Nebbi Mussa, but was expropriated by Israel in the 1970s.  Today, Ma’aleh and Mishor Adumim are a key part of the Israeli government’s plan to create Jewish facts on the ground around Arab East Jerusalem.

The SodaStream boycott is a particularly instructive action since the company actively promotes itself as an environmentally concerned enterprise. This is a tactic known as “greenwashing” – a cynical attempt to hide behind liberal environmental values in order to divert attention away from egregious violations of human rights. On this subject, I was profoundly saddened to read a post today by Rabbi Jason Miller, who sang the environmental praises of SodaStream and encouraged folks support Israel (and celebrate the Jewish festival of Tu B’shvat) by buying their product.

And what about the fact that the company says its product is “Made in Israel”, yet is based in the West Bank? By way of answer, Rabbi Miller approvingly quoted the company CEO Daniel Birnbaum, who he claims is “a strong proponent of human rights”:

(Birnbaum) said that thanks to SodaStream thousands of local Palestinians in Mishor Adumim have good paying jobs. Those workers, he explains, would not be able to support their families without their jobs in SodaStream’s manufacturing plant.

Wow. My jaw nearly hit the floor when I read that one. I’m not sure that resorting to a colonial “white man’s burden” argument is the surest way to defend entrepreneurial activity in occupied territory.

It’s also patently untrue. I strongly recommend this report by “Who Profits” for an important and in-depth expose of SodaStream, including the manner in which it exploits Palestinian laborers who come from the villages surrounding Mishor Adumim.

Jordan Ash, writing in the Twin Cities Daily Planet has also recently addressed this issue:

As with the Maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexican border, the high unemployment rate means that many Palestinians are forced to try to earn a living through jobs in the settlements, despite the low pay and harsh working conditions.

Palestinian workers in the settlements do not enjoy the full protection of Israeli labor laws.   They must get special permits and security clearance just to be able to enter these factories.   Involvement in a labor dispute constitutes a security risk and can result in the loss of not only a worker’s current job but their ability to work in settlements in the future.   Thus, many Palestinian workers do not demand their legal employment rights due to fear of losing their work permit.

At the SodaStream factory, when workers protested that they were being paid less than half of the minimum wage and were forced to work 12 hour days, they were fired. On another occasion, when workers who were fired and were still owed a month’s wages went to the factory to request their pay, SodaStream had them removed from the factory and banned from the entire industrial park.

As with all business in the illegal settlements, SodaStream pays taxes to Israel, not to the Palestinian Authority.  The municipal taxes that SodaStream pays are used exclusively to support the growth and development of the settlement through things such as roads, education, and sewage treatment.

While I certainly don’t have any illusions that this boycott will bring the Israeli economy to their knees, I do believe it provides us with the means to take a public moral stand against the injustices Israel is committing in the occupied West Bank – and to stand in solidarity with those whose lives are impacted by this oppression.

It is a particularly timely action since the company has spent $3.8 million on a 30-second spot during next month’s Super Bowl. Apparently the commercial advocates “setting the bubbles free”. Those concerned with human rights should know that freedom for real, living breathing human beings is what is truly at stake here.


Celebrate and Take Action This Tu B’shvat!

It’s utterly frigid here in Chicago. As I lose feeling in my toes, however, the Jewish calendar tells me it’s Tu B’shvat: the Birthday of the Trees, and the first harbinger of Spring.

And so my Tu B’shvat offerings for you:

- An email I wrote on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace: this Tu B’shvat, please take action to save trees and uprooted communities in Israel/Palestine;

- From the Velveteen Rabbi: a lovely two-page Tu B’shvat Haggadah that covers all the bases quite gracefully. (Mazel Tov to the Velveteen Rabbi, who recently received her smicha and is now, as she puts it, “running and playing with the real rabbis.” Rabbi Rachel: don’t you know you’ve been a “real” rabbi to many of us for quite some time now…)

- For Tu B’shvat reading material, I encourage you to read this inspiring piece on “Spiritual Environmentalism” by Wangari Maathai, Kenyan tree-planter extraordinaire:

Human beings have a consciousness by which we can appreciate love, beauty, creativity, and innovation or mourn the lack thereof. To the extent that we can go beyond ourselves and ordinary biological instincts, we can experience what it means to be human and therefore different from other animals. We can appreciate the delicacy of dew or a flower in bloom, water as it runs over the pebbles or the majesty of an elephant, the fragility of the butterfly or a field of wheat or leaves blowing in the wind. Such aesthetic responses are valid in their own right, and as reactions to the natural world they can inspire in us a sense of wonder and beauty that in turn encourages a sense of the divine.

That consciousness acknowledges that while a certain tree, forest, or mountain itself may not be holy, the life-sustaining services it provides — the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink — are what make existence possible, and so deserve our respect and veneration. From this point of view, the environment becomes sacred, because to destroy what is essential to life is to destroy life itself.

I feel my toes warming up already…


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