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.