This is my olive tree, and yes, that’s a boat in the background:
It doesn’t ‘fit’ with anything else on my floating garden here in Seattle (pines, maples, bamboo, herbs), but I don’t care. It reminds me of the Middle East (so what if it’s a European olive instead of a Middle Eastern one) — of sitting on an ancient terraced hillside sheltering from the noon sun under the silvery-green canopy of a mature olive, my back against its gnarled trunk, the gentle clatter of its leaves shaking in the breeze mixing with the bleating of goats and sheep wafting up from the valley below. It was as though time itself were reaching out and enfolding me, cradling me in centuries of life.
Mine is just a newborn as olive trees go: six years old, a blink of an eye for an olive. These trees live 800 years, at least as far as we can be scientifically sure. There are plenty of legends of 2000-year-old olive trees. But 800 seems a sufficiently ripe old age for veneration.
Unless, of course, you happen to be a right-wing Israeli settler.
Then what you do is poison olive trees.
By the dozen.
Whole groves of them.
TURMUS AYA, West Bank — Palestinians from villages like this one in the West Bank governorate of Ramallah still remember when the olive harvest was a joyous occasion, with whole families out for days in the fall sunshine, gathering the year’s crop and picnicking under the trees.
“We considered it like a wedding,” said Hussein Said Hussein Abu Aliya, 68.
But when Mr. Abu Aliya and his family from the neighboring village of Al-Mughayer — 36 of them in all, including grandchildren — drove out to their land this week in a snaking convoy of cars and pickup trucks with others from Turmus Aya, they found scores of their trees on the rocky slopes in various stages of decay, recently poisoned, they said, by Jewish settlers from an illegal Israeli outpost on top of the hill.
Branches drooped. The once lush, silver-green leaves were turning brown and the few olives still clinging on, which should have been plump and green or purple by harvest time, were shriveled and black. Dozens of trees nearby that Mr. Abu Aliya contended were similarly poisoned with chemicals last year stood like spindly skeletons, gray and completely bare.
I’m glad NYT reporter Isabel Kershner finally got a piece about this in the paper, even if it was edited mealy-mouthed Times-style to include phrases like “they said” and “they contended.”
But what Kershner didn’t write is that this has been going on for years. Decades, in fact.
At first the settlers tried burning the trees. But olives are phoenix-like: you can burn one down, but within a few months, new shoots will spring up around the burned-out core. Then they tried bulldozing them, only to find that unless you use a deep backhoe, those shoots will still spring up again. Then they took to shooting at Palestinians who came to tend and harvest the trees, which is why they can now do so only under Israeli army protection and for just a few days each year. So now the settlers have turned to poison.
My revulsion at this is incalculable. Of course there are so many greater causes for revulsion at the Israeli occupation and land grab in the West Bank — the continual harassment, checkpoints, beatings, arbitrary jailings, maimings, murders. But olive trees?
When you poison so potent a symbol, you poison something deep and integral to the spirit. You poison the very idea of the olive branch of peace. Of the dove with the live branch in its beak that arrived at Noah’s ark as a sign of renewal. Of the olive oil that kept miraculously burning in the temple at Hannukah, one of the holidays these religious settlers claim to honor. Of the olive tree as the source of light, of shelter, of nutrition, of life itself.
The State of Israel once practically fetishised trees. Remember all that stuff about making the desert bloom? As a child, I happily contributed pennies from my allowance to the Jewish National Fund, thinking that I was planting trees in Israel. They’d send a paper outline of a tree and I’d buy little stick-on leaves which I’d paste onto the branches, each in its proper place. Then every time a tree was fully leafed, I’d proudly send it off, imagining each tree with a little plaque in front of it with my name inscribed as the donor. I don’t remember what age I was when I realized that there were no trees with little plaques on them, but I count that as one of those moments when the disillusion of adulthood pierces a child’s view of the world. A Jewish there-is-no-Santa-Claus moment, perhaps.
For all those American and Israeli Jews inured to the violence and thuggery of occupation, perhaps the poisoning of olive trees will slip through their defenses and rationalizations (“but what can we do?” “but they hate us!” “but we need security,” “but we don’t have any choice”) and wake up what tiny remnant of conscience and decency may or may not still exist.
Because these dead olives are literally the poisoned fruit of occupation.
These settlers don’t just use poison. They are poison.
And they have all but killed Israel’s soul.