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.
we are going up to Tuscany to help harvest olives this weekend — your poignant enumeration of the larger meaning of the olive tree will be much in mind.
As you say, such a potent symbol, the olive branch stands for so much. I shall continue to avoid Israeli produce in the supermarket – together with boycotting all Nestlé brands, my shopping has become pretty circumscribed over the years.
Your last line struck me as a tad naieve. I have been taught that if you build something on a rotten foundation it will also be rotten. The Zionist political entity in Palestine was built on a foundation of theft, lies, violence and bigotry. How then could it have a soul in the first place?
It might help some if you tried looking at it from both ‘sides.’ Israel was also built on a foundation of idealism — as badly blinkered as idealism often is — and early Zionism was also a national freedom movement. If the seeds of its corruption were there from the start, alas I think we can say the same of any idealism, including, I now fear, the more radical parts of the Palestinian one. My point being that there is more than enough rhetoric to go round, and that finding some way out of this terrible impasse requires going beyond judgment to understanding. (I will think more about this and post in the near future.)
As for the ‘soul’ issue, I am guilty as charged: it’s a tired cliche to even think of any country as having a soul, and one I need to be wary of.
I’m sorry Leslie. I cannot see this from a Zionist perspective. It was a wrong headed idea from the beginning, even if I concider the tragedy of the Jewish diaspora, the anti-Jewish laws of Europe, the holocaust etc…one of the foundation stones of Israeli apologists is the “chosen people” line which, you must admit smells very much like the “master race” slogan used by you know who. The core of this ideology is racism, which I suppose could be considered an ideal but not the kind of idealism I would laud.
Yusuf, I am as averse to the ‘chosen people’ line as you, and appalled at what Zionism has become, let alone at the fact that there are such things as Jewish racists. But here are the essential facts: Israel is a state, and Palestine, sooner or later, and I very much hope sooner, will also be a state. The only way to get there, it seems to me, is to go beyond mutual blame and accusation — I say this in full knowledge of how easy that is to say and how immensely difficult it is to do — to the pragmatic question of how these two states are to co-exist: not in fluttering-dove idealistic kind of peace, but in what you might call “cold peace,” much as exists, perhaps (I know you’ll hate this analogy, but here goes anyway), between Egypt and Israel.
Lesley, with respect, I think you are missing…well, a lot. If you examine the “peace process” with open eyes, you will see that there is zero possibility for a two state solution. The Zionist agenda, as openly stated by many, includes control of territory beyond the jordan river, beyond the Golan heights and beyond the Siani.
I will concede that, for the average Jew perhaps, the dream of a homeland has some aspects which are not totally reprehensible, but when those aspirations became actions, with the ethnic cleansing the process required, all honor was lost.
I assume you have lived in occupied Palestine and have or had friends or even family involved in this crime and I’m sorry if my opinions cause you anger, but I really don’t see how a person with any love of justice could defend or even excuse the punishment of the Palestinian people for the crimes if the Europeans and others
Oh no, Yusuf, either you misread me or I have not been clear. I neither defend nor excuse this. The whole project of Israeli occupation of the occupied territories, the ongoing ugliness it entails, and the increasing denial and right-wing entrenchment inside Israel, all fill me with anger and with a disgust so deep I did not know I was capable of it. Like you, I fail to see exactly how a two-state solution would work, with the West Bank and Gaza non-contiguous and lacking in natural resources. But my failing to see something does not mean that it is impossible. However this is to be resolved, even partially, compromise will be needed, on all sides: a ‘solution,’ in other words, that will please nobody but that everybody can live with. What I’m saying is that there is a huge gap between the ideal and the possible, and we can only work toward the future from where we are now. Call me an unhappy pragmatist, perhaps.
Thank you. I think I understand your position now. To me, a just solution would be to allow everyone who has history there to return(if they want) and let them decide, on an equal basis what the system should be, and they can call it Israel, Palestine or kookamunga, as long as everyone gets a chance to live and worship as they see fit. Maybe we’re on the same page, or at least the same chapter.
The same chapter — I like that. The insistence that we all have to be on exactly the same page may be part of what’s holding us back.