Every year, during Tu Bishvat, Israeli schoolchildren are told the curious story of Honi the Circle-Maker. This idiosyncratic rabbi from the days of the Mishnah got his unusual name by drawing a circle in the sand during a drought, insisting that he would not move from it until the Almighty provided rain… and succeeding. Some rabbis saw his audacity as sacrilegious, but the talmudic majority reckons that Honi simply had a unique relationship with his creator.
Honi is probably most famous as a Rip Van Winkle figure in the well-known midrash (Taanit 23a) where he chanced upon a man planting a carob tree. He asks him how many years will it be before it produces fruit, and is told it would take 70. In a lapse into cynicism, Honi then mocks: “Really?! You really think you’re going to live 70 years and eat from it?” And the man responds: “I found a world with carob trees. Just as my fathers planted for me, I need to plant for my children.”
The legend continues with Honi sitting down to eat and falling into a deep sleep. Seventy years elapse. When he wakes up Honi sees someone picking carobs from a full-grown tree at the same spot: “Are you the man who planted this tree?” he asks and is stunned to hear: “No I’m his son’s son.”
The message is clear: when you are an indigenous people — posterity matters. intergenerational commitments matter. Collectively, we are in it for the long run.
There is no more concrete manifestation of the Zionist impulse, as the national movement of an indigenous people, than Israel’s forests. Seventy years ago — when the country was an impoverished, developing nation, the founders set about returning the woodlands to a decimated land — a land where 97 percent of the original vegetation had been extirpated.
That is not Zionist propaganda. Empirical evidence from aerial reconnaissance photography of the British army in World War I confirms the absolute bareness of Palestine following 2,000 years of Jewish exile. Since then, almost two million dunams of woodlands have been planted. There is something deeply meaningful about this profound act of national, ecological revival during these troubled times.
I have begun thinking about Jewish national indigeneity a great deal recently. That’s because it is under attack. I just arrived in America to teach for a while at Stanford University and speak on campuses across the US in support of Israel and its right to exist and defend itself.
It does not take long to meet up with Israel’s adversaries on local campuses. They are well-organized with ubiquitous vigils, marches, posters and information booths. In Stanford’s case, it takes the form of a mock Palestinian refugee camp set up in the heart of the student union plaza.
At first, I tried to keep discussions with the local Palestinian advocates and their polemics about Israeli genocide and imperialism contained as an intellectual exercise. But the combination of ignorance and self-righteousness is a toxic cocktail that is hard to stomach with equanimity. As an Israeli, nothing bothers me more than their cancellation of my people’s indigenous identity, assigning us the degenerate status of “settler colonialists”.
I have always known that notwithstanding its challenges, my life as in Israeli is completely enriched by its profound connection with the past. When applying any objective definition of “indigeneity,” being Israeli emerges as an extreme case of having an age-old, organic identity. We speak a language that has been around for thousands of years, allowing us to have a conversation with our ancestors, if we could somehow turn back the hands of time. We read the same ancient “Book of Books” in our houses of worship and make our children pass examinations after high school to ensure the biblical literacy of future generations. We celebrate our holidays according to the calendar of old. We marvel at the same landscapes as the ancients, enjoy the same seasonal wildflowers, and welcome the rains at the same time of year. Living in Modiin, every year during Hanukkah, I walk the land of the Maccabees.
It is this connection that gives us the temerity to fight to protect our homeland, not just in the tunnels of Khan Younis, but also in hundreds of environmental campaigns throughout the decades since the founding of the State of Israel that preserve the country’s environmental integrity.
I think it is very unwise, and perhaps unethical, to play the moral superiority card of Jewish indigeneity relative to that of the Palestinians. They have their national narrative and I respect it. Over the years, I was always annoyed that Palestinian leadership never respected the authenticity of my Israeli identity and Jews’ historic connection to their homeland. But invariably, I let it go. Many Jews working on coexistence even avoided openly defining themselves as “Zionists,” lest they create unnecessary antagonism. The main thing was to get on with the “peacemaking.” In retrospect, this was a mistake.
October 7th confirms the perils of ignoring a fundamental, hostile axiom among our enemies that negates who we are and denies the moral legitimacy of an Israeli identity. I can see now that internationally it was also a mistake to allow, uncontested, so many academics to spout mantras that vilify Zionism. The antisemitism is implicit: nationalism is just fine… unless it’s Jewish. A vast number of seemingly intelligent, “progressive” young people today actually believe that Jews only arrived in Palestine at the start of the 20th century with the goal of usurping and exploiting indigenous Arabs. It is simply unfathomable.
Two thousand years ago, the Mishnah codified the four new years that are built into our national calendar. Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of Shvat is, of course, the New Year for the trees. The fact that Israel has revived this arboreal birthday and turned tree-planting and tree-preservation into a national holiday is a sign of just how much our heritage informs our present-day lives. It is symbolic that the Knesset — our imperfect legislative expression of Israeli democracy — was founded on Tu Bishvat. Israeli democracy still has a way to grow and we need to nurture it. But it has very deep roots.
The present conflict in Gaza and the resulting tsunami of antisemitism has been a wake-up call for Jews around the world. At Stanford, Jewish students (American and Israeli) supported by local community members have set up their own “Blue and White Tent.” It is filled ’round the clock with volunteers, who engage the curious passersby and hold events that tell the truth about Israel’s history. It is dramatically changing the local dynamics. I am profoundly moved by the courage of these young people.
Of course, we need to stand up and defend our right to live in our ancient homeland. One of the best ways to do this is to celebrate the forests that Zionism coaxed back to life from oblivion.
It is often not clear where to begin in making Israel’s case as an indigenous nation when confronting such profound and pervasive disinformation. How do you explain that Jewish nationalism has absolutely nothing to do with the settler colonialist paradigm that is so superficially bandied about by leftist intellectuals?
Planting trees so that, in 70 years, the grandchildren will enjoy their fruit and their shade is something indigenous people do. It’s a good place to start.