Ken Toltz
Israel-based writer

Tu B’Shvat Revisting JNF Blue Box

Jewish National Fund (JNF) Blue Box used with permission
Jewish National Fund (JNF) Blue Box used with permission

“We have to open this discussion,” said Israeli filmmaker Michal Weits at the Other Israel Film Festival late last year in a NYC panel discussion. The discussion she referenced before a progressive American Jewish audience was about 1948, which Israel and her supporters celebrate as the year the Jewish State was born (Yom Haaztmaut) and Palestinians mark as the Naqba (catastrophe) the year hundreds of thousands of indigenous Arab inhabitants left or lost their homes becoming refugees across the borders of the new State of Israel.

Weits’s 2021 film Blue Box made its Israel debut at last July’s prestigious Doc Aviv documentary film festival which is where I saw the film and met the filmmaker after the screening. The title and description caught my attention as I perused the film festival program since like millions of American Jews I grew up helping Jewish National Fund (JNF) raise money to plant trees in Israel. American Jews contributed via the ubiquitous Blue Box Pischke found in a visible location in most Jewish homes, shops and restaurants as a collection box.

One of my earliest memories as a Jew was the message; Israel needed trees! And I had a personal connection and responsibility to ensure the success of Israel. JNF portfolios were distributed in Hebrew Schools in the 1960s, each portfolio had a graphic of a tree inside with a slot for dimes on the branches. We were tasked with obtaining 20 dimes to fill out the card to be turned in with funds sent to plant one tree in a JNF forest in Israel. A completed JNF tree portfolio would generate a personalized tree certificate suitable for framing and hanging on a bedroom wall. This was a brilliant marketing campaign especially effective as environmentalism and ecology were becoming high priority concerns for America’s youth. What could be more environmentally friendly than raising money to plant trees in the new State of Israel?

Filmmaker Weits researched for 14 years the life and story of her great grandfather Josef Weitz, famous among early Zionists as the director of JNF Israel’s Department of Afforestation and Land Acquisition. She utilized his 5,000 page journal and research from Israel’s historical archives to present just how JNF funds were allocated and administered by Josef Weitz in pursuit of the Zionist dream of a viable Jewish homeland. Her eyes were opened and her Blue Box film doesn’t shirk from presenting the truth and reality on the ground of displacement of Arab inhabitants and forests planted where Arab villages once stood. After seeing the film at Doc Aviv I knew it was a film and topic I wanted to write about, here is a link to my November 2021 piece in another well-known Israel publication.

As the Jewish holiday Tu B’shvat (New Year of the Trees) approached I wanted to revisit with filmmaker Weits her experience with audiences over the past year as a talk-back guest for Blue Box screenings throughout Israel and in New York City. She had referenced in the film that in her youth Tu B’shvat was always a very special holiday among her family who revered their patriarch’s role in the establishment of Israel in its earliest history. In her youth Michal Weits toured JNF forests and planted trees with grade school classes in the traditional Israeli way to mark the holiday, often treated as a minor celebrity as the great granddaughter of Josef Weitz.

Following are excerpts from the recent interview:

Ken Toltz: Now that Tu B’shvat is next week I thought it would be interesting to hear more about what this year has been like for you in traveling around and doing all these talkbacks after the film. I was especially interested to hear how you felt in New York City. And any thoughts you have as this holiday comes up compared to what it used to be for you?

Michal Weits: I’ll begin with the screenings I had of the film in Israel. I traveled the country (Israel) with the film and met a lot of audiences and this was very exciting. I must say I was surprised in a good way because I was afraid it would be difficult for people to talk about the issues displayed in the film. Especially for my parents’ generation, I was afraid the younger generation will think that it’s just a boring piece of history, and the older generation wouldn’t be cooperative in talking about this topic. So I was surprised in both directions because the younger generation showed a lot of interest in this issue and in its own history, and the older generation was willing to discuss and debate around this sensitive topic. I had very interesting conversations with the audiences after the screenings. Sometimes it was more difficult and people just told me, “you know what? It’s their (Palestinians) fault. They’ve gone to war and they didn’t accept the award and the United Nations partition,” so some of the screenings were more hostile. But I think that the film made its way to people’s hearts and minds and they were willing to talk about it. And this was my biggest surprise. There were some people who told me they are going to think after this screening. They’re going home and they’re going to do some thinking. And a lot of people wanted to do a family screening with the younger generation to talk about it. So this is an amazing news for me. I could only dream about it. So I’m very happy and we’re even trying to bring the film to students.

Ken Toltz: Did you get response from people that this was new information they’d never heard before?

Michal Weits: Mostly from the younger generation, of course. From the older generation, I would hear about the one million dunam deal of the Jewish National Fund. Most of the people didn’t know about it. Two days ago, I was in the screening and afterwards another woman came to me and said “I had no idea. And it doesn’t make sense. This is the biggest transaction of land that happened in Israel, and nobody knows about it”. So yes, people are discovering some new information.

We keep getting more invitations to screen the film in places around Israel. We’re still doing intimate screenings, so I’m very happy about that. I had the chance to be outside of Israel only once with the film in New York City. We screened the film in a lot of places in Kosovo in Thailand in Toronto and in Vancouver. We’re also going to speak in festivals on zoom in San Francisco and Belgium.

Ken Toltz: Tell me more about your experience at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York City?

Michal Weits: It was an amazing experience being in New York, although it was a Jewish audience an only Jewish audience. It was very important for me to see the reactions because the film is also aiming for the Jews in the Diaspora. So for me, I was very happy that it happened in New York City in front of the Jewish audience. And the feedback was exciting. I think that again, the older generation has the feeling they know some things that were going on here and something didn’t smell that good. But they prefered to keep thinking about the tradition and the good things about the Jewish National Fund and not to look outside the blinders. So I think that watching the film opened their minds a little bit. I was very happy to see. I was afraid they will mark me as a traitor that takes their beloved Jewish National Fund and ruined the image, but they were extremely open-minded in talking about it and understanding that things are changing right now. And this is not the same organization. And, it’s never been the organization they thought it was.

Ken Toltz: Let’s talk for a minute about the panel discussion you participated in at NYC Other Israel Film Festival, “Bridging the Intergenerational Gap surrounding Israel and Palestine” in which you found yourself in a very different role as the only Israeli on a panel of progressive American Jews.

Michal Weits: I have to say, I never felt like this before. First, I never felt like I am a minority. I’m used to being in my country with my people and I felt a minority over there and I felt that then. The terms that they’re using are very different than my word terms, you know? I said also in the panel that it’s very different reality especially with the word Zionism here in Israel. We don’t use this term because, we’re Jewish, we’re Israeli. I don’t consider myself a Zionist or non-Zionist or post-Zionist. And that’s all. They’re talking a lot using the term of Zionism. Yes. And there were a lot of things that felt so strange for me because they’re talking about Israel and they’re talking about me. But they’re so far away physically and not only physically from me, because it’s difficult when you live here, you see things differently. Yes. And you see how everything is so complicated. And so it’s very easy to take a stand against something or call something, post-Zionism. But life is much more complicated than that. And I think that only when you live here in this crazy place, you understand that. You have your opinions, of course, but it’s complicated in the end, if you really want to talk to someone who thinks different than you. You have to find a way.

I think one of my biggest challenges in the film was to find the right way to talk with people who don’t think like me. Don’t necessarily think like me, there are those things that’re much easier to say, while living far away and judging everything. But you know, before the first day of the May Gaza operation or war, however they call it, I’m a mom, right? And suddenly to pull my one-year-old daughter, with maybe a few minutes of warning and pull her out of bed because in 30 seconds, rockets will hit in Tel Aviv. It was the easy part than to be in the south of the country. It was difficult. So I am not saying that we had to crush Gaza because they scared my little girl. No, but it’s complicated. And I think that we need to find a solution so we are not finding ourselves every two years in a mini-war like that. And saying ‘this is wrong and the Israelis are wrong’, it’s OK. You can say it and maybe it’s true, but it’s not leading us anywhere. We need to find ideas for solution. Every side needs to come toward the other side. Israel has to talk about 1948 if we want any kind of solution in the future. So we have to go way, way back to our roots and the roots of the conflict and start digging over there. If we really want to solve this problem one day, I don’t know if my generation will be alive to see it. It’s complicated.

This was my first time feeling like I’m really in the minority and I’m just the representative of a country. And defending the war in Gaza, it was my responsibility right there. I kind of felt that I wanted to say more. I felt the gap between Israel, Israelis and the Jews in the Diaspora is huge.

In the past few years, there is a feeling that they (Diaspora Jews) are getting far, far away from us, the Jews that we all always looked at them as having our back, you know? And I think that it’s not only their problem but also our problem, maybe we are very busy doing things that Israel does, like planting trees on buildings and or doing not doing some steps towards relaxation or solution. We’re doing exactly the opposite. And terms and dialog that they’re using is very far away from the language that we are speaking here. But I don’t have a solution to make these gaps smaller.

Ken Toltz: Recently there’s been some problems with the Bedouin in the Negev, have you followed that news?

Michal Weits: Yes I think that history is repeating itself, the tree is not a naive thing. A tree is a political symbol when you are pulling out trees or planting trees. The olive trees, it’s a very problematic symbol for us, I think. And it’s very painful because trees are such a beautiful thing. Nature. It’s the beginning, something oxygenates anew. And here it symbolizes all bad things. And the tree becomes the soldier to stand guard on the ground and to protect the State. This land belongs to us or belongs to them. So it’s very painful to see it. I can’t say I’m surprised. I think it will happen again and again, and when the government allows the illegal settlers to pull out olive trees of the Palestinians, so it will happen again. Well, we never have respect to the Palestinians and their holding of their land.

Post Script: Ultimately the meaning of Tu B’shvat is renewal of life it marks the point when half of winter is behind us and new life of Spring is just ahead. Michal Weits and her Blue Box film are also a marker of the willingness of a new Israeli generation to remove the blinders and reconsider the myths of the past to find a new path forward so the next generation can live in peace, security and prosperity.

Blue Box will screen in Israel Sunday night Jan. 16th on YES Documentary channel and has several upcoming 2022 screenings at American Jewish film festivals, Atlanta, Boca Raton, Louisville, St. Louis, West Hartford, and Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles. For more information click on this link: Blue Box – Norma Productions

About the Author
Ken Toltz began his professional career at AIPAC in Washington, D.C. after attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He's a 3rd generation Colorado native, businessman and long-time gun violence prevention activist. After 42 years from his first visit to Israel, in 2019 he relocated his home to Mitzpe Ramon in Israel's Negev. Ken currently resides in Herzliya. He writes about Israeli politics, relations with the U.S. and the Israeli creative class of writers and filmmakers.
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