All at once
Reparations and teshuvah

On the Tent of Nations, destruction of orchards, and the path to peace


Valley of fruit trees: before and after. [Source.]

Several years ago, during the summer when I was living in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to spend an evening with a group called the All Nations Café. (I blogged about it at the time, and also spoke about it from the bimah of my shul on erev Rosh Hashanah that year.) It was an incredibly powerful experience for me -- talking with Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals who were  dedicated to peace and to forging connections across our differences. It's one thing for me as an American, living half a world away, to talk about my yearning for peace and coexistence. These folks were living that intention, and I admired them deeply.

I remember being particularly moved by hearing the story of the man on whose land we had gathered, a Palestinian man named Abed, who told us about his struggles to prove ownership of his family's land (despite holding papers dating from Ottoman times) and about the challenges which that entailed. I thought of the All Nations Café last week when I heard news about the destruction of the orchard at the Tent of Nations farm. (A side note: as I was writing this post the website seemed to be down, but I think that webmasters are in the process of mirroring it at a new location: Tent of Nations.) My friend and colleague Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb wrote:

Daoud Nassar and his family at The Tent of Nations in the West Bank was invaded by the IDF and their environmental and educational farm destroyed. Entire fields of grapes, apples, apricots, almonds, figs were wiped out. Hundreds of fruitful trees were destroyed. Daoud and his family own the land, have papers dating from the Ottoman Empire...I feel this deeply. Daoud is my friend. Those of us who know Daoud have been deeply impacted by his compassion, nonviolence, resiliency, creativity, and commitment to community.

Daoud has posted about the destruction on the Tent of Nations Facebook page:

Today at 08.00, Israeli bulldozers came to the fertile valley of the farm where we planted fruit trees 10 years ago, and destroyed the terraces and all our trees there. More than 1500 apricot and apple trees as well as grape plants were smashed and destroyed.

(His post is here.) I'm embedding a ten-minute video about Tent of Nations, which includes a tour of the land and gives a good sense for what and where it is. I really recommend watching the video -- take ten minutes and watch, before you read the rest of this post. (If you can't see the embed, it's here at YouTube: Tent of Nations: we refuse to be enemies.)

One of the articles archived at Friends of Tent of Nations explains that "The Nassar farm is part of a parcel of land, including eight nearby Palestinian farming villages, that Israeli authorities hope to annex in order to expand the Gush Etzion settlements, whose population is around 50,000." I know that there is a housing shortage all over Israel; I feel certain that that plays into the Israeli government's desire to annex West Bank land in order to build. But I suspect that the current Israeli government is also acting out of the intention to continue establishing "facts on the ground."

That article explains that when the Israeli government first declared intention to confiscate the land, the Nasser family made the conscious choice "not to be enemies," and founded the Tent of Nations, an organization whose aims are "to build bridges between people of different backgrounds, and between people and land." Author Emma Halgren continues:

The Israeli authorities have forbidden any permanent infrastructure development on the site, as well as access to the electricity grid and public water, so the Nassars have refurbished seven underground caves, painting them, fitting them out with comfortable rugs and cushions and connecting them to electricity from a generator so that they could be used for meetings and other gatherings.

I remember a similar situation on Abed's land where the All Nations Café met -- because land ownership was contested by the Israeli authorities, no construction was permitted, so Abed and his family had refurbished a small cave and had also erected tents. I remember hearing about how the cultivation on Abed's land involved rain-collection and solar power, because the legal limbo of the land ownership dispute prohibited him from accessing the surrounding electrical or water systems.

In a 2010 post about Tent of Nations (Tent of Nations receives demolition orders), Rabbi Brant Rosen wrote:

Some background: Daoud’s farm has been in his family for four generations; his ancestor registered his land with the ruling Ottoman Empire and the Nassars still have the original deed. In 1991... the Israeli military initiated proceedings to expropriate the Nassar family farm, which happens to be located between two Jewish settlements in the Gush Etzion Block.

Despite Daoud’s irrefutable proof of his family’s ownership of the land, the legal battle over it has stretched on for well over two decades – and the Nassar family has spent over $140,000 in legal fees to date. Up until now, their case has been essentially stuck in Israeli legal bureaucratic limbo.

In the meantime, the Nassar family has used their land to establish “The Tent of Nations” an inspirational center that provides arts, drama, and education to the children of the villages and refugee camps of the region. Daoud and his family have also established a Women’s Educational Center offering classes in computer literacy, English, and leadership training. (Many rabbis and rabbinical students are familiar with Tent of Nations as a primary destination for Encounter – a well-known educational program that promotes coexistence by introducing Jewish Diaspora leaders to Palestinian life.)

I meant to go on an Encounter program during the summer I was living in Israel, but it was cancelled on account of violence. Many of my rabbinic friends and colleagues have visited Tent of Nations, and I hope to have the chance to do so someday as well.

Rabbi Rosen refers to Daoud Nassar's "irrefutable" proof of ownership; I assume he means the Ottomon-era deed to the land. Unfortunately for Daoud and his family, Israel maintains a policy of not recognizing Ottomon or British deeds in the West Bank (see Displacing: House Demolitions and Closure at ICAHD), so that deed isn't enough to protect the farm or the organization established thereupon. Because Israel doesn't recognize Ottoman or British deeds, the Nassar family has funded an extensive survey to further prove ownership of their land, but everything I've read suggests that the survey's findings are in a kind of legal limbo.

Recently I posted about a dispatch from Paul Salopek in Jerusalem. I quoted Paul: "In a 5,000-year-old city where changes in neighborhood zoning rules earn international headlines—such is the ferocity of ownership over each square inch of Jerusalem—we orbit painful questions of identity, of zealotry, of personal loss, of national survival." This is surely most intensely true in Jerusalem (because everything is more intense in Jerusalem!), but Jerusalem is also a microcosm of larger struggles for ownership and identity which persist across the land.

What precipitated this demolition of 1500 fruit trees and adjacent vineyards? A note from attorney Sami Khoury explains that the Israeli military authorities recently served papers to the Nassars indicating that their orchards were planted on state land and that the trees therefore constituted tresspassing. (There's something vaguely Kafkaesque, to me, about accusing fruit trees of being tresspassers...) Although the Nassars immediately filed an appeal with the military court arguing that the orchards were planted not on state land but on their own land -- and although legally no demolitions are supposed to take place while an appeal is pending -- the orchard was uprooted shortly thereafter. (There's an extensive timeline of events at the bottom of Rabbi Rosen's more recent post about Tent of Nations.)

I empathize with my Israeli friends who struggle for housing in a country where apartments are in short supply. And I'm sure that those who live in the settlements which surround the Tent of Nations land would be happy to have that land for their own building purposes. When I was in Israel I met several bloggers, one of whom was then living in Neve Daniel, one of the settlements adjacent to the Nassar farm; she mentioned the housing shortage, as did my friends in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem. But bulldozing fruit trees which have been so lovingly cultivated goes against the grain of my understanding of what Judaism is about.

The Torah teaches that we should not destroy fruit trees even in a time of war, and mainstream Jewish interpretation has understood this as an edict against any act of despoiling, in peacetime as well as war. Writes Rabbi Arthur Waskow (in an email to the OHALAH rabbinic email list, quoted with permission):

Torah could hardly be clearer. This early step in protecting both the Earth and human beings from "scorched earth" destruction helped create the tradition of menshlichkeit that is the best fruit of the Jewish people. Was it for cutting down that fruit and these verses of the Tree of Life that generations worked so hard to create a "Jewish" state?

For another perspective on how Torah prohibits the destruction of trees, see the essay Bal Tashhit: the Torah Prohibits Wasteful Destruction by Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of the mainline Orthodox institution Yeshiva University -- hardly a lefty peacenik.

Destroying orchards is not ethical. Even if there is a housing shortage in the surrounding towns. In this era of consciousness about our footprint on the earth, there's no excuse for destroying productive agricultural land in order to build houses, and that may be especially true in the Middle East where rainfall and arable land are both limited. Because the Nassar farm is prohibited from accessing local water and power systems, they have developed (and are teaching others) sustainable agricultural practices, using solar power and rainwater, filtering "grey water" for reuse, and so on. This farm could be an exemplar to others of how to live lightly on the land.

Beyond that: destroying someone's farm and livelihood is not ethical; and kal v'chomer, when that farm is also home to a nonprofit organization which does so much good work, the destruction becomes even more shameful. One of Tent of Nations' projects is instruction in English and in computer skills for women in the neighboring village of Nahalin. These women are unable to leave their village because of travel restrictions (imposed by Israel), and would otherwise have few opportunities for education and personal development. (You can read more about that program in this April 2014 dispatch.) Tent of Nations also provides summer camp programs for local children from Bethlehem and nearby refugee camps, where the kids engage in projects like putting on Shakespeare plays and making mosaics out of broken tiles scavenged from rubble. These good works should not be met with this kind of destruction.

Beyond that: what impression can this possibly give to the wider world, except that Israel is destructive and power-hungry, trampling on the rights of the poor? That is not the Israel I know and love. But that is the Israel which is making itself manifest in the eyes of the world, and that grieves me.

I am among the many who believe that settlements are an obstacle to peace. (The recent Pew study showed that a plurality of American Jews hold this understanding.) I've been writing about this for years -- see West Bank settlements: obstacles on the road to peace, my liveblogging of a 2009 panel discussion featuring Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist and writer at Ha'aretz; Hagit Ofran, the director of Settlement Watch, a project of שלום עכשיו / Peace Now; and Scott Lasensky, a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention.

It seems obvious to me that the more Israel builds up the settlements, the more those settlements carve the West Bank into a disconnected block of Swiss cheese. And the more the West Bank is carved-up in that manner, the less plausible it becomes to imagine a Palestinian state there. Many of those who support settlement expansion agree with me that building settlements negates the possibility of a two-state solution -- there are members of the Knesset who support settlement expansion for precisely this reason. If there will be no Palestinian state, then either Israel must choose a path of perennial occupation, or Israel must choose to grant citizenship to the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.

I don't think that perennial occupation is sustainable. I also don't think it is ethical, and I believe that it is damaging both to the lives of those who live under occupation and to the souls of those who perpetuate the occupation. Is it time to give up on the two-state solution and instead work toward a binational state in which all citizens have equal rights? I don't pretend to have the answer to that question. But it seems to me that as settlements expand, we approach a moment when the question will become moot. And I think it's especially saddening when the intention of expanding the settlements leads to the destruction of an orchard like the one belonging to Daoud Nassar and his family.

If you're interested in learning more about how you can help Tent of Nations rebuild, I'm told the best way to stay abreast of the situation is to "like" their Facebook page, so that you will receive their updates on how they plan to move forward.