Celebrate Green Zionism this Tu B’Shvat
By Gil Troy, January 28, 2010, for Tu B’shavat 5770
In the ideological wars surrounding Israel, it is always better to celebrate on our terms than try defending against our enemies’ assaults. Our failure to build a proactive strategy around Tu B’Shvat and other moments reflects the epidemic of ignorance in the Jewish world today, and our ceding of the agenda to the Palestinians and their fellow travelers, especially on campus.
Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, is this Shabbat, January 30. When I was young I preferred Israel’s Independence Day because we received blue-and-white cookies rather than yucky figs and carobs, known by the aggressive Yiddish name "bokser." But educators should distribute blue-and-white cookies along with Israeli fruit because Tu B’Shvat celebrates Israel – and Zionism. The world only recently discovered environmentalism, yet Jews have a deep relationship with nature, while Zionism resonates with the environmental ethic. Tu B’Shvat is our annual opportunity to show just how "green" the "blue and white" sensibility is.
It never ceases to amaze me how frequently we miss opportunities to deepen our connection to Israel and Zionism, naturally, organically. As we brainstorm about re-branding Israel, re-framing Zionism, trying to justify our existence, we often forget the rightness of our case and the richness of our tradition. The Jewish calendar is our friend. It provides us with many moments that tell our story beautifully, express our values vividly, allowing us to celebrate Israel, to renew our Zionism, without fighting anyone, without being defensive.
Tu B’Shvat is particularly welcome because of the growing "green" movement and because it coincides with the anti-Israeli activity in late January and early February that falsely compares democratic Israel with the racist Apartheid regime that once dominated South Africa. While we should refute the Apartheid libel aggressively, we should also use Tu B’Shvat to celebrate Israel, Jewish values, and Zionism. In the ideological wars surrounding Israel, it is always better to celebrate on our terms than try defending against our enemies’ assaults. Our failure to build a proactive strategy around Tu B’Shvat and other moments reflects the epidemic of ignorance in the Jewish world today, and our ceding of the agenda to the Palestinians and their fellow travelers, especially on campus.
Tu B’Shvat is a great Zionist holiday. It starts with the Jewish love of the land of Israel, by celebrating the agricultural cycle of our one Jewish homeland. When we sing "the almond trees are growing, the beautiful sun is shining," it might be snowing in Montreal or raining in New York, but buds are sprouting in Israel. At Akiva School in Montreal, our kids used to build little Tu B’Shvat dioramas that told the story effectively: half would be filled with white cotton balls evoking the Canadian snow; the other half would be covered in brown and green construction paper symbolizing the trees of Eretz Yisrael. Tu B’Shvat orients us toward Israel as the center of the Jewish world, highlighting Judaism’s uniqueness as a world religion bound to one homeland, a people whose Holy Days are defined by the Israeli agricultural calendar, rooted in theological concepts, and linked with historic events.
Tu B’Shvat reminds us of Zionism’s central values and great achievements, in redeeming the Jewish people by redeeming their homeland. The way early Zionists made the desert bloom – even if they made some ecological mistakes – remains one of the great stories of the 20th century. In Israel, to this day, every tree, every blade of grass, every patch of green, testifies to the love, skill and sweat Zionists poured into the rocky patch of the world that has been ours since the days of Abraham and David. During the 2008 campaign, a story circulated that when Senator Barack Obama took the obligatory AIPAC helicopter tour of Israel, he did not remark – as the script demands – "my, how narrow" as he crossed Israel at its narrowest. Instead, he said, "my, how green," noting he could trace the band of Israeli settlement by following the contours of the Zionist agricultural revolution. (The punchline to the story, which I could never verify but certainly reflects the great faith Jews had in Obama in 2008, had him landing, being asked by reporters for his impression, and following the script, saying, "my, how narrow.")
In turning the land green Zionists turned Israel into a constructive force in the modern world. From the drip irrigation of Kibbutz Hatzerim which has made deserts bloom all over the world, to the cutting-edge attempts of Arava Power based in Kibbutz Ketura to harness solar energy in the Arava desert, the return to the land meant a return to history, responsibility, vitality and world leadership in many realms. Early Zionists like A.D. Gordon did not realize that the heroic era of the kibbutzim would be a way station on the road to today’s high tech society. And yes, sometimes Israel has developed rapidly, crudely, thoughtlessly. But there remains in modern Israel a love of the land, a commitment to what we now call "green" values, that keeps alive the pioneering spirit.
My friends in the Israeli environmental movement have taught me that a greater green sensibility can help Israel tackle its most intractable problems. Dr. Eilon Schwartz and Dr. Jeremy Benstein of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership have tried creating a common language between right-wing settlers and left-wing environmentalists, united by their common love of the land, while also using environmentalism to sensitize Israelis to the broader values crisis Israel will face if it becomes addicted to capitalism and materialism without an environmentalist and Zionist counterbalance. Dr. Alon Tal of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev at Sde Boker founded the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies to help Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians find common ground rooted in their common commitment to preserving the environment, considering that pollution respects no political borders. It is no coincidence that Drs. Schwartz, Benstein, and Tal graduated from Young Judaea, America’s largest Zionist movement, and thus can synthesize modern American, Jewish and Zionist values in ways that inspire people on both sides of the Atlantic.
So this Tu B’Shvat let’s break away from the pediatric Judaism of too many synagogues that makes the Jewish Arbor Day just about dried fruits and tired ditties. And let’s break away from the defensive Zionism on too many campuses that only deals with Israel when it is under attack. Instead, following the Jewish calendar, let’s sing a new song of Zion, rooted in the past, relevant to the present, envisioning a better future – and let’s sing it particularly vigorously because this Tu B’Shvat falls on Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, wherein we sing Moses’s song of liberation too.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.