Lee and I celebrated our 50th Wedding Anniversary on a Road Scholar trip to Israel and Jordan in April. It was dubbed “The Trip of a Lifetime.” I found that tagline trite at first. Now I heartily embrace it. I brought my laptop on the trip hoping to knock out a quick post. How naive. There are deep levels to explore within Israel’s complex ecosystem: from the miraculous to the heart breaking. I made some notes, but, it was when I had time to leisurely poke around that “Belated Greetings” took shape.

This post aspires to weave together: exposure to Israel in my youth, long-standing discomfort with “Zionism” as an adult, and the allure of Israel always. The discussion of JNF’s land and forest oversight returns the reader to green themes and climate activism. While it’s not a quick read, I hope you’ll like it.

Scan 1
The Plonsk/Hadassah table from our wedding April 7, 1968. 
From Plonsk: Back Row: l-r Uncle Sam, Cousin Leo, Aunt Sonia, Uncle Ben, Uncle Lou; Front row: far right: Aunt Rae; The remaining friends and sisters-in-law were all active in Hadassah or other Zionist causes.

The Roots

Scan 3
My mother, Ann Axelrod, at her 100th birthday celebration, her handy magnifying glass partially hidden, chatting with one of the youngest in attendance.

As a little girl I heard about Israel from my mother. She was active in Hadassah before I was born in 1946, and long after. Even when I visited her at Fountainview after she turned 100, I often found her with a huge magnifying glass in one hand and the Hadassah News in the other. My mother was born in 1906, about a year after her mother and four siblings left Plonsk, Poland to join Samuel Botkin, my grandfather, in New York.

David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, emigrated to Israel in 1906 from Plonsk. He often came up in conversation when my Uncle Lou talked about “the old country.” Whether we were visiting a Kibbutz on the Galilee or walking in the market in Tel Aviv in April, I couldn’t get over how frequently I noticed people who looked like Uncle Lou. I wanted to ask if they came from Plonsk, but hearing them speak Hebrew, I demurred. I savored those moments, perceiving it as evidence that my bloodline in Israel appeared to be intact. Poking further into David Ben Gurion’s life, I learned the largest per capita Aliyah to Israel in its first waves was from Plonsk. (Another reason for all those Uncle Lou look-alikes.)

The first Hadassah meeting I attended with my mother was probably at the East 52nd Street building cited in this fascinating wikipedia article about the early history of Hadassah. In it I learned that Polish youth orphaned during the Holocaust were the first Youth Aliyah to arrive in Israel. Could it have been inspired by David Ben Gurion, an homage in response to the round-up of Jews from Plonsk whisked off to Auschwitz?

The Branches

Was my mother aware of the Polish orphans? If it had been reported in the Hadassah News she probably was. Perhaps it was too hard to talk about. The Youth Aliyah message I got from her during the 1950s was American Jewish youth (but not me) should be encouraged to go to the Homeland to build Israel. What could be a more noble mission for someone else’s child?

My mother’s Life Membership pin. Their medical mission takes center stage, reforestation lower right.

Many of the newsletters she got had exciting updates about the Medical Center Hadassah was building in Jerusalem. I remember my relatives’ pride: “Imagine in Israel, a brand new country, there will be a world class hospital and research center.” Israel’s success in attracting the best and the brightest is bitter-sweet: the scientific know-how arriving in Israel grew exponentially as a result of Hitler’s rise and fall from power.

I was pleased to read in that wikipedia article that the Hadassah medical center is open to everyone (i.e. Arabs). Given the many contentious conversations my mother and I had about “the Arab situation,” I’m surprised she never mentioned it. Could I have tuned her out? Definitely. My guess is that policy never made it into the Hadassah News; after all, if encouraging American Zionists to pull out their check books was a goal, why go there? It turns out, when a U.S. based charity raises money for an international purpose, our laws preclude the charity from denying other religions to benefit from that charity’s work. How wonderful, especially today, that U.S. law is responsible for this progressive policy.

What I remember most vividly about Hadassah was their reforestation projects. I had certificates to prove my name was linked to multiple trees in a forest somewhere in Israel. The initiative worked on a few levels: The trees would create much needed forest land; and much needed shekels, giving Hadassah donors a tangible reason to honor or memorialize someone. (Even now a tree costs $12; 10 trees for $100)

The Forest

Sarah Simmons Photography Sea of Galilee
Courtesy of Sara Simmons Photography The Sea of Galilee 2013

As a child, I pictured a girl on a kibbutz in a white T shirt and blue shorts planting a name-tagged seedling. I looked forward to going to Israel and looking for my trees in the Hadassah forest. This was a long forgotten memory until I saw “elderly” pine trees lining road after road. As we traveled I realized many were probably my contemporaries. Having just witnessed the “conifer fall-out” during New York’s “extreme weather” this winter, I feared for their future.

The palm trees, olive trees and fruit trees planted more recently and so intentionally along the roads going South represented newer forests. Our guide referred to all the forests as projects of the Jewish National Fund – JNF. Wikipedia tells quite a story about JNF’s stewardship over trees and land. And like just about anything else, there are at least two sides to this story. My guess is The Hadassah News reports aligned with those on the JNF website 

Meg stewart Kibbutz Ketura
Courtesy of Meg Stewart 2013 Date Trees of Kibbutz Ketuva

The Power

  • JNF takes credit for planting 240 million trees in Israel since the 1920s. Hadassah claims to be the largest organizational contributor to JNF. If the plantings were equally distributed throughout Israel, that would mean approximately 11,000 JNF trees would have been planted per km² during the last 100 years. How fitting. “Shady deals” are a prominent thread in the awesome JNF tapestry.

  • While their first forest was of olive trees to honor Theodor Herzl, JNF primarily planted conifers. Their power brokers wanted to create a lumber industry as well as replicate the forests they missed from Central Europe.

  • Most of the lands the JNF took custody of had been farmed by Arabs and were adorned with fig trees, date trees, olive trees and citrus trees. It appears that JNF gave little consideration to the historical Arab agricultural expertise (or to that of the Sephardic Jews).

  • It became evident after a while that the quality of conifer lumber was negatively impacted by the arid climate, that conifers hampered water conservation, and that conifers increased the risk of super-hot forest fires.

  • Guy Yitzhaki Aminadav forest, day after fire july 2010
    Courtesy of Guy Yitzhaki The Aminadav Fire Summer 2010.
    I was amazed how far I had to drill down to find out about this devastating forest fire.

    On December 2, 2010 Israel suffered its worst natural disaster: a forest fire that claimed 40 lives, caused enormous property damage near Haifa and resulted in massive loss of natural resources in Israel’s largest National Park, Mount Carmel. The inadequate response to this disaster revealed the Interior Minister’s priorities favored the Ultra Orthodox. This partisan article gives voice to why this event was dubbed “Netanyahu’s Katrina.”

  • Fortunately that crisis was the impetus for an ambitious plan to embrace and reconfigure Israeli forests as ecosystems. Israel and its international partners have now redefined forests: recognizing the value of native species, soil rejuvenation, water purification and regulation, exploration of biomass energy, development of non-lumber products and recreational and cultural use; in a nutshell, a sustainable eco-system.

  • This bullet represents the last content added to this post thanks to Gordon and Susan Arkin, old friends visiting a few days ago from Florida. Their leadership and philanthropy in JNF-USA brought them to Israel on a trip with access to the inner circles of JNF and Israeli politicians a number of years ago. Gordon asked us if we had been to the Negev. No we hadn’t. It was clear from their expressions that we had missed something important. There was catching up to do with other friends, so we didn’t explore it further. The next day I ran into the former Program Director of Fountainview.  I hadn’t seen her for years. Something (perhaps my mother) told me I had to learn about the Negev desert before completing this post. After all, it’s where Hadassah is planting all of its trees now. It’s also the climate change technology story that has grabbed international attention. Here’s the link about the Yatir Conifer Forest: how it’s created an ecosystem that holds the desert at bay while sequestering carbon within it.
Doyle Stevenson Vineyard on the edge of Yatir forest
Courtesy of Doyle Stevenson – Vineyard at the edge of the Yatir Conifer Forest

What a metaphor. There’s so much to value and love about the homeland the Jews established. They’ve achieved remarkable success in so many domains in the face of so much adversity. To me, sadly, it’s the blind spots, bigotry, greed, and corruption that stand out as heart-breaking flaws. Like so many, I wonder what it will take for Jews and Arabs to create an ecosystem safe and flexible enough to offer a secure and prosperous future for all within their borders?


Finally, you can’t miss how the JNF story speaks to the challenges and opportunities confronting climate change everywhere:

  • How technology evolves, at first so promising, but also so unpredictable; if controlled by those with “vested” interests, the common good will likely be marginalized. But what if those vested interests are altruistic?

  • How inequality within a political and economic system evolves; it feeds engines of productivity at first, until the system is weakened by imbalance, conflict and exploitation.

  • How existential threats can be great change-agents and/or paralyzing disasters. It depends on who mobilizes, how strong the mobilization becomes and how precisely the risk factors are monitored.

  • What should mobilization look like? I advocate for a multi-faceted, intersectional and diverse approach;  one that is unified by a belief in inter-connected eco-systems, circular not linear.

Like so many I wonder what it will take for all of us on this planet to really get it. We are facing an existential threat. There are ways to avert it, but they take extraordinary sacrifice, flexibility, collaboration, and participation, not to mention a very long view. No doubt, the first step is awareness.

Ready to dive into the tall grass? This article gives you a sophisticated primer with surprising answers based on seminal studies like The Drawing Down Project by Paul Hawken. Take the Eco-System Challenge – there are so many ways to help the team.

courtesy of Parg Life growing inside a circle 2011
Courtesy Parg – Life Growing Inside a Circle 2011

7 thoughts on “Belated Greetings from the Galilee: Roots, Branches, Forests and Power

  1. This was a fantastic, thought provoking read. It is interesting and exciting, but also frighting if we don’t pay attention to what is happening.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mimi
    Wow! This is wonderful- so informative and balanced In the views expressed.
    A delightful and informative morning read for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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