Olive trees, date palms, and pine - millions of trees, most planted by humans, adorn the landscapes of Israel. But it wasn’t always like that.
Since 1901, the Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF) what you could call Israel’s Forestry service - planted over 250 million trees throughout the country. It’s part of a historic forestation project, which has ensured that Israel entered the 21st century with more trees than it had 100 years ago, the only country in the world to do so, according to the organization.
The ongoing forestation is made in coordination with the Israeli government, which dictates where and how much to plant. And once a year, children, students, families and volunteers celebrate Tu B'Shevat - the Jewish holiday of trees and plants - by planting their very own tree.
According to the JNF, the program has two main goals. The first is environmental:
“As we all know, trees and greenery are great for the environment. They produce oxygen and are good to cool the climate, but in Israel they have another importance because they’re rolling back the desert,” said Talia Tzour, chief of staff of Jewish National Fund-USA in Israel.
The environmental effect of even one tree is significant. It absorbs dust, creates oxygen, helps eliminate toxic metals and purifies polluted air. And, when planted in the right places, trees have an important social impact as well.
“It’s good for the greenery of Israel, most Israelis live in condominiums and not in houses, and these trees and forests become the parks that most Israelis go to for picnics, barbecues etc. these are the areas. So it's good for the climate, good for the quality of life,” Tzour explained.
Historically when people wanted to plant a tree in Israel, they would send money. Nowadays there are two ways you can do it. You can send money online and a tree will be planted in your name, your honor, your memory or you can come here and get your hands dirty yourself.
The second goal of this program is ideological. And not entirely uncontroversial.
“During the time of the British mandate we had to prove our ownership of the land and to cultivate it. The easiest way to do that was to plant trees around Israel. So that’s how it all started, with the tree planting to prove our ownership,” Tzour said.
Today, the organization says it’s about strengthening the connection between the Jewish people and Israel. And in a region where almost every piece of land carries historical, religious and political value, something as simple as planting a tree can be controversial.
With criticism surfacing every few years that the tree-planting program is a Judaization of contested land. Last year in the Negev desert, clashes broke out when Bedouins protested that the trees were disrupting their farming and livelihoods. The practice was temporarily stopped in the area.
Other issues like overplanting and wildfires also surface every few years. But the goal to greenify Israel continues undeterred. Many of the trees planted are already 50-60 years old, and stand strong across the country.
Reprinted with permission from i24NEWS.