On Tu Beshvat, the Jewish “festival of trees”, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann went out to the Palestinian village of Genia. Read his personal story
On Tu Beshvat, the Jewish “festival of trees”, I went out to the Palestinian village of Genia with about 35 Israeli volunteers to plant trees. This is a village which has been repeatedly attacked by settler neighbours in recent times, and has over the years lost a lot, if not most, of its agricultural land to the Jewish settlers from the Talmon settlements. Just a week earlier the home of one of our Arab contacts there was plastered with hate graffiti: “Death To the Arabs”, “Mohammad is a swine!” for example. A car was also attacked – its windows smashed, two tires punctured – and was also covered with similar, not so sweet sentiments.
We came with 200 olive saplings to be planted on the village lands, just a few metres below that house. Our good intentions were frustrated by a military order declaring the area a closed military zone. (The legality of that order has since been challenged). The claim was that our tree-planting would lead to a ‘disturbance of public order” since the neighbouring settlers would get upset. The paper quoted a British emergency power dated 1945 which has never been rescinded since the then Jewish terrorism against British colonial rule. This minor point connects me back to the period of my novel of course. The people making the “disturbances” then were often the desperate, recently-arrived refugees from the European d.p camps, some of them concentration camp survivors.
We were greeted by a line of well-armed soldiers (border guards) in full riot gear, but there were no settlers present, just nervous Palestinian villagers and ourselves, and the little vulnerable trees in their plastic wrappings. The officer-in-charge gave everyone just five minutes to clear out, or, he threatened, they would begin using force. He looked like he meant business.
I and a few others quickly planted the saplings we were carrying and turned to leave. We were not looking for a confrontation, just to show some solidarity with the villagers. We knew they had already fired tear gas and sound grenades here earlier in the morning when the villagers had tried to plant these same saplings while we were being detained at a checkpoint. The line of soldiers began to move forward pushing people. A couple of the participants were too slow or argumentative for the soldiers and they were arrested, and brutally dragged away.
The story of what happened that day has been reported and written up by others, but one experience, a ‘footnote” to the events, was uniquely mine and profoundly unsettling. The two sides retreated – we and the villagers back into the village, the soldiers and their prisoners back into the Talmon Alef settlement. It was not long, however, until the border guards and other policemen reappeared demanding we also leave the village as it too was now a “closed military zone”. Negotiations between Rabbi Arik Ascherman and the police officer, Yossi X, led to an agreement. We would leave the village in exchange for release of the prisoners. The policemen agreed if Arik would remain as “his guest” until they finished investigating the two, and it was clear the others had left. The two negotiating persons, a tall, thin, bearded, yarmulka-wearing Reform rabbi and a fat, red-faced, armed, and angry-looking policeman looked surreal in that pastoral scene – a lush green valley between a Palestinian village and a Jewish settlement, each on its hill surrounded by Judean mountains.
A child of survivors
I stayed behind with Arik and the police officer after seeing off our buses. I did not trust the policeman and doubted that he would release the two volunteers as promised, thinking he might also arrest Arik for good measure.
As we approached the policeman offered me his hand, a broad smile of victory across his lips. I refused to take his hand, telling him honestly “I don’t trust you, that’s why I am here too.” He was clearly annoyed, pointing out my rude behaviour to those accompanying him, comparing it with Arik’s willingness to shake his proffered hand. I was angry and frustrated.
We got into conversation. Who are you?, what are you?, etc…I learned that he himself lives in that very settlement, and was told that had we “coordinated” our tree-planting there would have been no problem. “We respect the rule of law, but you are here as a provocation”, he told us. From past experience I knew that was not necessarily the case and I said so. To explain my distrust I added that I am a child of Holocaust survivors and trust in uniformed authorities does not come easily for me.
He blew up in upset. “I am a war veteran”, he said, “who has been wounded doing my duty and I, too, am a child of survivors”.
After a little more conversation, each sharing our parents’ stories, I offered him my hand, smiling, and told him “I guess we have more in common than I thought, even though we are on different sides of this political issue”. He nodded.
He kept his word and released the four of us after keeping Arik and me waiting in his police car for about an hour. We were delivered to the check-point separating Israel-proper from the occupied territories. We were later told that the Palestinians worked their land later that afternoon without disturbance.
26th February, 2012