The Cleveland Jewish News
January 2002

Olive-Tree Plantings Pit Jew Against Jew
By Steve Feldman - Jewish Exponent Staff

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 23 -- Activist rabbis from around the world will gather in the Palestinian area of Salfit, near the Jewish community of Ariel, beginning Jan. 27 on a mission to plant 1,000 olive trees.
Their hope is that those saplings will someday bear olive branches that both sides can offer one another. The event, timed to coincide with Tu B'Shevat, is part of an ongoing project by the Israeli-based Rabbis for Human Rights.

But are these rabbis visionaries who see cooperation with Arabs as the only true path to peace, as they contend, or are they, as others see it, naive and idealistic, unwittingly giving aid and comfort to the enemy? According to the rabbis, the saplings will help replace some of the thousands of olive trees in Arab villages that were destroyed by the Israeli Defense Force.

The IDF has said the trees were being used as cover for Palestinian snipers and stone-throwers who targeted passing Israelis.

Not only will the rabbis and rabbinic students -- about 100 of them from all movements of Judaism -- replant trees lost by Palestinian olive growers, they will also give the farmers financial aid for up to seven years until the new trees can generate income.

The rabbis also plan to replace trees in Israel that have been uprooted in the past 16 months of Palestinian violence.

Rabbis for Human Rights has spent the last year raising money for the olive-tree effort in the United States and abroad. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the agency's director, did not say how much money has been collected.

According to Sue Hoffman, associate director of the Philadelphia-based Shefa Fund, her organization and other U.S. groups have raised nearly $80,000 for the effort.

``We granted $49,400 to Rabbis for Human Rights for the olive-tree campaign," Hoffman said, adding that ``we're holding another $30,000 for future expenses."

Meanwhile, the Campaign to Break the Silence, a group that supports peace between Israelis and Palestinians, has ``raised about $100,000" for the effort, according to Philadelphia Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a member of its steering committee. Waskow said that some of that money went to pay for ads to publicize the campaign, including one published April 8 in The New York Times.

According to Ascherman: ``We've given $15,000 so far to the families. I don't know yet how much money we're going to spend on this project."

Hoffman said that only $1,200 was spent on trees thus far.

Asked if they monitor what the rabbinic group is doing with the money, Hoffman said, ``We have a standard reporting requirement -- an accounting of how all the money was spent."
Accounting for the dollars

Israeli journalist David Bedein, an Overbrook Park native, alleged in an article he wrote last year that some of the money doled out by the group went to ``active combatants against Israel."
In an interview, Bedein even raised the possibility that recipients of the group's aid could use the contribution to buy weapons.

But the group's supporters, including Waskow and Rabbi Brian Walt, religious leader of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, say the funds are being used strictly to help Palestinians in need.
``Rabbis for Human Rights has done everything, I think, humanly possible to make sure the money [it gives] is used literally for trees and for food or other humanitarian aid," said Waskow, director of the Shalom Center.

According to Waskow, who edited Trees, Earth and Torah: A Tu B'Shevat Anthology, the ``Torah says even if you are at war, you must not destroy the fruit trees."

Waskow vowed not to plant trees where they can be used by snipers.

Walt, who chairs the North American rabbinic support group for the organization, said he has been ``a strong supporter of Rabbis for Human Rights for a long time."

The Reconstructionist rabbi said he would be ``very upset" if money raised by the group was being used by the Palestinians to buy arms, calling that possibility ``ludicrous."

Said Walt: ``I trust the people who are in charge of the money implicitly."

Both Waskow and Walt are scheduled to be in Israel to take part in the tree-planting project. Bedein, who first raised the allegations against the Israeli group, said in an interview that ``this is not Bedein versus Rabbis for Human Rights." Nor, he said, is he opposed to helping Palestinians.

He claimed that the rabbis are ``engaged in incitement," particularly in the Palestinian village of El Hadar, near Efrat, where Bedein lives. The journalist alleged that Ascherman told the Palestinians that Jews ``are stealing their land."

For his part, Ascherman disputes the charges made by Bedein, saying that his organization is ``cautious and careful" about who gets the money. Ascherman said he and others have told their Palestinian partners they abhor Palestinian violence.
Determining who to help

So how does the rabbinic group determine who to help?

``We work through contact people in the Palestinian Authority that we trust," said Ascherman, admitting that Rabbis for Human Rights has not followed up to verify that the money was used as intended.

Ascherman explained that the group gives checks directly to the families, and that each recipient family must sign ``an acknowledgement that the money is for humanitarian purposes."

A Reform rabbi, Ascherman said there are several reasons he and others are involved in this effort.

``The Jewish tradition teaches that when we have created wrong-doings, we are responsible for making restitution."

And, said Ascherman, ``there is a practical aspect. I don't know how many times I've gone to a family whose home's been demolished -- they bring out the kids and the parents say, 'We want our kids to know not every Israeli comes to demolish our homes.' ``

Asked Ascherman rhetorically: ``Who is really doing more long-term for Israel?"

Not Rabbis for Human Rights, said Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.

``I think peace between the Arabs and Israelis will come when the Arabs realize they can't destroy Israel `` said Pipes. ``Conflicts don't end in goodwill -- not when you have both sides that want to control the same land."

Pipes sees the rabbis' efforts as ``very dangerous."

``They are sending a signal of desperation and weakness. These people are harming the very cause" they champion. ``I don't impugn their motives," but Pipes asked the rabbis and their peace activists:
``You show me where your kind of actions have led to the kind of results you want."

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, condemned the rabbis' activities to help the Palestinians.

``The issue is not land. The issue is not economics. The issue is not olive trees. The issue is Israel's existence," Klein insisted.

He cited polls showing that some 80 percent of Palestinians support suicide attacks and the Palestinian Authority. ``I assure you there are much better causes" the group can aid, he said.

The rabbis, Klein continued, believe ``a fantasy which, if it were only true, would be a delight for all of us.''