Well that was quick!
Only 20 days after the last new year, we have another new year upon us.
Of course, I'm talking about Tu B'Shevat - the Jewish festival also known as the new year for trees.
So apart from lots of trees getting together for drinks and then thinking "What an anticlimax" - what is this festival all about??
Originally associated with the tithing of harvests and fruit trees, this festival is definitely a 'minor' one wit little associated ritual apart from eating a new fruit (traditionally one from the Holy Land - dates, figs and the like) and planting trees.
When I was young, we had a blue & white JNF charity box in our hallway. Every so often someone would call and collect the money, leaving us the box to refill. "What for??" I hear you cry... well although I now realise that the money probably went towards all sort of charitable causes in Israel I always thought it was for planting trees. When I turned 12 and did my Bat Chayil, one of my awards was that some trees had been planted in Israel for me. We often bought trees for people as Bar Mitzvah gifts (when it wasn't a Parker pen or Head bag), and once a year on 'Green Sunday', the Sunday nearest Tu B'Shevat, a load of us would help JNF plant more trees in Israel by calling the entire Jewish community of Leeds to ask them (not incredibly successfully) to buy some trees that JNF would plant on their behalf. I have only actually physically planted a tree in Israel once - in 1994 with some friends on an FZY Tour
So what's the mishegas with tree planting then?? Well, it's to do with the Zionist dream of 'making the desert bloom' and developing the agriculture in Israel but this year it surely holds a particular resonance for Israelis and Jews all over the world following the horrific forest fires that destroyed around 4 million trees on 10,000 acres of land in the Carmel last month. YNet news reported that the Israeli Agriculture Minister has announced that this year Tu B'Shevat activity will focus on the conservation and restoration of this region with the JNF announcing that the aim is to plant 1.5 million trees.
I am pleased to see however that in addition to this goal, the JNF is also focusing on what they cal the 21st Century Zionism project of planting in the Negev. This is so important as well as highly symbolic, evocative as it is of the original Zionist slogan of making the desert bloom. I think it's so important to develop the Negev which has traditionally been used as something of a dumping ground for Israel's second class citizens who have struggled to develop cities in places like Dimona.
Ben Gurion saw the beauty and importance of the Negev region and indeed he spent his final years there and rests there to this day. Ben Gurion, and much of the Knesset, knew in 1948 that Israel could not be a big state if it was to remain a Jewish state. Development of the Negev, which encompasses a large proportion of Israel's limited area, could be a real and sustainable alternative for many Israelis who settle on the other side of the Green Line because it is cheaper. Of course, my argument ignores the ideological element of settlement (that people settle out of ideology, and it continues to be encouraged by the government for ideological reasons). But for a significant number of people, a viable existence in a Negev city supported by the government and international community (Jewish and non-Jewish) would be a great answer to the overpopulated, overpriced central and Sharon regions.
I wonder if this is what the JNF has in mind with the title of 21st Century Zionism?
And I wonder if they could also give Israel a kick up the arse regarding water desalination while they're at it...??