Celebrating Tu BiShvat: the Jewish New Year’s Day for trees

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Last week was the Jewish celebration of Tu BiShvat. Although it’s commemoration varies annually, this year the holiday fell on the 27th and 28th of January.

Growing up, one of my favourite Jewish celebrations was Tu BiShvat, a lesser known celebration amongst the modern Jewish giants – Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah. My older brother’s birthday often coincided with the holiday, which ensured its celebration in my family. We would celebrate by eating an exceptional birthday lunch, often consisting of an ungodly amount of dried fruits.

Tu BiShvat is most easily explained as the New Year’s for trees – one of the four New Year’s in the Jewish Calendar. The foundation for Tu BiShvat is linked to certain agricultural traditions used to identify the ripeness of fruits and whether or not they are fit for consumption. There are elements of Tu BiShvat spread throughout both the Torah and the Talmud. While it seems that Tu BiShvat was not originally meant as a “holiday,” traditions around it quickly developed. 

Tu BiShvat
Tu BiShvat: ‘We would celebrate by eating an an ungodly amount of dried fruits.’

Today, the celebration of Tu BiShvat has vastly transformed to become somewhat similar to the celebration of Arbor Day in the United States. Modern day celebrations are resolved around the planting of trees and similar “environmental” projects. In a sense it has become a celebration of the Earth. 

As a self-proclaimed environmentalist I always enjoyed the connection to the Earth which the holiday signifies, in a sense a “Jewish Earth Hour”. Unfortunately, the shaping of modern day celebrations is much more linked to Zionism, serving as a tool to reify settler colonial fantasies of working the land rather than genuine concern for the environment. 

In 1904, the second-wave of Zionist settlers arrived to Palestine,with more politically defined settler-colonial aspirations than the first-wave settlers in 1882. A core part of their ideology was centered on the land of Palestine. Seeing themselves as redeemers of the land, they attempted to eliminate Palestinian existence through ideas such as ‘Hebrew labour’ and ‘Conquest of land’ that sought to monopolize the labour market to only be accessible to Zionist Jews. Thereby, Tu BiShvat was placed into a state of reverse metamorphosis, entering as a celebration of trees and the fruit they produce, as tools  in achieving the Zionist objective of colonizing Palestine.

A large part of the Zionist campaign was focused on creating an attachment to Palestine, and Tu BiShvat posed a perfect candidate. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) played an immense role in the transformation of Tu BiShvat into a vehicle of Zionism. Founded in 1901, its early years were focused on colonizing land in Palestine. One of its main methods of doing so was through the purchase and afforestation of land. In reality this served two main purposes: First, to bring Palestinian land under ownership of the JNF, fostering the establishment of settlements. And second, the attempted  creation of a “spiritual” connection to the land, instrumentalizing the Torah to assist the mythologized narrative of the secular Zionist movement.  

All around the world, blue collection boxes were used by the JNF to fund these activities. And Tu BiShvat was seen as yet another way to fundraise for the JNF colonisation mission. Tree planting expeditions took place in the early 19th century, whereby Jewish organisations would travel from Europe for tree planting in Palestine, to commemorate the holiday. Such practices were later embraced by the JNF, which  continued tree planting activities with a significant focus on Tu BiShvat.

Jewish National Fund; Tu BiShvat
Photograph: Al_HikesAZ/Flickr

These early activities only increased with the years, both in size and significance to the Zionist movement. After the Nakba, the JNF, and the state, expanded its afforestation operations in an attempt to wipe clean the freshly committed genocide, attempting to erase any trace of Paletinian presence. Such operations were aligned with Tu BiShvat to increase the “Jewish connection.” For example, in 1969, 13 million trees were planted by school children in Jerusalem, symbolising every Jew in the world.

The use of Tu BiShvat and in general the “Jewish identity” has been continuously employed by Zionism and later by the Israeli State in an attempt to legitimise the settler colonial state. The celebrations attempted through tree planting were meant to colonise and cleanse indigenous inhabitants of the land. This has been a continuous method employed by Zionism reifying its racist settler existence. And all of this through a holiday meant to signify harmony with nature.

Here, I would like to zoom out of Tu Bishvat for a second and focus on why it has become increasingly important to see the difference between Zionism – and the state it created – and Judaism. In the current political climate, it seems that, largely due to Israeli propaganda, the two have become synonymous, with the consequence that criticism of Israel is associated with anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is very much a real issue; it has never gone away and continues to impact the lives of millions of Jews across the globe. Yet, using anti-Semitism to attempt to abolish criticism of Israel is absolutely misguided. Such considerations are of special significance today, with the rise in Universities acceptingthe  International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. While a universal understanding of antisemitism is crucial,  the current IHRA definition inserts an anti-Zionist copoment, creating a fictional connection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. There is a fine line between antisemitism and anti-Zionism which, hopefully, this elaboration on Tu BiShvat has helped clarify.  

Leehoo Pansky is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and second year LLB Law student. His interests include Environmental Law, Human Rights and clowning. He also claims to be the only person on the planet with the first name Leehoo.

Citations and further reading:

  • Abu El-Haj, Nadia. Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 
  • Masalha, Nur. The Palestine Nakba: Decolonizing History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory. London: Zed Books, 2012.
  • Masalha, Nur. The Zionist Bible: Biblical Precedent, Colonialism, and the Erasure of Memory. London: Routledge, 2013. 

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