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Israeli Tree-Planting Group Aghast After Scandal Unearthed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Planting a tree in Israel is a defining ritual for Jews, and some non-Jews, the world over.

Young American children save their pennies to “sponsor” a tree in the Holy Land. Adults plant trees as memorials to departed loved ones. Tens of thousands of people travel here and plant a tree to establish their “personal and emotional” connection to Israel, as the tourist brochures put it.

It is a ritual central to the Zionist ideology of claiming the land.

And so it hit like a ton of logs when a newspaper revealed last week that workers for the Jewish National Fund, or JNF, which organizes the tree-planting ceremonies, had surreptitiously uprooted and discarded a fresh batch of saplings as soon as their sponsors left.

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The motive, according to the Maariv newspaper in an article titled “The Great Tree Fraud,” was to clear the same patch for the next group of visitors.

Officials at the Jewish National Fund were both outraged and mortified.

“If it’s true, it is a real scandal,” JNF Chairman Yehiel Leket said in an interview Sunday. In a press release, JNF threatened to sue Maariv for libel in what it termed a malicious and fallacious report.

But the fund’s preliminary investigation confirmed that the workers had indeed uprooted a small number of saplings. What’s more, 60% of the trees don’t survive anyway, according to a JNF spokeswoman.

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Three workers believed to be involved in the uprooting have been suspended from their jobs pending further investigation, JNF officials said. The officials said they were convinced that the uprooting was an isolated incident contrary to both policy and the instructions of the Jewish National Fund.

JNF officials said they did not yet know why the workers dug up the trees, nor how Maariv got wind of it.

Leket ordered a wider investigation by a blue-ribbon panel that he wants created for the purpose. He said he wants a retired Supreme Court justice to handle the inquiry.

“Our credibility is very important to us,” Leket said.

The JNF is a quasi-official agency that raises money worldwide for various agricultural projects in Israel, including tree-planting.

It oversees the sowing of 2.5 million trees a year, of which 80,000 are sponsored by tourists who pay $10 a specimen and receive a certificate and a dedication plaque. An estimated 200 million trees have taken root through the years, the JNF says.

The idea behind the project is to promote the greening of Israel’s semiarid land, build forests and also strengthen ties to American Jewry. Planting trees fits into the Zionist self-image of a pioneering people who must groom and shape a land that Jews believe God gave them.

The Maariv story tapped into popular folklore here. A classic Israeli movie from the 1960s, “Sallah Shabati,” included a scene in which the lead character tricks tourists by taking different groups to the same forest. He merely changes the plaque each time so that each group thinks it is viewing its personal forest. The idea is that the working-class hero, the little guy, hoodwinks the establishment--and the gullible foreigner.

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Short of deliberately killing trees, JNF officials say, there are a number of reasonable explanations for uprooting saplings. Often, trees don’t take in the hard, rocky soil around Jerusalem and have to be transplanted. Many die.

Rabbi David Clayman remembers as a kid in Philadelphia “buying” enough leaves to eventually “own” a tree. “It’s all part of the mythology,” he said. “You bought a tree in Israel--it was really something. Like believing in Santa Claus.”


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