Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Olive Trees

Metula, earlier this week: view of the main street taken from the center of the village. The white structure at the bottom of the block is a packing house; the fence behind it is the Lebanese border. The fields beyond it and the mountains beyond them are Hezbullah territory. Yet it wasn't always so. Here's my report.

Olive Trees

One compelling justification for democratic nationalism is that it requires the nation to organize its affairs according to its values and priorities. Witness the American discussion about healthcare this summer; a national conversation about society, responsibility, life and death and how best to balance them. Each nation has its own set of laws that reflect its own discussion; were there a single, right way of organizing human affairs, it might long since have been adopted everywhere. (Or not. People aren't always sensible).

It was ever thus. Take the 3rd century as an example. Still reeling from the double calamities of defeat and destruction at the hand of Roman legions in the two previous centuries, there was yet a vibrant Jewish presence in the Galilee doing its best to hang on, and its laws reflected its conditions. Here's a small example. A second-century Mishna moots the ownership of olive trees swept downstream by a flood from one man's grove to another's field, where they took root. Third-century Rabbi Yochanan ruled that they were not to be repatriated, forbidding the uprooting of olive trees "mishum yishuv Eretz Yisrael", because of the need to settle the land of Israel. Rabbi Yirmiya added that this ruling was so compelling it overrode all other considerations. (Baba Metzia 100b and 101a).

Their efforts were only mildly successful. A few pages on the discussion is of standards of fertility to be expected from a field of wheat. Rabbi Yochanan says four se'ah of grain is needed to reap one kor; Rabbi Ammi says it takes eight se'ah. An old man explained to the scholars that in Rabbi Yochanan's day the land was still fertile, but by Rabbi Ammi's, conditions were worsening and good harvests were rare. (Baba Metzia 105b). Over the next few centuries the land degraded and the Jewish population dwindled.

Sometime in the early 19th century a Jew from Russia named Bronstein arrived in Safed, largest of four significant Jewish communities (the others were Tiberius, Jerusalem and Hebron). I can't tell much about Bronstein, since no-one remembers, but we can safely say he didn't see any political significance to his move. He lived in a large multinational empire dominated by Russians, and was moving to another large multinational empire, dominated by Muslims. He was a Jew who saw an opportunity to move to Erez Yisroel and that was enough.

A great grandchild of his, we'll call him Levy, was an enterprising artisan. Yet Safed in the 1890s didn't offer much, so when he heard that the Baron Edmond de Rothschild was recruiting settlers for a new agricultural settlement, he signed up. No-one intended to launch a new chapter in Jewish history. The program was meant merely to create economic viability for Jewish existence. That it would be part of something greater became obvious only later.
In 1896 Levy, his wife and children, and a few dozen other families settled on a plot of land purchased by the Baron northeast of Safed on a low hill above a broad valley; to the east a gurgling creek ran through a canyon and tumbled over a high waterfall before flowing south into the swamps of the Hula valley. They called their settlement Metula.

Though they had no experience and very little guidance, the settlers of Metula planted apple and olive trees on the rocky plots behind their huts, and grain on the broad fields in the valley to the north. They worked hard; some gave up while others persisted. Levy's sons brought brides from Safed and set up their own families. The agricultural environment hadn't improved since the days of Rabbi Ammi. If anything, it was worse. Yet the trajectory had changed and these peasants were clawing back, not slipping.

They continued not to see themselves as national harbingers. When one daughter had a tumor her mother took her to the hospital in the big city: Beirut. When the doctors couldn't save her she was buried there. If there's still a Jewish cemetery in Beirut, she lies in it. Another time there were skirmishes between warring local factions, and one of Levy's sons sent his wife and newborn twin sons across the mountains to shelter in the Jewish community of Tyre. One of them died on the road, and is buried in the Jewish cemetery of Tyre – which almost certainly no longer exists.

After World War I the French and British carved up the defeated Turkish Empire. The area around Metula was so remote it took two extra years to finalize the border, which was drawn so that the village was the northernmost tip of the British Mandate. So northernmost that the border ran a literal stone's throw from the last house; the fields in the valley were all in the French Mandate. It took another few years to agree that the Jewish farmers in Mandatory Palestine would be permitted to work their fields in Mandatory Lebanon; an international checkpoint was set at the bottom of the hill between the homes and fields, and the farmers crossed it every day. This arrangement was respected until the State of Israel replaced Mandatory Palestine and the Lebanese blocked access to the fields. Even then, the eldest of Levy's grandsons, a towering giant of a man, used to break through the border each spring, drive his tractor to the family's fields, and plow one furrow. These fields, he was saying, had been his grandfather's, his father's, and he wasn't relinquishing title merely because of some international border that someone had drawn.

A grandson of Levy's was killed in Israel's War of Independence. A great grandson was killed as a paratrooper in the early 1960s, and another in the Yom Kippur War. Yet they're a hardy stock, are Levy's descendents. Almost 200 years since the first Bronstein left Russia for Safed, and 115 years since he and his wife set off for a barren hill above the Hula, some descendants are still there. They've long since accepted the loss of the fields in Lebanon, but they still farm the orchards and press olive oil. Levy's surviving grandsons are in their eighties and nineties, and you can still find them in Metula, living on the original short street. Where once a checkpoint was today stands a fruit packing factory, and the fence behind it is a sealed border. The great grandchildren and their children are spread far and wide: there is at least one great great great grandchild in New York, but most are Israelis. They span the political spectrum from settlers to far-left activists; there are lawyers and doctors and metal workers and hoteliers and dreamers; one is a property magnate with global reach, another works on a dairy farm on the West Bank. When I visited last week one descendant was drawing up plans for a new commercial initiative better adapted to the 21st century – but still in Metula.

Jews used words and ideas to preserve their bond to their land. The essential bond itself, however, not the idea, is expressed in deeds. Harvesting olives is a reality and a metaphor. Seventeen centuries ago the harvesting couldn't stave off the general deterioration. A hundred years ago it was essential in launching the revival.

The other day one of the men told me of a chore he had, and asked if I'd join him: the extra two hands would make it easier. It was late afternoon, when the fierce sunlight of an August midday eases into gentle golden rays. Together we mended a fence, pulling, tugging, reinforcing, as the men have been doing for more than a century. Half a mile from the Lebanese border; it was comforting and peaceful.


Avigdor said...

A great story. Thanks Yaacov.

Anonymous said...

Damn good story.

Building and growing in Israel is very peaceful and very comforting.

My homesickness is acting up.


Arlan Wareham said...

Thanks for the well-written and interesting story. I was just in Metula a few days ago, taking a couple of volunteers from Germany around to see a bit of the North. They returned home to Germany yesterday.