The Historic Roots of Israel’s Ancient Trees
In 2013, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) published a survey of mature trees in Jerusalem that was “the most comprehensive of the recent SPNI surveys, including some 4,000 trees,” according to the society’s marketing and communications coordinator, Danielle Berkowitz.
Many of the trees identified through such surveys have rich histories and stories attached to them. In fact, hundreds of trees throughout the Jewish state illuminate fascinating aspects of Israeli history and culture. Ahead of Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, JNS.org presents a small sampling of those trees.
Behind a high-stone wall, just outside the Old City walls, stand some of the most famous trees in Jerusalem, if not the entire country. These trees, producing the olives of Gethsemane, are set in a small grove revered by Christians because of its connection to Jesus.
In 2012, the National Research Council of Italy, along with researchers from several Italian universities, investigated the eight trees at the site. Samples of wood were taken from several of the trees and carbon-dated to 1092, 1166, and 1198. That would make the trees at least 900 years old—ancient by any standard!
It is possible that the trees could be even older. Olives will readily sprout from the roots, so if the top growth of the trees was cut down or died at some point in time, then their true age may not be accurately reflected.
The lone oak in Gush Etzion, located halfway between Jerusalem and Hebron, has served as an area landmark for more than 600 years. After the 1948 War of Independence, it became a symbol of Jewish return to the land.
Today, Gush Etzion is a collection of kibbutzim, moshavim, and villages with more than 70,000 residents. Though the land was purchased in the 1920s, the first successful settlements there started in the early and mid-1940s. By 1947, the total population was 450 people.
On November 29, 1947, life at Gush Etzion changed forever. On this date, the United Nations voted on the plan to partition Palestine. Less than two weeks later, the settlements found themselves under siege, and over the next few months they were under continuous attack. Within six months, hundreds of settlers had been massacred or taken as prisoners. Their buildings were completely destroyed, and thousands of trees were uprooted.
During the 19 years the Gush Etzion area was under Jordanian control, the lone oak was just about the only identifiable landmark visible from the Jerusalem hills. It came to symbolize the former residents’ desire to return to their homes (and in fact today, the oak is the logo for the regional council).
After the 1967 Six Day War returned Gush Etzion to Israel, the sons and daughters who had been evacuated during the siege requested permission to return to their lands. The first kibbutz there, Kfar Etzion, was re-established in September 1967.
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