“In 1976, the King Forest was launched in memory of the slain civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Then, 39 trees – symbolizing each year of his life – were ceremoniously planted in the southern Galilee. Today that forest boasts thousands of trees.” (1)
In 2007, the Associated Press filed a story reproduced by, amongst others, Haaretz (2), reporting that “Israel will name a forest in northern Galilee after Coretta Scott King” (who died in 2006). This was part of a wider campaign to replant “thousands of trees destroyed during last year’s war with Hezbollah”. At least 10,000 trees will be designated as a “living memorial to King’s legacy of peace and justice”, according to
US Israeli ambassador, Sallai Meridor.
Although it was a small story that merited a few paragraphs of a news agency feed, unpacking this publicity stunt can be instructive in understanding just how successful Zionist propaganda has been in tapping into US culture, appropriating iconic symbols of popular struggle for Israel’s benefit.
The choice to name the forest after the late wife of Martin Luther King resonates with Americans on three levels, each with specific propaganda value.
Firstly, it suggests a shared struggle between African Americans and Jews against persecution, a historical and contemporary reality that is both true and false at the same time. The news of the new Coretta forest was accompanied by a tree planting in Washington DC, attended by two black members of Congress; one, Rep. Alcee Hastings, commented how “Jews and blacks share a common historical bond of persecution and perseverance” (1,2).
In one sense African Americans and Jews have been and are subjected to persecution by state and non-state actors. Yet there is also a level of meaning that is explicitly Zionist – that the modern state of Israel is a besieged haven for worldwide Jewry, at once the saviour and the persecuted. In a complete inversion of reality, the Israeli state is associated with the US civil rights movement in order to appropriate a symbol of the struggle of the weak against the strong: Israel the coloniser becomes Israel the ‘victim’. It is a move that Zionism has attempted before, as Joseph Massad notes: “Naming the ‘Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel’ as the ‘Declaration of Independence’ is then to be seen as an attempt to recontextualize the new Zionist territorial entity as one established against not via colonialism.” (3)
This strategy has been given a new lease of life in recent times. Many left-liberals in the UK and elsewhere have been busy propagating the story of an existential battle against ‘Islamo-fascists’. Lately, this has involved a chaotic attempt to reposition Israel as a bulwark against fascism, imperialism and, of course, ‘jihadi terror’.
Secondly, it is also significant that the symbolic tree-planting took place at a church. Most analysis of Christian Zionist support for Israel in the US has concentrated on the typical image of white evangelical southerners, yet black-majority Protestant churches, often rooted in the Pentecostal tradition, can be more fervently Zionist.
Surveys conducted by the Pew Forum have found support amongst AfricanAmericans for views such as, “Israel fulfils the prophecy of the second coming” to be higher than the average on both a national level, as well as amongst Protestants (4)
The Israeli ambassador to the US, in the officially released report of the tree-planting, said how he was “inspired by the Kings as a young child in Israel”, who “made the world a better place, and we think made all of us better human beings”.
The official site of the JNF announces that naming a forest after Coretta Scott King is part of “perpetuating her message of equality and peace” (1,2).
Thirdly, this publicity stunt is custom-made to chime with other aspects of US culture. You can tick the box for the favourite issue of the day, the environment. “By planting trees in Israel”, the JNF reminds us, “you have helped curb global warming”. The Israeli embassy goes one step further, suggesting Israel’s entire history as a state has been to the environmental advantage of mankind: “Israel’s forestation efforts help the entire region. Far from greening Israel alone, the hundreds of millions of trees planted in Israel over the past century have provided environmental benefits that know no borders.” (5)
The JNF’s work in cultivation, forestation and other ways of “preserving and developing the land of Israel” strikes a chord with the north American mythologized history of the frontier and the Wild West. On their website, the JNF proudly states that its “singular task” has been the “reclaiming of the Land of Israel”. In this respect, Zionists are repeating the north American colonial project, which previously reclaimed the frontier-land from the native Americans. The JNF describes its role as “supporting Israel’s newest generation of pioneers in developing the Negev Desert, Israel’s last frontier” (6).
Less than a fortnight after the Coretta forest announcement, an illustration of the real nature of the policies the JNF is implementing was reported in Haaretz (7). The demolition of a Bedouin village in the Negev left 100 people homeless, an all too common event. The Israel Land Administration (ILA) described the event as the evacuation of “invaders”. Welcome to life on Israel’s new frontier where, as soon as the Arabs are cleansed, the JNF is ready to move in to make the desert bloom once again.
Despite the JNF’s public image, the organisation has played a key role in Israel’s appropriation of lands belonging to Palestinians, both in the major expulsions of 1948, as well as the piecemeal ethnic cleansing that has continued ever since. The official line hints at the truth: the organisation defines its modus operandi as being “to serve as caretaker of the land of Israel, on behalf of its owners – Jewish people
everywhere”. Thus the Middle East’s ‘only democracy’ is not, in fact, a state for all its citizens (i.e. native Palestinians), but is ‘owned’ by Jews worldwide, a claim contested by both Jews angry at the presumption, as well as the Palestinians whose land has been stolen.
On the rubble of Palestinian villages, the JNF planted forests; on the remains of village schools, picnic parks sprung up. Maps were redrawn, Arab place names erased, and soon, all that remained were piles of stones, the fragments of structures, and the memories of the exiled. Uri Avnery describes what happened in the years following Israel’s creation: “[The] new state transferred to the KKL millions of dunams of land expropriated from Arabs – the refugees who were not allowed to return (‘absentees’ in legal language), those who had remained in the country but were absent on a given day from their villages (‘present absentees’), as well as Arabs who became citizens of Israel.” (8)
Avnery notes that the JNF’s statutes “explicitly prohibit the sale or rental of land to non-Jews”, meaning that a Palestinian in Israel “whose forefathers have lived here for hundreds – or even thousands – of years, cannot acquire a house or an apartment on its land”, in contrast to a Jewish New Yorker who decides to emigrate.
Uri Davis also explains the disparity between the JNF’s public face, and the reality of
their operations: “[The JNF] projects itself as an environmentally friendly organization concerned with ecology and sustainable development. It plants forests and establishes recreation facilities open to all. Well, it is the case that JNF forests and facilities are open to all, but it is equally the case that that most – almost without exception all – of these forests are planted on the ruins of Palestinian Arab villages ethnically cleansed in the 1948-49 war.” (9)
One example of these forests is Biriya in northern Galilee, planted on the ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages. And it is here, within Biriya Forest, that Israel will pay homage to Coretta Scott King. What better example, not only of the Palestinian Nakbah, but also the extent to which Zionist propagandists will not only deny the ethnic cleansing, but also repackage colonialism as the victory of the
(This chapter is based on an article originally published in Electronic Intifada on 15 May 2007.)
(2) “Israel to name Galilee forest after Martin Luther King Jr’s widow”, Haaretz, 27 April
(3) Joseph Massad, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism
and the Palestinians, Routledge: New York, 2006
(4) “Many Americans Uneasy with Mix of Religion and Politics”, Pew Forum Survey, 24
Aug 2006 (http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=153)
(7) Mijal Grinberg, “30 structures in unrecognized Bedouin village in Negev
demolished”, Haaretz, 8 May 2007
(8) Uri Avnery, “Abolish the JNF”, ZNet, 21 April 2007
(9) Uri Davis, Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within, Zed Books: London,