This year (5784) is a leap year on the Jewish calendar. This means we’ll be adding an extra month, First Adar, which begins on February 10th of the secular calendar this year. This extra month will push our holidays from being early in their range (measured against the solar calendar and the seasons) to being on the later end. According, the last holiday to fall “early” before the shift will be Tu B’Shvat, which will be celebrated on January 25th this year.
Tu B’Shvat began its life as a way to group fruits by year. Produce collected before Tu B’Shvat is from the “old” year, and from Tu B’Shvat onward, from the “new” year. This was important because the Torah forbids using the fruit of the tree’s first three years (called “orlah”), while the fruit of the fourth year was brought to the Temple as an offering. Tu B’Shvat begins with a full moon, easy for ancient farmers to identify, and comes in a late winter month when there was no major fruit harvest in ancient Israel, keeping things simple.
These factors made Tu B’Shvat a suitable date for demarcating the years of produce in the Land of Israel, but if that were all, Tu B’Shvat would surely have evaporated over centuries of exile, much as the new year for kings disappeared with Jewish kings. Instead, the mantle of “birthday of the trees” helped the holiday stay alive and eventually blossom with whole new layers of meaning, first for the Kabbalists and more recently for environmentalists. A holiday that, by design, falls in the dead of winter – especially when it comes as early as this year – yet celebrates the trees and the fruits they will yield for harvest in spring, summer, and fall is very forward-looking holiday.
This year, we can anticipate there will be war in the land of Israel when Tu B’Shvat comes, barring exceptional achievement by the IDF, or exceptional pressure from outside, in the interim. Let’s try, with Tu B’Shvat in mind, to look forward to the fruition of this war:
First and foremost, Hamas must be destroyed. One can make peace with neighbors who have made war, but the barbarity of October 7th cannot be allowed to stand; this is what Israeli leaders are trying to communicate to the world when they say, “Hamas is ISIS.”
Interestingly, there is a connection in Jewish law between trees, environmentalism, and the ethics of war. This is a principle known as “Bal Tashkhit” (“Don’t Destroy”). The Torah teaches that we should not cut down fruit trees to make siege engines. This is expanded upon by our sages to mean that we should not be wastefully destructive in general, and as such this becomes a root principle of Jewish environmentalism. However, we should not get carried away; the Torah doesn’t forbid necessary destruction, only wasteful destruction. There is no question Israel has wreaked great destruction in Gaza; however, both Jewish ethics and the Geneva Conventions judge destruction in war not by scale, but by necessity. Hamas has turned homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals, and the very earth underneath Gaza, into military fortresses, valid and necessary targets for destruction in a war that Hamas itself instigated with the Simchat Torah Massacre and the kidnapping of hundreds of hostages. On the other hand, Israeli soldiers who videoed themselves smashing merchandise in a shop in Gaza, for example, must be disciplined and perhaps prosecuted by the IDF for their misconduct, which violates both Bal Tashkhit and the international laws of war.
The conclusion that vast destruction in Gaza is justified by the threat and the tactics of Hamas has a corollary, however: much like Germany and Japan, Gaza will need to be rebuilt after Hamas is uprooted, enough that Gazans can feel that living there is preferable to martyrdom. Historically, the choice of fellow Arabs and the UN has been to maintain the Palestinians in a permanent refugee status, immiserating them and perpetuating their grievance. Instead, if its aim is to bring peace, the international community should invest in allowing the Gazans to settle into homes and lives that feel permanent and worthwhile, too valuable to waste on terrorism and war.
As part of this program, Israel must strive to establish, within safe bounds, civil autonomy for the Palestinians, including over internal security, even if Israel retains “ultimate security responsibility,” in the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu. This may not be possible immediately, but should be the goal as early as possible. At the moment, like them or not – and
I don’t – the only existing group that offers any realistic hope of taking on that task is the Palestinian Authority; but presently, the Palestinian Authority is reluctant to appear to take control in Gaza (which they lost to Hamas in 2007) “on the back of Israeli tanks.” It may be that when the dust clears, the control itself will be inducement enough, but likely there will need to be a bridging entity, particularly in the security sphere, and Israel will need to work hard to find and convince some responsible international partner/s to take on that role.
This brings us to another matter that must be addressed after the war: the Israeli government. After the primary kinetic phases of the war are resolved, the government should call elections immediately and let the Israeli people speak on the future they want for their nation. The present government should face electoral accountability for the intelligence and policy failures that saw Israel unaware and unprepared on October 7th. The government should face accountability for the “divide and conquer” policy that saw it strengthen Hamas in recent years as a bulwark against Palestinian unity and potential statehood; it was a grave miscalculation. The Prime Minister personally should face the charges in his criminal corruption trial – underway since 2020 – without creating the damaging perception that his personal legal considerations color his lawmaking or national security decisions. Netanyahu was once known as “Mr. Security” in Israel, but his track record now includes strengthening Hamas, weakening the PA, failing the nation on October 7th, and alienating many of the foreign powers that might be persuaded by a different leader to be part of a postwar rehabilitation process. Only Israelis can decide if they want more of the same – that is democracy, as flawed as Israel’s electoral structure may be – but they must have the opportunity to make that decision as soon as intense combat operations tail off. If Israelis want my advice, it’s time for a change.