One morning in June 1967, approximately 12,000 Palestinians from the villages of Imwas, Beit Nuba and Yalu were exiled by Israeli forces who bulldozed their homes as they occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the Six Day War.
The elderly and disabled residents, who were unable to flee in time, had their houses demolished on top of them. Eighteen were killed, buried beneath the rubble.
In place of the three villages today lies Canada Park, which Israel now cites as an example of its commitment to environmentalism.
Created by an international Zionist organisation, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), it boasts of having planted more than 240 million trees paid for with $15 million in charitable donations from Canadian Jews.
Planted in his honour as a Bar Mitzah gift in 1975, the same year JNF was founded, one such tree belongs to Jewish Canadian playwright and film director Jason Sherman.
In his latest moving documentary, My tree, Jason chronicles his efforts of searching for the tree, which he believed, connected him to Israel.
“I want to re-engage with this place that I used to think, talk and write about so much. And I wanted to do it in a way that I engage with the world best, which is through storytelling,” said Jason. “I just knew looking for my tree will tell me something, or help me discover something that I never knew before.”
“It’ll give me a chance to look at the place with fresh eyes through this very simple plant. And I tell you, I started this without knowing anything. I knew Israel and Palestine, but nothing about the JNF or the tree planting programme.”
The film opens with Jason searching through decades-old family mementos with his brothers in vain, until finally, he stumbles upon the JNF tree certificate ascribed with his name at Beth Tikvah synagogue, the venue of his 1975 bar mitzvah.
Determined to succeed in finding his actual tree in hopes of discovering more about – quite literally – the roots of his identity, he immediately makes his way to Israel.
There, he visits the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem and the Neve Ilan Forest but fails to find any additional information about the tree. His frustration and exhaustion are tested even further as his requests for an interview with members of the JNF are repeatedly rejected.
“A lot of the rejection was off camera,” he said. “I tried really hard to get a member of the JNF team to talk to me and had some interviews lined up at one point but they were cancelled. I had no intentions of being confrontational, I just wanted to talk about my tree and hear their point of view on things.”
Eventually, he was led to Canada Park, where in all probability, his tree was planted.
He was guided through the forest by Eitan Bronstein Aparicio, the founder of an Israeli organisation, Zochrot, dedicated to raising awareness of the Nakba and documenting human rights violations against Palestinian refugees.
During the tour, Eitan pointed to the ruins of the three Palestinian villages – Yalu, Imwas and Beit Nuba – that Israel destroyed in the aftermath of the 1967 war on the orders of Israeli General Yitzhak Rabin, to extend its control over the strategic corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The activist also explained his initial surprise at finding no mention of the area’s recent history in the printed park guide or on the signs offering the history of the area, which resulted in Zochrot beginning a campaign to add signs to the park that reflected the Palestinian communities who had previously lived there.
After several years and efforts – which ranged from posting homemade signs in the park to taking a petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice – Zochrot was successful in getting the signs placed in the park.
To Jason, who was standing on the ruins of Palestinian homes, this story was deeply unnerving.
“That moment of harsh truth was the culmination of a lot of years trying to really understand the story of what happened there and is continuing to happen and more importantly, my indirect role in it as a diasporic Jew. It all came crashing down, my emotions were overwhelmingly distressing.”
I was aware of the cameras around me so I remained functional, but I had just found out that there was a thriving village here where people were living, laughing and playing and just being. But they were literally wiped out of existence and had their village destroyed for reasons that I believe is strategic because of its location. Just standing on the grounds of someone’s home where all that anguish unfolded affected me very deeply.
Disturbed by JNF’s dark history of expulsion activities through its plantation programme, Sherman met other Israelis and Palestinians to unearth more of the organisation’s dark history and policies.
To Uri Davis, the co-author of the book The Jewish National Fund, the charity is “complicit with ethnic cleansing.”
While John Goddard, a journalist who wrote the first article about Canada Park in a 1981 edition of the magazine Saturday Night, said: “Canada Park is built on a lie.”
Despite being a supporter of the state of Israel, Goddard said Jews donate to the JNF without having enough information about their activities and that the Canadian donors were unaware that its projects sit on land owned by dispossessed Palestinians.
The narrative promoted by the JNF was that a barren, rocky land was being turned into a green oasis.
“The activists I spoke with in Israel have gone through this awakening where they’ve – for the longest time – had this belief in a certain history they’ve grown up hearing over and over again until overtime after learning some facts had an awakening and realised, there’s more to the story. And now they have dedicated their lives to righting the wrongs, that’s still happening today against the Palestinians.”
Jason’s new film shares much of a direct, candid and penetrating tone since it consists of interviews with both Israeli officials and activists as well as Palestinian villagers.
However, it becomes clear during the course of the film that no JNF official will provide a single explanation regarding its operations, much less discuss its tactics to further dispossess land by using trees to cover up destroyed villages.
Nevertheless, he does return to Canada to meet Harris Gulko, former Canadian national director of the JNF, who claims to not remember having ever seen or heard of Palestinian villages where the Canada Park is currently based. It was a childhood dream of his to fulfill his father’s dream and establish the park, Gulko says, adding: “There was never a Palestine.”
Jason’s style of filmmaking – with its mixture of in situ interviews interspersed with footage, much of which is not widely seen – succeeds in providing a chaotic narrative with a clarifying linear structure, without simplifying the controversial issues at the heart of the film.
He succeeded in eliciting undefensive and reflective assessments of JNF’s role in funding infrastructure for forests and parks over the ruins of forcibly depopulated Palestinian villages.
Jason is not only telling his own story in My tree, he also provides an insight into the lives of Palestinians living under occupation as he visits a Bedouin village in the southern Negev region.
“The Palestinians I spoke with obviously have a more intimate knowledge, they didn’t only have to go through a transformation, they’re living with the struggles every day, in particular the Bedouin people that I spoke with in the Negev. We also spoke to the people of Al-Raqib and looked at other villages suffering the same fate only to be covered up by Israeli trees – the same as Imwas.”
He’s questioned by a Palestinian villager of Al-Raqib, Sheikh Sayiah Al-Turi, born in 1949, one year after the Nakba: “The State refuses to acknowledge our right to this land. But we’ve been on this land since 1905. If indeed these are not our lands, then who is buried here?”
“The JNF uprooted our good lives. We see every JNF tree as a criminal just standing in front of our eyes.”
Nearing the end of his eye-opening journey, Jason also flies out to the US to meet Mohye Abdulaziz in Tucson, Arizona, a former resident of the village of Imwas. “This was my home, my world. I can show you around the village with my eyes closed,” he recalls. “We never thought something so drastic would happen.”
For the Palestinians who were violently removed from the homes now buried under this park, explained Mohye, the Israeli trees and plaques of the names of Jews who donated towards it all are a symbol of the destruction of Palestinian trees, crops, homes and lives.
It is painful to watch Jason and Mohye tearfully acknowledge the process of destruction and the subsequent cover up which led to the rewriting of history.
The two-hour documentary is both investigative and impressionistic. Establishing the facts of the JNF case led the 59-year-old Jewish director to understand what his Palestinian experience meant and still means; a simultaneous archaeological dig into his own identity.
Ultimately, Jason had to trust that the journey of finding his tree was worth telling, that it might help audiences better understand the occupation of Palestine. He concluded: “I am going to continue to speak out about the occupation, inevitably there will be push back, but for better or worse, when I see injustice, I have to put it into the world.”
“The film was really a question: how can I redress the wrongs that were done in my name? Well, this is what I do, I tell stories and will continue to do so.”