Like thousands of other American Jews who grew up in the late 1950s and early '60s, I have cherished memories of "leaf stamps" and of the semi-religious ritual that surrounded them.
Once a month, I brought quarters hoarded from my allowance to Sunday school at Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Des Moines and exchanged them for stickers the size and shape of postage stamps, each one with a picture of a leaf. I pasted the stamps on a poster with the image of a bare-limbed tree. The fun was watching the limbs fill up with leaves, one by one--spring played out on paper in tantalizing slow motion. When the poster tree was filled with stamps, a real tree was planted in Israel, and I was handed a new poster tree, its bare limbs once again crying out for leaves.
This notion of planting trees in a desert half a world away may sound like an abstract exercise, but it was overwhelmingly real to me. I daydreamed about those endless groves of oranges, lemons and grapefruit, the desert made to bloom thanks to my quarters. A miracle!
But an even more important miracle lay beneath the surface: The trees were both real and symbolic, a stand-in for the still fledgling Jewish state. What young Jew growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust could resist such an enterprise? You were funding both a real tree and a metaphoric one, a tree of hope.
Hope. Today, how can one even utter the word in the context of the Mideast? The unblinking eye of television shows us scene after scene of violence.
The carnage wrought by yet another suicide bombing, with all the usual and horrifying elements: a shoe, a handbag, walls smeared with Israeli blood. Tanks blasting apart the homes of alleged militants and their families. The Israeli military keeps journalists at a distance, so we can only imagine what we're not allowed to see: the shoe, the handbag, walls smeared with Palestinian blood.
Israeli hard-liners insist that the only way to achieve peace is through Ariel Sharon's nightmare policies of West Bank incursions, targeted assassinations and ever-expanding settlements. It's a fantasy based on crushing, if not eliminating, the Palestinians. But these hard-liners are not only immoral, they're also wrong. As wrong as their Arab counterparts who preach a peace that comes from the destruction of Israel.
Those posters of trees from my childhood provide the only way out of the current situation. The dream remains the same, but as an adult, I see another branch on that tree of peace, and it is labeled Palestine. Without a viable Palestine, the old dream of an Israel at peace will remain a fantasy.
Last year, the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights began collecting money to replant some of the more than 30,000 Palestinian olive trees that have been bulldozed by the Israeli military. It may not sound like much, but perhaps it is as close to a miracle as we can hope for today. Because, as I learned decades ago, lasting peace grows one leaf at a time.