362: A Tree Grows in the Vatican: Reflecting on Tu Bishvat and the World

uch divides us these days — but truths about compassion, community and the natural world are forces that may bring us together.
    This week, millions of Americans are thinking about the natural world, because of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. Stop by our Darwin Resources page to read more — or visit OurValues.org to talk with Dr. Wayne Baker and other readers about Darwin’s legacy.
    Plus, today is Tu Bishvat (or Tu B’Shevat, as it’s sometimes spelled) for our millions of Jewish neighbors. In honor of the day, we have invited writer Debra Darvick to share with us a special story.
    Now, this story is a bit unusual. It was written eight years ago. It’s based on Debra’s research into the life of Mike Nitzani and it’s written by Debra so that Mike tells his own stirring story in the piece. The story recalls some of a hopeful thread in the complex fabric of Vatican-Jewish relations. This may be a good moment to recall such constructive connections.
    To introduce this reprint of Nitzani’s story, Debra writes today: “This story is based on an interview I conducted with Mr. Nitzani in 2000. Nearly a decade later trees continue to burn. And so, too, does hope. I share Mike’s prayer — for the strength of leaders to realize the day must come when two peoples will plant olive trees together and rest beneath their shade, living in peace and unafraid.”

    Then, here is …

The Story of Mike Nitzani

By Debra B. Darvick

It took me 25 trees to get to the Vatican, but I got there. A decade ago the Jewish National Fund asked me to give them a few years, representing them and their director in Italy. It was an opportunity to further the JNF’s mission and also return to the roots of my grandmother’s family who made their way to Italy before the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. On my grandfather’s side, we trace the family’s presence in Italy back fifty generations. None of us had been back since my grandfather had moved the Genazzani family out from under Mussolini to Israel.
    Trees permeate Jewish life. Our expulsion from the Garden of Eden is linked to the Tree of Knowledge. Moses experienced God from the midst of a burning bush. We call our Torah a Tree of Life. Judaism holds trees in such holy regard that from Talmudic times it has been forbidden to destroy trees growing even on one’s enemies’ lands. Our holiday, Tu Bishvat, is known as the “new year of the trees” and is celebrated in Israel each year by tree plantings all over the countryside.

    When I arrived in Rome I lived in a neighborhood of the city called Trastevere. It is the oldest neighborhood in Rome apart from the Emperor’s City and it borders the Vatican state. Riding to and from work each day on my moped, I would pass by the Vatican and recall the centuries of enmity and anti-Semitism stretching back 2000 years.
    On one of my rides I had an inspiration. Call it a message from above if you like. Why not find a way to use trees to make a connection with the Vatican? Something along the lines of literally extending an olive branch. The Vatican had not yet recognized Israel; there were no diplomatic relations between it and my country. I decided in a moment that during my stay in Rome I would do my best to make an approach between the two powers.
    It was a time of great potential. Rabin had made peace with Jordan, an event that was spurred by the peace crafted between Egypt and Israel. I thought, we are moving towards peace with the Palestinians and that is a hundred-year conflict. Here we have a 2000-year-old conflict that needs resolving and I thought with the strength of the JNF behind me, I had a chance. Like the story of Johnny Appleseed in America, I would begin to plant olive trees in Italy. But not just any olive trees. Olive trees from Israel.

    Olive trees are significant to both the Italians and the Israelis. In Italy, these trees are their biggest export, the olives themselves, the oil pressed from harvested olives. The olive tree has a strength that no other tree has. It can handle any kind of climate, resisting sub-zero temperatures and also times of great heat. When I was a soldier, I could always find shelter in the shade of the olive trees by the roads I patrolled. For me and many, many Israelis, the olive tree is a symbol of ever-present relief.
    I started in Milan by contacting Cardinal Martini, who was regarded at the time as a possible papal contender. He was very warm to the idea and not long after we held a ceremony at which were present the Chief Rabbi of Milan, Cardinal Martini himself and a number of Catholics, Christians and Greek Orthodox. A choir made up of people from all churches sang from the steps of the church in central Milan. They sang Havenu Shalom Alechem as we presented an olive tree at the Duomo. It was a very powerful moment to see something blossom from a passing thought on a scooter commute into reality. I had taken my first step towards my ultimate goal of planting a tree in the Vatican.

    The Milan story was filmed by television crews and not long after we received a message in Rome from the Mayor of Bologna. “We have the grave of twelve Jews who were murdered by the Fascists in World War II. We want to do something to honor their memory. We want we plant a tree.” When we arrived, the date of the massacre had been engraved on a large stone. We planted an olive tree beside it. In attendance were nearly 400 people, many of whom were nuns who had hidden Jews from some of the near by villages. My strategic plan was progressing.
    There is still anti-Semitism in Italy, but there is no real danger to the country’s Jews. And while there is not systemic hate, it is still the Vatican’s country and the influences are strong. The day after the tree planting in Bologna, the site was vandalized and the tree was uprooted. The mayor called us immediately to arrange for a second planting that was attended by every member of the city council and all of Bologna’s Jews. The Mayor also made plans to open in city hall an exhibit of the history of Jewish life in Bologna. He was not going to let the act of one vandal sever the links we were making. Jews tend not to make a lot of noise in Italy. The olive trees were a way to make noise, but positive noise in an ecological way.

    Then, we planted in Sotto Il Monte, hometown of the Pope John the XXIII. In 1962, this Pope convened the Second Vatican Council that ultimately led to the writing of Nostra Aetate. The document, also called the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions, is the Church’s formal recognition that the Jews were not to blame for the death of Jesus Christ. In attendance was an Ambassador from the State of the Vatican and the Israeli Consul General of Milan. Having planted a tree in the Pope John the XXIII’s hometown, I approached the Vatican officials about planting a tree on the Vatican grounds also in his honor. To my delight, they agreed.
    The day of the Vatican planting was calm and beautiful. We had chosen to have sent from Israel a 30 year old olive tree symbolic of the fact that Nostra Aetate had been written 30 years before. The Consul General of Israel was there as was the former secretary for Pope John XXIII. The Pope himself had died in 1965. The JNF had procured two halves of a millstone and had it engraved in gold with these words: “This olive tree from the hills of Jerusalem is planted in the name of harmony with nature and in peace between our two religions. Keren Kayemet Israel.” It became a ritual of Pope John Paul II to sit in the shade of this beautiful olive tree to finish signing peace treaties or to honor a visiting dignitary.

    One day a call came from the Israeli ambassador. We had been invited to a private meeting with Pope John Paul II. At last. My peaceful campaign had succeeded. What would be more natural than to bring with us an olive tree as an offering of friendship? The Pope is a wonderful man. Completely at ease with us. Like he was one of the guys. He has a great sense of humor and radiates such a sense of warmth and love.
    The tree we brought to our meeting is planted in a section of the Pope’s private-residence gardens. I have been told that once, one of the Vatican gardeners moved the tree to a different location. The Pope insisted that it be returned to its original place so that he could see it during the day while he was writing or in prayer. That olive tree from Israel is the only one in his garden that the Pope waters and tends to himself.

    The tree is as important symbol to him as it is to us. This Pope has been pro-Jewish and has done what no other Pope has done — establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The olive trees in Italy are going to live a long time and hopefully will serve as reminders of the positive bonds that can be forged between the Jews and the Catholics not just in Italy but everywhere. As it turns out virtually all the donations received by the JNF from Catholic organizations come from Italy. The trees represent us well over there.
    Relations with our neighbors in Israel aren’t so positive these days. The accords and hopes of a decade ago vanish daily with each new skirmish. One of the first things the Palestinians did during the recent unrest was to set fire to groves of trees in the Golan. Acres and acres of trees burn, forcing us to use precious water that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can spare to quench the fires. How do we plant trees enough to solve this latest crisis? If the fires do not stop there will be no olive branches left to extend. I pray for the strength of leaders to realize this cannot go on. It is time for us to plant olive trees together.


    Visit Debra Darvick’s own Web site and enjoy more of her stories.

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