Rev. Marthame and Mrs. Elizabeth Sanders are Presbyterian Mission Partners working in the Palestinian Christian village of Zababdeh. Rev. Marthame and Mrs. Elizabeth Sanders are Presbyterian Mission Partners working in the Palestinian Christian village of Zababdeh. November in Palestine is the month for the olive harvest. Most of Zababdeh headed for the hills to strip their trees bare and bring fruit to the local olive presses where it is turned into oil. We joined several families in their work, enjoying the change of pace from school (which closed for a weekend so that the whole family could lend a hand in the task). The trees are beautiful; the land is beautiful; the work is hard but rewarding. Most of the olives harvested are consumed at home, whole, or as oil. Some is sold locally, and very little – if any – ends up being exported outside of Palestine.
The harvest is a task that takes most of the month, and you can hear the hum of the tractors early in the morning and late at night, going to and returning from the family orchards. Many families have given us fresh oil from their trees – there is nothing like fresh baked bread with a little Zababdeh olive oil! The entire life of the community is altered by these days. Children come to school tired, having already worked several hours in the groves.
Church is nearly empty on Sunday mornings, as everyone heads for the hills and the harvest. Because of inadequate rainfall, last year there was no harvest, and so this year's crop is especially important. Also, as the Israeli closure of the West Bank tightens, the local economy is slowly being strangled. People need every cent (or shekel) they can get. It feels ironic in these days of armed conflict to work among olive branches.
But it cannot help but add deeper meaning to a tree which is already deeply symbolic. Christ told his disciples to learn their lesson from the fig tree, and we know that the olive tree has much to teach us, too. Some of the trees in Zababdeh are only several generations old, planted by grandparents who cleared the land by hand, planted seedlings, watered the dry earth, moved rocks and stones, cleared away the brush, terraced the hills, and passed these gifts along to their children and grandchildren. We understand in a deeper way why it is so agonizing for Palestinians to lose their lands and trees.
Stories from people who fled during Al Nakba ("The Catastrophe") of 1948 often center around the loss of the family olive trees, to which (like their homes) they have never been allowed to return. These trees are very real and very symbolic connections to the land for these people, and as we picked olives with our friends, we felt their passionate desire for their homeland. Other trees have been here since the Romans controlled these lands, nearly 2000 years ago. These grand patriarchs carry meaning for the Christian minority here. Like the Christian community, these trees have witnessed the oppression of Roman, Ottoman, and Israeli occupations. And, like the Believers, the trees persevere, and continue to grow and bear good fruit. Yesterday word came to us that a sixty year-old Palestinian was been stoned to death by Israeli settlers in the West Bank while he harvested his olives. We remain hopeful in the thought that, like so many tragedies these trees have seen, this too shall pass.