Israel and the Olive Tree

Commentators’ attention has long been drawn to the symbolism of the olive leaf returned by the Noah’s dove. Classically, the olive tree has been considered a sign of peace. This symbolism, reflected in Greek and Roman mythology, has been famously adopted by the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces in their respective emblems. A careful examination of the significance of the olive branch in ancient times, however, leads to a different interpretation. Ironically, it is by way of a story that unfolded in Greece that this additional meaning comes to light.

In 2013, in the midst of Greek’s much-publicized economic struggles, it was widely reported in the Greek press that a famous tree had been felled and taken for firewood. The tree in question was widely considered to have originally stood outside Plato’s legendary Academy. According to some versions of the legend, the olive tree was originally part of the olive trees that marked the twelve entrances to that celebrated institution; according to others, Plato actually taught under the shade of the olive tree. Despite the incredible longevity of the tree – Plato lived from approximately 428 to 348 BCE, making the tree well over 2300 years according to the legends – the tree’s trunk had been severely damaged by a bus accident in 1976. The tree had then been replanted elsewhere and had begun to regrow, only to be felled and stolen some thirty-eight years afterward.

Whether or not the legend is historically accurate, to paraphrase a famous comment made in another context, they don’t tell stories like that about you and me. The myth of Plato’s olive tree speaks to the extraordinary longevity of this plant, which by all accounts regularly lives for hundreds and, in rare instances, even thousands of years. Accordingly, in his JPS commentary to Parshat Noach, Nachum Sarna interprets the symbolism of the olive leaf along these lines:

The olive tree, one of the earliest to be cultivated in the Near East, is an evergreen. It is extraordinarily sturdy and may thrive for up to a thousand years. Thus it became symbolic of God’s blessings of regeneration, abundance, and strength, which is most likely the function it serves here. In the present context the olive branch is invested with the idea of peace and reconciliation, and for this reason it was incorporated into the official emblem of the state of Israel.

The biblical olive tree, in other words, represents earth’s resiliency. Despite the devastation wrought by the Great Flood, life on earth would persist and ultimately flourish once again.

Although Sarna correctly observes that Israel's founding fathers were invoking the olive tree for its message of harmony, in the present moment the olive tree would seem to offer a highly appropriate additional symbolism. Beyond Israel’s fundamental commitment to shalom, as Israelis find themselves in a deluge of vicious and terrifying attacks, one of Medinat Yisrael’s most outstanding characteristics comes to the fore: her tenacity. Unlike Plato's tree, our country will overcome the cars and violent metal instruments that seek to fell her citizens. And just as Noach’s olive leaf symbolizes that life would persist despite the flood's devastation, so too our heroic brethren demonstrate daily that they will continue to flourish even in the face of barbarism and extraordinary adversity.