Home Derek Royden: Of olive trees, bison and the dispossessed

Derek Royden: Of olive trees, bison and the dispossessed

(© Sean Gladwell – stock.adobe.com)

According to a myth about the founding of Athens, the city’s king, Cecrops, held a contest to decide which god or goddess would be the city’s namesake and protector. Two were chosen for the honor: Poseidon, the god of the sea and Athena, the goddess of wisdom.

Going first, Poseidon opened a spring in the ground by powerfully striking it with his trident but when the citizens tried to drink from it, it was salty and they were less than impressed. Soon after, making less of a show of it, Athena planted a seed that almost immediately grew into a full-sized olive tree, a source of wood for fires, nutritious fruit and useful oil. Needless to say, with this gift Athena became the city’s matron.

This story points to the importance of these trees in the Mediterranean region since ancient times, not just in southern Europe but also the Middle East. In Lebanon, in Syria and in historic Palestine these noble plants have fed and provided livelihoods to people for countless generations.

Besides the danger to their continued cultivation represented by climate change and disease, in the Middle East, olive trees have become targets of those who want to displace and impoverish those who care for and are sustained by them.

For decades on the West Bank, Israeli settlers and the IDF soldiers who protect them have both denied Palestinians access to their crops and ripped the trees from the ground to deny their caretakers a living. Because it takes a number of years after planting for new trees to bear fruit, it’s obvious why they do this.

Recently, a Canadian politician who later resigned her position as a provincial Minister for Post-secondary education, promoted an oft used lie that historical Palestine was a “crappy piece of land with nothing on it,” ignoring the olive trees and other agricultural products that long provided for its people.

It isn’t just on the West Bank where the destruction of olive trees has been used against those who rely on them. In Syria, groups sponsored by Turkey have been accused of destroying olive trees and precarious forests to dispossess and impoverish mainly Kurdish people who were on the front lines against the so-called Islamic State.

The targeting of Syria’s Kurds is less surprising, given the context of Turkey’s decades long persecution of its own Kurdish population, who were long denied the right to even use their own language.

Historically it’s often been the case that those who wanted to colonize a land used attacks on treasured resources to dispossess and even eradicate those reliant on them. To see this closer to home we need look no further than the 19th century campaigns in North America to wipe out bison populations, including one led by the US. army starting around 1870. This was done with the expressed purpose of forcing Indigenous peoples reliant on these herds onto reservations.

By taking away a peoples’ way of life like this, European colonizers attempted to degrade and eventually destroy their cultures. In Canada, and likely in the United States, what was done to indigenous people is often dismissed as something that happened, “long ago” (even as it continues in many places to the present day).

Poseidon or Athena? Whether it’s the land, the olive trees, or the children of Gaza, the citizens of the United States, those with free speech and the vote, are the linchpin to the ongoing destruction or to peace. Take away the U.S. military aid to Israel and peace will finally have a chance in that region of ancient civilization and the long lessons of history.

Derek Royden is a Canadian journalist. 



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