Where we are:
Arrasid micro-farms, Sachnin
Squatters scattered through out the largely communal
country often share similar struggles. Amir and
Yael live an hour West of Jerusalem, near the
coast of the Mediterranean Sea. While, Dalia and
Amnon live near the town of Sachnin in the Country's
Yigal Deutscher had already spent the summer
of 2003 training in sustainable agricultural
and Jewish spirituality when he came to our website
and noticed our standing challenge to:
us find farmers from many nations willing to tell
their stories in small doses over time, as their
lives unfold and their farms develop.
He set high goals, and he delivered
in finding and profiling farmers who are making
a difference. In this contested land with its
millennia of occupations, ravages and civilizations,
farming with ecological foundations faces harshness
from the climate, political tension and a conventionally
oriented food economy.
The journey begins in the southern
deserts, leads us north through the West Bank
and continues all the way up until we near the
Lebanon/Syria borders. (Click
here for complete series line-up.)
Where we have been:
Gnaim in El-Batuf Valley farms near
the Arab village of Sachnin. He is dedicated to
revitalize the agricultural lifestyles of the
neighboring Arab communities. He is collecting
nuggets and glimpses of the past while creating
co-op/NGO to re-establish organic farming and
"This valley will
be the micro-region for an organic renaissance
in the Arab communities... this needs to work
for everyone's sake, for a return to dignity.
…Even if we have our land, if we have evolved
into creatures that don't interact with it, we
have lost ourselves."
Solowey at Kibbutz Ketura is a California
native. Elaine Solowey is a scientist with a mission,
evaluating plants from around the world in the
harsh Arava desert. She wants to discover "small
steps towards abundance" (her book title)
for the coming years of harsher climates around
of the world depends on agricultural stability
and health. No one seems to understand this."
Neot Smadar –
About 20 years ago, a group of unacquainted
urbanites formed to explore issues of community:
what is means and how is it formed. The place
is an experiment to live out what they’ve
agreed upon -- a healthy community based on self-sufficiency
that includes organic orchards and farms, natural
building, a flock of goats, and much more.
farmer] made it all seem like a puzzle to us,
the connections he was trying to make between
plant and earth, plant and plant, human and earth.
This was his lifework, a never ending one."
Itamar: Alon and Rachel Zimmerman at
This West Bank farming couple coaxes an agricultural
existence from a no-man’s land between Arab-controlled
Nablus (Shechem). and an Israeli army firing zone.
Conflict forced changes in crops and marketing
that led Alon to devise highly integrated, self-sufficient
system of crops, fish, microclimates and livestock.
His fingers wrap around
a silver goblet, full with dry red wine, reflecting
the eyes of those peering in. A drop escapes and
trickles over the side. Prayer sanctifies the
wine, which sanctifies the moment.
Where we are going:
Beit Elisha at Kibbutz Harduf …is
Israel's only Biodynamic farm, but one so large
that it is also the country's largest supplier
of organic produce, from veggies to cheeses. It
is also a working agricultural kibbutz -- one
of the last in Israel -- whose wholistic environment
provides a healing medium for members with developmental
to sustain and allow the continuation of creation
is already here, given to us with the first light.
All we have to do is harness it, gather a small,
potent dose and apply." Gadi, farmer.
land in Israel requires some fresh thinking for Americans.
Dimensions of space do not follow conventional boundaries
here . A typical suburb -- with each plot confined to the
rectangular allotment of home, tree and garage -- can suddenly
spread open, the wild landscape revealing itself like a dancer
at a peepshow.
It is on the fringes of these communities where privacy becomes
unholy and controversial.
It also becomes illegal.
In ancient times, when the Hebrew people first entered the
land that is now Israel, each of the 12 tribes was assigned
a certain space to which the extended family would have eternal
rights. Under the Israelite laws of Yovel, at the end of every
50-year cycle, the land would be returned to her original
owner. This moving back of the clock was a meditation on the
fact that land was spiritual property that has no human owner.
Jump to 1948 and the establishment of the modern state of Israel.
Through various groups, such as Minhal Mikarkay Yisrael and
The Jewish National Fund, more than 95 percent of the land in
the country is government property. Land was first allotted
on long-term leases for what were meant to be agricultural communities.
Arable land was limited; the pre-existing agricultural infrastructure
was undeveloped. With a large amount of immigrants streaming
into the country, as well as high security concerns stemming
from unwelcoming neighbors, the government settled people into
planned communities. The ideal aimed for was an agrarian utopia
built upon self-sufficiency and a local labor force. Such settlements
would speedily develop the country.
"Those that are aware, looking
for an alternative, do not feel a calling to the Kibbutz
anymore. What they feel is a powerful drive to connect
with places like this."
Two models were designed, the
Kibbutz and the Moshav. The Kibbutz is an agricultural
cooperative. The Moshav is a bit more independent. Membership
is bought and with it comes separate plots for living and
farming. This is not the frontyard-backyard America image,
though. Homes are in one space, land is in another. At the
time, farming was the national priority and pride.
In the 1970s, agricultural subsidies end. Kibbutzim begin
to privatize. Members of Moshavim begin to rent their agricultural
land to agribusinesses and developers. Land prices rise 10-fold
in 15 years, marking the beginning of Israel's real estate
boom. Throughout this process, there is no concept of private
land or independent homesteading. The small family farm, so
common in Europe, does not exist here. The farm serves as
either the office place or community center. It is never home.
* * *
Editor’s note: Yigal talks to two different couples
during the course of this article. Each is trying in their
own way to make an individual living off communal land. Amir
and Yael are goat shepherds west of Jerusalem in the central
hills of the country. Amnon and Dalia raise goats, ducks and
watermelon in the hills of the lower Galilee in the northern
part of the country.
Amir and Yael:
Trees in the night
chores in the animal shelter, birds crowd the rafters, chirping
wildly at our milking attempts.
Orphaned kids need to drink; their nursing mothers
are not so generous as the young would like.
Amir, Yael and I lunge for the frantic females, gripping
them by their horns or hind legs, rewarding a hungry kid with
access to a full udder. Dried particles of goat manure float
through the air, illuminated into fairy dust by the lines
of fresh morning sunlight streaming through the cracks in
the wall. The full containers of milk are taken to the kitchen
where Yael makes cheeses on the stove-top. Amir and I play
with our vocal abilities, leading the goats from the pen.
The babies stay behind, crying nervously for their mothers.
The goats spread along the hillside munching on wild oats,
mustards and herbs. Fennel grows wildly: dessert, for sweet
milk. White cranes cruise among the goats, searching below
for disturbed snakes and grasshoppers. On the periphery, I
stand, amazed at the primal subconscious connection between
thedomestic ruminants, resident vegetation, wild fowl and
Weeds abound—spikes protruding from their sides, thorns
like the tips of spears. The goats curl them in their mouths
and swallow them like they would the fanciest delicacy. "The
human form is a microcosm of nature; the health of Israel
is directly connected to that of her inhabitants. When humanity
is disturbed, living the way we are, this is what nature looks
like, a reflection of our innards," Amir says.
But Zion still peeks through, the hope alive. Atop the thorns
are delicate ornaments of indigo and crimson, yellow and teal,
flowers of paradox.
The noises of the mind begin to rage—if you are not
suited for this type of work the silence is overwhelming.
Amir finds a shady corner and begins to write or serenade
the morning with his flute. "This is my daily Hitbodedut,"
a religious phrase meaning private meditations.
I feel like an intruder. “At first, I had no interest
in goats,” Amir says, “I wanted orchards, agricultural
fields. But [these animals] fit my character. The goats are
mischievous--they keep me on my feet. They are driven by their
curiosities of taste; they munch a bit and move on, never
satisfied. Everything tastes the same but they must taste
Settling among the unsettled
The lifestyle of the shepherd has allowed Amir to settle into
the unsettled. Years of traveling in Asia introduced him to
cultures without such a definite break between civilization
and wilderness, where humans are a part of the changing natural
landscape. The culmination of this unity came in the Himalayan
Mountains, where he was lost for three weeks, guided only
by an erroneous U.S. Army map and the I-Ching, an ancient
Chinese book of divination. After days of directionless wandering,
so close to death, there was no longer any separation—his
breathing was the landscape's breathing.
On return to Israel in the company of his wife, Yael, the search
for a home began. They used a 1920s Turkish map depicting the
well sites in the country. The land they found was about an
hour west of Jerusalem, right above Moshav Kfar Uria. The previous
village lay in ruins, stones from homes and terraces scattered
and broken. The landscape was still charred from battle.
The government offered him a three-year grazing lease, thinking
his claim would only be temporary. Planting and living rights
were not included in the lease. Ignoring the prohibitions,
Amir and family embraced the opportunity and began to piece
together the destroyed homes, stone by stone, all by hand.
The terraces were rebuilt. Fruit trees and home gardens were
planted, all organically. Every bit of available money and
energy was invested.
Unfortunately the government has not been so eager to forget
the original terms of the lease. Authorities resist any attempt
by the family to settle the land. Amir’s olive oil press
was closed. Building a cheese factory met a similar response,
so he makes the best of his kitchen. The goat pen is a composition
of sheet metal and wood, stitched together by spider webs.
"For the last 21 years, it has all been potential retarded,"
Amir tells me.
Whatever construction happens must be done military fashion,
speedily in the night or early morning. Every tree planted
brings a government officer with a camera and court dates.
A five-year Supreme Court case settled nothing, except for
a temporary loss of his herd, sold to pay the legal fees.
There are the Ministry of Agriculture, Land Bureau, Regional
Municipality, Ministry of Interior, and Health Department
to answer to. Some are for him and some are against, making
for an ambiguous mess of bureaucracy.
"We live in an Olam Alumot, a world of measurements;
every happening follows a path towards equilibrium. It's karma,
or whatever you want to call it," Amir says. For Amir
and family it was a miracle or maybe a misunderstanding that
balanced the scales. A year ago he was informed by one of
the government bodies that chemical experiments would be conducted
on his grazing land. He was told trees would be planted with
varying amounts of differing fertilizers and pesticides. Arguments
"I have no clue how it happened but there are 600 olive,
fig, pomegranate, mulberry, carob, and almond trees all around
us, planted organically." Although he owns nothing, the
trees are his to care for; the fruits belong to him.
Dalia and Amnon:
Living life unknown
rewriting the history of this country, the story
of the people living here over time. Words are cheap. Dalia
will not contribute her story to such a collection, unwilling
to wrap her emotions into such a wasted form.
"No moment is static,” she says. “Stress
and joy are always following one another. What is important
is now. How we are living, what we are living with. This is
a popular dream, this sort of lifestyle, but it is a really
Handmade and authentic, solitary in the mountains of northern
Israel, my first impression of the homestead Dalia shares
with her husband Amnon, was Native American or even Mexican.
Such a vibe does not necessarily belong to a place, though.
Who is really the native Israeli? That answer transcends
space. The question, rather, might be who is native to their
humanity? Who is living true to their spirit?
Morning in this place smells of smoked cheese and lavender.
Ducks, goats, chickens and a peacock all contribute to the
morning cacophony. But even in such a mess of vocals, there
is harmony. The goats are milked. Afterwards, with bells on
their necks and in the company of a few Turkish Akbash dogs,
they roam the hills freely returning later in the day for
water and food. Cows and horses begin their morning with stale
gourmet breads, free from the bakery where Amnon and Dalia's
son works. Eggs are collected. The chickens make themselves
comfortable everywhere; they know no boundaries, ridiculing
what might be called “free range” in the US. We
check the straw bales, compost pile, wherever. I find four
and roll them in my hands, two in each palm, like Chinese
medicine balls, forgetting to search for others.
The gardens must be watered. The ground is layers upon layers
of limestone. A trench is carved and the vegetables planted
along the sides, heavy with compost to balance the pH level.
The trenches are watered and filled a few times a week. The
water comes from pipes that used to serve neighboring communities
before reservoirs made them obsolete. When Amnon and Dalia arrived,
they made a contract with the water company and redirected the
piping. By 10 a.m. the water is boiling from the sun. "Maybe
we'll bury the pipes in the ground, once upon a time,"
Amnon tells me, unconvincingly.
"There is this idolatrous
fear of the Other, whether Arab or the wild, an unwillingness
to open up to the elements. It all stems from a western
relationship with the natural, a disease in our heads."
The building process is continuous, even after 12 years.
Every stone is eyed as a puzzle piece. The wine cellar must
be completed. The toilet must be begun. The bathroom was clearly
last on their list of priorities.
Some days, friends and strangers alike arrive as customers.
Rugs and cushions are laid out under the canopy of an enormous
carob tree, whose branches are growing themselves back into
the ground. The fabrics come from Asia, Africa, Europe, wherever,
souvenirs from previous travels. Homemade cheeses and wines
are served. Vegetables from the gardens are harvested and
prepared. After the meal, the guests are slow to leave, peeking
around every corner. They do not come just for the food.
But the pressures of the day never suffocate. Periodically
a gong rings and family and volunteers join for coffee or
watermelon or chocolate. Amnon sits with his knife cutting
the offerings, his long hair barely held by his ponytail,
telling stories and laughing to himself.
He revels in the day, in the cutting of the watermelon, in
the drinking of coffee.
One day I leave some red flesh on my watermelon rind. "Of
course, you must be an American," Amnon tells me. "Such
a rich country that people can leave red on their watermelon
At night, gas lanterns glow in the gardens, a nightly vigil,
the lost sun cautioning away against invading boars. The animals
simply appear at dusk, like waters bubbling from an underground
spring. They have the taste of goat and watermelon in their
gut, occasional prizes that reward their raids. . They pay
no attention to the barking dogs, but flee from the rocks
we chuck as fast as fat bodies can on stubby legs. .
We eat dinner together, Amnon and Dalia and her two children,
me and the other volunteers, by the glow of the lanterns.
There is no electricity. The walls are made of bamboo, grown
as part of the greywater system that recycles waste water
from the home. The dishes, bowls, utensils, serving platters
all come from different parts of the world. I am nowhere and
everywhere at once.
The meal starts with wine, homemade by their son Pnuel. I tell
him how odd it is for a 28-year-old to willingly remain in the
home he grew up in; how in the West we do our best to be gone
by 20. He looks at me, astonished by the comparison. "Israel
is not the West," he corrects me. Aluma, his sister, is
in the same situation. Living at home, she is studying for a
degree in Business Management. She is interested in properly
marketing the olive oil, wine and goat products produced by
After dinner, we talk or listen to the radio, boil some tea
or sit silently. One night is the Israeli soccer championship
game, neighboring Sachnin versus Haifa, an Arab team against
Israeli. Sachnin, the Arab team, wins 4-1 over the locals.
In the distance fireworks and gunshots. Amnon gets up and
makes his way to the dairy. It is time to make cheese. The
man never sleeps.
Rebels with a cause
"The Greens all talk about restoring a natural balance,
implementing a version of nature that ignores the presence
of humanity,” Amnon says. “They come in their
SUVs, take pictures and scream their accusations, tell us
we are destroying the wild. 'Go graze your goats in peace,
just live somewhere else, in a proper community like the rest
of us.' Like it's an abomination to treat your farm like a
lifestyle, not an office."
Amir looks at his goats and puts it in perspective. "The
goats are suited for this thorny and hilly environment. Overgrazing
can devastate the land. Or the goats can be led to different
spaces through the forest, controlling the weeds. Humanity
should play a part in that equation. We are working the land
organically, setting proper and healthy boundaries, putting
a balance together between us and the landscape."
"So many of the Moshav and Kibbutz communities in Israel
are gated," Amnon tells me. "We have put ourselves
into a psychological and physical ghetto. There is this idolatrous
fear of the Other, whether Arab or the wild, an unwillingness
to open up to the elements. It all stems from a western relationship
with the natural, a disease in our heads."
This isolation from nature keeps such ideas in the general consciousness,
though. Amir phrases it as an opportunity for tikkun,
fixing. People come here from surrounding communities, enchanted.
Not just to buy the cheeses and olive oil but to breathe in
dreams that may have never materialized for them. The children
play with goats; the adults stroll in curious amazement. There
is a steady stream of willing volunteers approaching both Amir
and Amnon, usually 20-somethings eager to try out the lifestyle.
"They come in their SUVs,
take pictures and scream their accusations, tell us
we are destroying the wild. 'Go graze your goats in
peace, just live somewhere else, in a proper community
like the rest of us.' "
Amir's goat pen is also run as a cooperative, where members
can have their own goats and milk them, have a share in the
profits even if they don’t have the land.
The country seems developed; the idealism, the burning intensity
that created the country, seems to have past. The surface
level does not reveal the empty pockets though. "There
is so much work that still needs to be done, specific to this
moment in time,” Amir says of his country. “Those
that are aware, looking for an alternative, do not feel a
calling to the Kibbutz anymore. What they feel is a powerful
drive to connect with places like this."
Amnon tells me a story.
This Sultan, he lost his ring, a ring which held much power.
Desperate, he declares to his people that whoever finds
and returns this ring will be rewarded with all the wishes
he or she may desire. The message spreads. This poor peasant,
his name is Nasser Hadin, he is walking with his eyes to
the ground and catches a glimpse of sunlight, reflected
off the ring. He travels to the Sultan and is invited in
‘Give me the ring and I will give you your wishes,’
the Sultan says, regally lounging in his silk cushions.
Nasser is slow to hand over the precious item, though. He
looks at the advisors, sitting all around the Sultan. ‘Will
you testify to this agreement?’ he asks of them. ‘Yes,’
they all respond. Nasser turns to the soldiers and asks
the same. He turns to the maids, to the dancers, to the
groupies, to whoever is around. Feeling secure, he turns
again to the Sultan. ‘Here is your ring. All I ask
is that you forget my existence."
There is an enormous degree of arrogance and humility, living
the way these families live, with leases and agreements without
ownership papers. Agricultural land in Israel is extremely
cheap, sometimes the equivalent of less than $250 per acre
per year, and there is plenty of it available. Yet Amnon and
Dalia, Amir and Yael persist in creating a lifestyle on their
own terms. But it is humility which is fueling them, not arrogance,
a desire to be left alone and live sustainably in a way none
of their neighbors were interested in.
"Every time I get called for a meeting, the argument
against me is that I am asking for so much," Amir tells
me. "But I am asking for nothing, only to remain on a
piece of land I am trying to live with. I am not trying to
own the land. If anything, the land owns us. All I want is