Vine and fig tree: Restoring agriculture in the Holy Land
Rebels in a communal society

With government ownership of land at 95 percent, most everything in Israel is done communally, especially farming. There is the agricultural sector with many different farms and a living sector, with many different homes, but for those who have a need to create a small family farm, self-sufficient and private; they have begun to squat.

By Yigal Deutscher
April 14, 2005



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 Northern Region.

Editor's Note:

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:

Help 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:
Laithi 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 a
co-op/NGO to re-establish organic farming and awareness.

"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."

Elaine 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 the world.

"The well-being of the world depends on agricultural stability and health. No one seems to understand this."

Kibbutz 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.

“[The organic 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."

Moshav 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 disabilities.

"Everything needed 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.

Understanding 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.

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

During morning 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 crawling things.

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 it all."

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 began.

"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

Everyone is 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 hard one."

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. Especially here.

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.

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 rinds."

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 her family.

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.

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 ceremoniously.

‘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 to live."