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.
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.
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 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."
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."
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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."