Vine and fig tree: Restoring agriculture in the Holy Land
Lessons learned, challenges remaining

To care for Israel is to care for the land of Israel, Yigal concludes—its soil, its potential to sustain life and in turn its power to become a peaceable home for all its inhabitants

By Yigal Deutscher
July 14, 2005

My vision in Israel

I collected my dream fragments and put together some words that I want to share with you... this vision is the result of my months traveling in Israel while working for New Farm. I need your help in manifesting this. Please read it and pass it on, this is my call to the world and I guess it would be a great place to start with you all. Enjoy. - Yigal

If the spirit wills it, I am flying to Israel this October for the holidays and the fall planting season. I will arrive with a spade and a pitchfork, perhaps a u-bar if the plane allows it, ready to contribute my energies to the land and people of Israel/Palestine. This is my dream, my vision. I share it all with you in hopes that it might find some interest… that it might be met with feedback, advice, support or constructive criticism, further ideas or much needed contacts. That it might find its way into hands that are willing to dirty up with Israel’s sacred soil…not just for fun and games but for the long term, to initiate change and harvest the sparks of holiness within the land, to give of energy in the hopes that people might start treating Israel as a true home, one that is loved and cared for.

Community Food Security
I am looking for land in Israel where I can join with Jewish and Arab farmers and collectively grow organic vegetables, fruits and herbs. I would like to use the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, creating a community tied together by a shared sense of stewardship and responsibility toward a particular piece of land. This land will be a vessel, receiving energy and devotion, sweat and labor, and putting forth a shared harvest. I would like to gather a community base that is supportive of nutritious eating, healthy living, land stewardship and a peaceful coexistence between all people living in Israel.

The farmers and farm members will collectively begin to create a sacred sense of place in Israel. Upon entering into a relationship with the land, we will be able to develop the land as a home for all interested in this living model. The farm will also be a space for sharing wisdom. Each member of Israel has his or her own relationship to the land, some of which are fresh, some which have been handed down from generation to generation. Rather than force an objective model of food production onto the face of Israel’s landscape, this wisdom understands and communicates with Israel’s climates and needs. The plants chosen, as well as how they are planted, will reflect this.
The community will gather on occasions such as volunteer days, harvest days and holidays, for potluck dinners. We will gather simply to gather, to share in a space that is designated as a healthy and respectful living environment.

Ecological Restoration
We will not farm for food’s sake alone. The food will be the ends, perhaps the goal, but the process itself in creating food is just as valuable. I hope this farm will reintroduce some of the lost wisdom of the Bustan agricultural design system. Although translated as “orchard” in modern Hebrew and Arabic, the simple translation does not capture the actual creativity of this design. Bustan can also be referred to as a mixed orchard, a Middle-Eastern permaculture, a space where fruit trees, vines, vegetables and animals share space, not as separate parts but as a collective entity, each promoting and contributing to the health and vigor of the whole space.

A modern orchard in Israel may consist of acres of a single tree, predominantly olive or citrus. In the fading Bustan style, you would find some olive, fig, pomegranate, carob and almond. Between these trees would be wheat and barley, as well as grape vines and vegetable garden beds. In designated areas, goats and sheep. And, of course, dancing between it all is the farmer. I hope to continue to develop this ancient Israeli/Palestinian agriculture rather than continue with the modern technological systems that have been put in place over the last few years. Instead of depending on machines and chemicals, I will depend on healthy relationships- between farmers, between farmer and consumer, between plant and tree, animal and plant, soil and plant and between the elements and weather patterns.

This Bustan will be growing fruit trees specifically adapted and/or native to an arid, hot climate. It will be supportive of similarly native or adapted vegetables and medicinal herbs along with trees. It will support animal life, from beneficial insects to grazing goats, all in a healthy balance. Along with other interested farmers in the country, I hope to contribute to a seed bank suited specifically to the climate of Israel, including vegetable, grain, and medicinal herb seeds. These are to be shared with the public and traded between farmers.

In an arid climate, water must be conserved. Grey water systems will be created, as well as composting toilets, rainwater harvesting and swale building. Natural building based on an arid, dry climate will also be practiced- using the rocks and soil of the land as building materials rather than mixing cement or importing wood. As the plants collect solar energy to spark their growth processes, we will harvest solar power to heat our homes and water. This is essentially what permaculture means- permanent agriculture. This Bustan will incorporate principles based on permanent living.

The plant relationships this farm establishes will also respect biblical laws. This is our meditation- that food is not the product of the farmer and seed and soil and sun alone but of the spirit above all else. I believe these laws are an ancient wisdom accessible to us, one that enables us to communicate with the land and understand her in an intimate way.

We will educate the public about the creative power within their own bodies and hands. We will teach them gardening techniques and permaculture principles. We will introduce them to organic food production. We will give them the tools and language for self-empowerment and self-sufficiency. We will educate them on simple living choices that will help revitalize the health of the land. We will introduce them to the plants native to their environment and share with them their medicinal powers. The community that is created amongst farmers and CSA members will grow based on sharing skills and interests, in an environment where the role of teacher and student is interchangeable, where each member is encouraged to share what secrets the land has whispered to them.

There will be a seasonal apprenticeship where participants will learn, work, and live on the farm. They will share responsibilities and learn to depend on each other in order to finish projects and reach their goals. They will be able to form a personal relationship with the land, independent of politics. They will be taught land ethics and organic food production so they will be able to continue farming after leaving the program, either in personal or large-scale projects.

Social Justice
We will not discriminate or hate or fear any peoples living in Israel. We will respect everyone’s claim to the land as long as it is a claim based on peace for others and respect for the land. We hope to promote an equal, peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews by inviting each onto the farm as farmer, CSA member or apprentice.

We will use food as a medium for promoting social justice and charity works. Extra food will be donated to schools in poorer communities, as well as to groups that might better be able to distribute it…A percentage of the available CSA member spots will be designated for low-income families…Nutrition and herbal healing classes will be offered to communities without access to healthy foods and medicines. We will start a collective with other small-scale organic farmers in the region, sharing and bartering resources, skills, seeds and tools. We will make room for all of our services in the greater marketplace. Together, we will establish an organic farmer’s market where, once a week, each farm will sell their food and share their passion with the public.

We will humbly give of our energies to heal the land, and in the process, hope to heal the wounds shared by the people living with her. We understand that, as farmers, we do not own the land. We are simply caretakers, making her blessings and abundance available to everyone interested.


Here is a tale I heard concerning Shimon Bar Yochai, a Talmudic sage famous for authoring the Zohar HaKodesh, a seminal text in Jewish mysticism.

During the time of Roman conquest in Israel, Rabbi Shimon was sentenced to death for ridiculing the achievements of the Empire as hedonistic imperialism. In the company of his son, the Rabbi fled to the northern countryside where he found safety in a cave. A clear, freshwater spring miraculously bubbled forth from the depths of the earth. A carob tree appeared and immediately reached maturity, bearing an abundant crop.

With shelter, food, and water all at hand, Rabbi Shimon and his son embraced seclusion by meditating on the secrets of the Torah. Without physical distractions, they transcended the realm of desire and emotion, stripping the layers of the Self to return their souls to the eternal.

Time passed in this manner until memory of Rabbi Shimon and the decree against him faded. After 13 years in hiding, the men emerged from the cave with an intimate connection to the divine. They had become disgusted with the temporal universe, an obstruction to purity and eternity.

So passionate was this belief that, upon seeing men and women engaged in the labor intensive, mundane activities of plowing and sowing a field, their rage was crystallized as a consuming fire, burning everything in their view.

The voice of God was then heard all round, in rage, emanating from all the elements. "Is this why you have left your hiding place, to destroy creation?"

Rabbi Shimon and his son were ordered to return to their cave for another year of solitude. When this time had passed, the men once again emerged, humbled. It was Friday afternoon, nearing the eve of the Sabbath, and the first person they saw was an elderly man harvesting bundles of the aromatic myrtle branch.

"Why are you working in this manner?" Rabbi Shimon asked of the man.

The man lifted the handfuls of myrtle to the Rabbi's face and told him to inhale. "The smell of the myrtle is the fragrance of the Garden of Eden. Such a beautiful aroma will be an honor for the Sabbath," he answered.

Rabbi Shimon and his son were filled with joy at the man's response.

They now understood that the six days of labor were not a barrier to the seventh day of holiness but a portal to it, that the splendor of divinity could only be appreciated through the supposedly profane labor of the hands.

Through the physical to the spiritual

This story unfolds in my dreams. It plays out continuously as it pulses through my body. Rabbi Shimon is dead, so is the man with the myrtles on his back. But the story has a life of its own, independent of any specific character.

The men and women I have met in the past few months live the lesson of this tale. They awake with the day to lend their hands to the labors and challenges of the field. The goal is not simply to satisfy their stomachs or fill their pockets. They bring with them the right intention, the right contemplation, to elevate the physical to the ethereal.

"As the country grew, the idea of Zion was secularized, stripped bare of her mystical connotations and covered in the wastes of war and irresponsible development. But in focusing on the military situation, what has become of food security, water security, soil security?."
They are the scattered lights of Zion, upholding the potential of this place until their neighbors come to ask for a piece of the burden, until the responsibility is again seen as a divine gift. Leading by example, they wait for a shift in collective consciousness, for the people of Israel to once again become aware of the land they stand on.

The patchwork of distinct moments over these last few months has become inseparable to me, has merged into one long, continuous Now. It has all been so tangible, as easy to grasp as a handful of earth. But every element flows into the next. It must be the land I am standing on. I wish I had a way of truly conveying what my senses have felt while breathing in her air, tapping into her transcendental dimensions of time. The energy here is raw, electric; it has gripped me by the neck since I've arrived.

On previous journeys, Southeast Asia led me gently into her idyllic islands and lush countryside; Alaska and the American West awed me with all-encompassing, audacious peaks. You do not travel through Israel, though, carelessly strolling up a mountainside to catch a cozy glimpse of the red sun descending. Rather, it is Israel that travels through you.

Currently, the country is being frantically forced—like many others—into a modern, Western mold. And the results are comical. The plaster skin of modernity needs to be spread every moment, dripping off as quickly as it is applied. It seems like the country is humoring those eager inhabitants, allowing them to dress her up before she strips herself bare and walks out on them, naked and free. External alternations do not touch the eternal truth stitched into the elements of her being.

This land has been designated as Zion, the ultimate Home. Home, to me, means refuge, a sacred space for rest and creativity, for gathering of community, for prayer and conversation. At one point, there was an entire tribe of people, hundreds of thousands of them, wandering, driven only by the desire to create a home in this land, to return to the roots of their forefathers. When they finally arrived, it was the earth that welcomed them, giving unconditionally to those who so longed for her. In engaging the land, creating a relationship based on awe and respect, they were finally able to build a home, to find their resting place.

One day, while I was in between farm visits, I was attempting to bend and flex my way through Jerusalem's swarming central market. Stopping to fill a bag with dried fruits, nuts and seeds, I turned to the woman next to me, someone I recognized as the wife of one of the neighborhood’s many Rabbis. Frustrated by the huge gaps in ecological consciousness I've encountered here, I asked her what Zion meant to her.

And she told me such beautiful, meaningful words. "Zion is a Hebrew word composed of the roots of two different words-- Tzedek, righteousness, and Yavan, Greece, a word synonymous with physical beauty. Zion will only be manifested in full potential by the merging of supposed opposites, when people realize that physical labors and celebrations must be uplifted to the realms of the spiritual and the exalted. Until then, Zion is just a word, a shell."

Rabbi Shimon's story all over again, broken down.

Listening to the land

Who am I to make judgments? In this country, everyone, journalist or not, seems to have an opinion, and will share it with anyone willing to listen. While writing this series, I have struggled with this opportunity to join the masses, to point my finger at one thing or another and arrogantly place blame through a veil of assumptions.

So I guess this is my failure, this judgment.

My question is, where was Zion in Zionism? This movement, essentially responsible for the creation of the country, was driven by such passionate, burning intentions. But from the current state of affairs, less than 60 years after Israel's establishment, it seems as if the land was nothing more than a means toward various ends, used as the foundation for a national movement with specific economic, social and political motives. The hills and valleys, canyons and streams, the enormous desert—it was all grouped as property, a base to be mapped out for a drastic facelift.

As the country grew, the idea of Zion was secularized, stripped bare of her mystical connotations, and covered in the wastes of war and irresponsible development. Now, the general consensus seems to be that the future of Israel rests on her military security. But in the process of focusing so directly on the military situation, what has and will continue to become of food security, water security, soil security?

This is the concern that originally drove me to the country. I sought an answer from her inhabitants, but it was the land herself that responded. There is a silent whisper here, this thin sound, the true spirit of the land. You break the surface of the soil and are enveloped in it, an overwhelming sense of timelessness and purity.

The farmers I have been blessed to visit share this sensitivity. They hear the language of the earth refusing to be drowned out by the overwhelmingly negative, hopeless repercussions of a raging war. They have internalized Zion, adopting the land as a sanctuary. With many different voices, they speak the same truth: "This land is a part of our being. Why exert so much energy in trying to conquer something that is already inside us, a part of our life-force? There must be no separation from body to earth as there is no separation between heart and soul. When the land is seen as an external part, an asset of belongings, property holding, we are still in Babylon. And no securing of borders will fix this."

The farms these men and women have created became my refuge. Leaving each place, I found myself giddy, unable to contain myself. In their efforts to restore Zion, these farmers have connected spiritual truths with land stewardship and moral ethics. They have created a true grassroots movement, fueled by hopeful energy, independent of political parties and promises. In this approach, the land becomes an opportunity for communication, not a tool to be used for war. It becomes a gathering space for conflict resolution and consciousness sharing. It is a medium for healing the ever-increasing gap between Arab and Jew, between religious and secular, rather than a cause for further dissension.

One country's—and many peoples'—potential

Piecing together everything I have seen, it is clear that the potential has hardly been tapped. Within the general Mediterranean climate is desert, valley, mountain and coastal plain. The country climbs over 8,000 feet from its lowest to its highest point. In some places the land is painfully arid; in others, it is plentiful with water. When the south is burning hot, the north is mild. When the north is wet and gray, the south is mild. With these conditions, the diversity of crops that can be grown for seed or consumption is enormous.

"These farmers have created a true grassroots movement, fueled by hopeful energy and independent of political parties and promises. In this approach, the land becomes an opportunity for communication, not a tool to be used for war."
What makes this so astounding is that the overall size of the country is tiny, about the size of New Jersey. Much of this space is being cultivated in one way or another. If a push were made by Israelis to grow for Israelis, urging local production for local consumption, there would be a chance for community markets to fulfill most of the needs of consumers. Besides creating relationships between farmers and buyers, it would also allow farmer-to-farmer communication to blossom, exchanging knowledge, materials, and labor. Within the country are two separate peoples, each with their own distinct lifestyle. Arabs and Jews alike have rich agricultural pasts with much to learn and share from one another.

The shift will not be easy. There is always the possibility of drought, the weather during seasonal changes is unpredictable and harsh, and, in many places, the soil has been overgrazed and depleted of nutrients. These challenges pale in comparison to the dangers of ongoing war. But, as with any farming experiment, enough love and labor can turn the land into a generous source of life.

My body screams to participate in the revolution. In pastoral dreamscapes, I see myself somehow remaining here, leading a flock of goats through the hills, harvesting wild fruits and herbs, intimately connected to the landscape’s past and present. Right now that’s not happening. I’m on my way to California, where I’ll join the UC Santa Cruz agroecology apprenticeship program.

Hopefully, when I return to Israel it won’t be simply to farm. It will be to join a corps of humble warriors who are re-patching the dignity of the land, restoring its splendor as a life-giving force. As much as I have already seen, I have hardly even begun to push the gates open. There are so many stories I wish I had heard, so many farms I wish I could have seen. Part fear, part language barrier kept me from some of the most interesting places, especially in the Arab sector. The places and stories I missed will have to wait.

When I return, I do not wish to travel and see things as an outsider.

I want to find my home.

"They now understood that the six days of labor were not a barrier to the seventh day of holiness but a portal to it, that the splendor of divinity could only be appreciated through the supposedly profane labor of the hands. ."
My prayer is that our eyes will open, like the eyes of the farmers I visited, so we might glimpse a world of continuous creation, everything dripping with grace and glory. And we might begin to live differently, tapping into our potential spirit, becoming a blessing to ourselves and the earth around us. And the blanket of politics might be removed from the land so the sun and rain can penetrate, bringing forth an abundance of life and growth.

As we say in the morning prayers, directed inwards and out, to ourselves and the Creator:

"Or chadash al Zion tazkir, V’niyzkeh kulanu biymhayra leoro.

"Shine a new light upon Zion, and may we all soon be privileged to enjoy its brightness."

Yigal Deutscher is a freelance writer. He is also a Permaculture activist and a religious Jew exploring time and space for connections between the earth and Jewish spirituality.
Readers may contact him at


Where we've been:

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.

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.

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.

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.