The hills are alive

Andrew Friedman meets the new-age farmers of Givot Olam.

July 10, 2012 15:57
The hills are alive

The hills are alive. (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/ Flash 90)


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Givot Olam looks and feels like a slice of the American Wild West, Israeli-style.

Walking around the rocky hills of the West Bank, you could easily mistake the landscape and barren hilltops all around for rural Montana.

Located about six kilometers past the fence of the Itamar settlement southwest of Nablus, the crunch of the dry, rocky soil is the only sound audible.

The hilltop settlement is the site of one of Israel’s largest organic farms, and from any perspective the ranch is impressive. Five hundred sheep and a thousand goats graze the green hills, and hundreds of free-range chickens wander around a large enclosure, with open access to a heated, covered hen house to lay their eggs. Fifty employees manage an operation that includes an industrial-sized flour mill, a feed plant to create organic food for the animals, and state-of-the-art automated equipment that milks the goats for the cheese, yogurt and other dairy products that are produced on the spot and shipped daily around the country.

The picturesque scenery and pastoral atmosphere makes it easy to forget that Givot Olam (“Hills of the World”) is an unauthorized settlement outpost located in one of the country’s hottest flash points.

In many ways, the rough terrain is a metaphor for the residents who built the site and who maintain the business here.

Settling here has been far from easy – the hilltop was barren before Avri Ran, founder of the Hilltop Youth movement, set up shop here in 1998. Ran was responding to a meeting between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Bill Clinton to negotiate further Israeli withdrawals from what the Israelis who live here call Judea and Samaria.

Today, the site is thriving, but by any standard life on the ranch is extremely basic. It is a 40-minute drive to the nearest supermarket and an hour from here to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, checkpoint traffic jams permitting. Elementary school children study in Ma’aleh Levona, 20 minutes away, and teenagers are scattered at yeshiva high schools and girls’ seminaries around the country. All the men serve on security patrols, as do many of the women.

It’s a tough reality for city types to digest, but locals say they chose Givot Olam exactly for the contrast to urban life: quiet, outdoors, hands-on work – and most of all, living in the heartland of the Land of Israel.

“This is a remarkable place to live in and to bring up kids,” says Ran’s daughter Sarah Ben-Yitzhak, a no-nonsense, 26-year-old mother of three. “We have a real community here, a sense that we are all working together for a goal that is greater than any of us – building the land of Israel and creating organic produce for so many people.”

All related

Like Ben-Yitzhak, all the permanent staff here are related to the Ran family. Most were involved with building the ranch structures and developing the family business. In contrast, the quiet, rustic nature of the farm – as well as the work with animals – is particularly suitable for young people seeking seasonal employment as well as individuals needing “time out” from the bustle of city life or from personal crises.

For these hired hands, the stories are as varied as the personalities. Tzippora Laguna, 43, was born in Chile, grew up in Spain, lived in Sweden after getting married and made aliya after getting divorced a year and a half ago. Another worker, Tzvi Aryeh Scheinerman, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Monsey, New York, but has lived in Israel since making aliya alone 10 years ago at the age of 15. Everyone who works on the farm is religious.

Though their stories differ, some threads do run through the entire community. Both Laguna and Scheinerman say they find solace in their interactions with the animals.

Both also say the quiet and solitude of Givot Olam is a good place for “searchers” to find themselves and for religious types to commune with the Bible and with God.

“I’m a registered nurse, but working as a shepherd is probably the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done,” says Laguna, short and healthy-looking as a result of her physical work on the farm. “My first job, back in 1987, was working with the cows at Kibbutz Zikim in Gaza, and I loved it. Now, I tend the goats from 7 to 10 a.m., then I come into the kitchen to cook lunch. I’ve got lots of time for myself, and every goat has its own personality. They never talk back to you,” she laughs. “The whole experience has given me a lot of confidence and allowed me to get back in touch with my inner self, with the person I really am deep down.”

That dedication to self-growth and to community has paid off and turned Givot Olam into the country’s largest organic farm. It has also gained strong traction in Israel’s health-conscious circles. Eightyfive percent of the country’s organic eggs come from here, as does a large percentage of the organic cheese and milk. Tnuva, the country’s largest food products conglomerate is a major customer, as are health food stores like Nitzat Haduvdevan.

Looking east from Givot Olam, the view could hardly be more idyllic. On a clear day, the mountains of Jordan are visible, and there is nary a person or building in sight. A nearby hilltop is known as Three Seas Hill, so named because on a clear day one can see the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea.

The view

Turn around from the same east-facing vantage point, however, and the view leads to the settlement of Itamar, as well as to the Arab villages of Yanoun and Awarta in the wadi below. Further in the distance is the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha, high atop Mount Gerizim, and Mount Eval, and the outskirts of Nablus, the largest Arab city in the northern West Bank.

Despite the wonderful views, the drive north from Jerusalem along Route 60 does away with any question that some people consider this enemy territory.

The area is dotted with painful reminders of the price in blood that the conflict has extracted. Memorials to victims of Palestinian attacks on Israelis dot the landscape. Closest to home is the village of Itamar, clearly visible from Givot Olam, where 26 community members have fallen victim to Palestinian terror attacks over the years, most recently the five members of the Fogel family who were slaughtered in their sleep in March 2011.

Avri Ran is himself a controversial figure.

Ironically, while health food stores stock up on Givot Olam products, local Arabs and left-wing Israeli activists say Ran and his supporters have done much to spur the hatred and fear that is a standard part of life in these parts.

Ran, a tough pioneer type with leathery deep distrust of journalists, proudly says that the community takes care of its own security needs and has never relied on the army – a fact that some people say has left the lives of neighboring Arabs a living hell.

“We came here to contribute to the country, not to be a drain on resources” is his dry response.

“It is no exaggeration to say the residents of Yanoun are living under a constant threat of terror attacks from settlers in Givot Olam, Itamar and other communities in the area,” says David Nir, a high-tech entrepreneur and activist in the Ta’ayush Arab-Jewish Partnership organization.

“Avri Ran’s been accused of killing Palestinians, and I’ve personally experienced what can happen to an unwanted type who approaches what he believes is his land. It’s true that he’s been acquitted of all the charges against him, but the army investigations and subsequent trials against him have been a joke.”

Nir says he suffered a head injury and permanent damage to his nose after Ran smashed a rifle butt into his face.

Dror Etkes, a former director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch program, says Ran serves as a guru to other settlers, especially young people. The view of Givot Olam, he suggests, looks radically different from just a few hundred meters down the hill.

“Settler violence has forced residents to flee Yanoun more than once,” Etkes tells The Jerusalem Report. “Even today, Palestinians there cannot walk 50 meters from their homes or they risk being attacked. Of course, it goes without saying that the lands in question are stolen lands – Israel may have turned them into ‘state lands,’ but photographic evidence shows that local residents cultivated and worked the land for many hundreds of years until communities like Itamar started springing up.”

Residents of Givot Olam refuse to address the charges leveled by Nir and Etkes. But David Ha’Ivri, executive director of the Shomron Liaison Office, says the proof is in the pudding when it comes to “wild accusations” against the settlers.

“The Arabs and leftists have tried for years to ‘get’ Avri on trumped-up charges, but they’ve always failed,” Ha’Ivri tells The Report. “Furthermore, many of these groups have called for boycotts of ‘settlement’ products, but here, too, no one is buying it. Look around – Givot Olam supplies natural, organic products to all major chains and health food stores in Israel. That’s the uncomplicated, unadulterated truth: The Land of Israel is producing top-quality produce, and nobody is buying their radical agenda or attempts to smear ‘settlement’ leaders.

“Make no mistake about it – we are winning this battle, and we have no one to apologize to for that.”

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