Milk, honey and jobs

With the future of Israeli agriculture in doubt, a consciously Zionist decision must be made to realize the Biblical ideal of a “land of milk and honey.”

November 23, 2010 01:04
3 minute read.
farm biz 88 224

farm biz 88 224. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, milk, poultry, meat and eggs might be in short supply towards the end of the week as the ramifications of a farmers’ strike are felt at the grocery store. Farmers are protesting a shortfall of 4,000 Thai workers, claiming the government backtracked on an agreement to allow up to 26,000 Thai workers to enter Israel. The Treasury has countered that it honored the agreement but that farmers failed to utilize the full quota of available workers.

Regardless of which side is right, the present crisis underscores Israeli agriculture’s precarious economic position. Water specialists have argued for the gradual phasing- out of Israeli agriculture as the best way to solve the region’s water shortage, a particularly relevant argument considering the drought now gripping the nation. Environmentalists, meanwhile, have attacked farmers and cattle growers for contaminating water sources with pesticides and excrement and perpetrating other anti-environment activities.

The farmers’ demand to increase the number of foreign workers has also been rejected by various critics. Economists and social activists reject the farmers’ claim that Israelis are too spoiled to work in agriculture and argue that importing Thai workers increases domestic unemployment and puts an additional burden on an already strained welfare system. Others are concerned about the negative societal effects of a growing foreign worker population in a country struggling to maintain a strong Jewish majority.

After a century of aggressive Zionist agricultural activity, including during the pre-state period, has the time come to give up on the dream of “making the desert bloom?” Should Israel, an arid country whose main resource is brainpower, focus on hi-tech and on fostering its business acumen and innovative abilities?

THE JEWISH agricultural achievements of the early 20th century are nothing short of astounding. With practically no training, a cadre of Zionist intellectuals passionately imbued with a combination of romanticism, socialism and deep-seated religious sentiments for the Land of Israel, set out to rebuild their homeland, making the working of the Land of Israel central to a personal and national redemption process.

Even after the establishment of the State of Israel, agriculture was an integral part of the Zionist ethos, with kibbutzim and moshavim serving as the avant garde of the fledgling state.

In subsequent years, the supremacy of agriculture as a Zionist value has gradually declined. Nevertheless, remnants of the old pathos remain. Hebrew University economists Aliza Fleischer and Yaakov Tsur found that Israelis are overwhelmingly willing to pay to take trips to parts of Israel, such as the Jezreel and Hula Valleys, where huge crop fields form beautiful countryside vistas. The two concluded that the beleaguered farming industry is producing a landscape worth millions of shekels for public enjoyment without receiving returns on its investment.

Israel is also at the cutting edge of agricultural technology innovations. Drip irrigation and the development of salt- and drought-resistant strains of fruits and vegetables have helped tame desertification and reduce or even eliminate famine in drylands locally and potentially throughout the world. And government-funded efforts are under way to find new ways of producing usable water through desalination or improved wastewater treatments.

By abandoning agriculture, Israel would send a negative message to arid countries struggling with water scarcity who look to the Jewish state for guidance.

STILL, ISRAELI farmers must gradually wean themselves off their dependence on foreign workers. Aside from the social problems it creates, bringing foreign workers to Israel also exacerbates local unemployment. Asma Agbarieh of Maan Workers Advice Center said that her organization was in contact with at least 1,000 Arab women who were “begging” to replace Thai workers.

Farmers prefer employing Thais. They live where they work and come without families, freeing them to work longer hours. Though it is illegal and enforcement has been beefed up, farmers might be tempted not to pay Thai workers the NIS 20.70-per-hour minimum wage or overtime, not to mention welfare and medical benefits.

But the government should ignore farmers’ demands for more Thai workers and stick to its original decision, from last year, calling to gradually reduce foreign workers while in parallel offering subsidies to introduce labor-saving technologies. The government should also subsidize Israeli labor for farmers and offer Israelis special economic incentives to work in agriculture. Perhaps young Israelis should be enlisted for shorts stints of picking and harvesting in the name of Zionist solidarity.

With the future of Israeli agriculture in doubt, a consciously Zionist decision must be made to realize the Biblical ideal of a “land of milk and honey.” Preferring local labor to foreigners should be a centerpiece of that ideal.

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