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
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
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
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.