The humble origins of Israel's amazing 'green thumb'

Christian helped Jews recapture lost art of farming during resettlement of land.

Jewish workers abraham's vineyard 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Kerem Avraham)
Jewish workers abraham's vineyard 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Kerem Avraham)
There is a deep meaning in the words “The earth is the Lord’s,” when applied to that peculiar country; for it is a reserved property, an estate in abeyance, and not even in a subordinate sense can it be the fief of the men whom it eats up (Numbers 13:32). I have seen enough to convince me that astonishing will be the amount of its produce, and the rapidity also, when the obstacles now existing are removed.– James Finn, 1867
Although it is mostly desert, the nation of Israel is known today for its amazing variety of agricultural produce, its cutting-edge irrigation methods and its expertise in genetic seed modifications. From the choicest vine-ripened cherry tomatoes to the juiciest Jaffa oranges, the stories of modern Israeli farming innovations are legendary.
In the Negev, Jewish farmers are now using brackish groundwater to grow sweeter watermelons.
The Volcani Research Institute has helped farmers in Israel and other nations develop new strains of hybrid seeds that produce higher-yield crops with built-in immunities to local diseases and pests.
When British consumers began demanding more strawberries at Christmas time, farmers in the Jordan Valley started placing young plants into refrigeration trucks during the summer months to fool them into sensing it was winter. Then when autumn came, the plants were moved into greenhouses and yielded a beautiful crop of strawberries just in time for the holidays.
Not to be outdone, Jaffa orange growers came up with perhaps the craftiest innovation of all. In the 1980s, the “Jaffa orange” brand had become so popular in Europe that jealous citrus growers in Italy and Spain demanded a strict quota be placed on their import into the European Union. But before long, Israeli farmers had learned to grow a Jaffa orange inside a grapefruit skin and suddenly Jaffa grapefruit were flying off the shelves of European grocers.
Yet Jews were not always known for having such a green thumb. In fact during their many centuries in exile, Jews were often barred from owning large tracts of land. They began to lose the knowledge and ability needed to farm and thereby sustain themselves.
Instead, most Jews were forced into crowded towns and ghettos and gravitated to other professions better suited to such conditions.
Thus when Jews first began to trickle back to their ancient homeland in Israel several hundred years ago, their communities struggled to grow enough to feed themselves, especially given the very arid climate. Many realized that for Jewish resettlement of the Land of Israel to be successful, they needed to recapture the lost art of farming. This they were eventually able to do, but it came about thanks in large part to the helping hands of a number of Christians who ventured to the land even before the rise of the Zionist movement and taught Jews how to farm once more. As noted in historian Michael Oren’s landmark book Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present, this is a little known part of the saga of Christian contributions to Israel’s modern-day restoration.
The lure of the ‘end of days’
The story begins at the outset of the 19th century, when the Holy Land was split into two Ottoman provinces: Damascus and Sidon. Jerusalem was considered a backwater, a neglected small town in the Damascus province that was home to approximately 2,000 Jews, 3,000 Christians and 4,000 Muslims. Though it answered to Damascus, the center of power for the Holy Land was situated in Acre. For this reason, when Napoleon invaded the land in 1799 he ignored Jerusalem and besieged Acre.
Although he was defeated near Mount Tabor, his advance signaled the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire and the invasion of Western ideas and techniques into the Orient.
Included among these ideas were views of the coming kingdom of God known as “Millennialism” (Latin for thousand years), which refers to the return and rule of Jesus Christ on earth for 1,000 years, and “Restorationism,” or the restoration of the Jews to their ancient homeland in the end days.
Both belief systems had been birthed among the Puritans in late 16th century England and gained momentum and adherents over time. Thomas Brightman (1562-1607), known as the father of the British doctrine of the Restoration of the Jews, in his posthumous publication, A Revelation of the Revelation (1609), interpreted the “kings of the east” of Revelation 16:12 as the Jews and the drying up of the Euphrates River as a divine analogy to the Red Sea miracle. That bold interpretation became a widely held tenet of the Restorationists, as it foretold the miraculous return of the Jews to the Holy Land.
However, it was not until 1656 that James Harrington, in his work The Commonwealth of Oceana, linked Restorationism to a territorial settlement plan that involved agricultural development. Although his thesis was ignored, perhaps because he argued for the island of Panopea (a reference to Ireland) as a safe haven for the Jews, a similar idea was reiterated by Samuel Collet 90 years later in A Treatise on the Future Restoration of the Jews and Israelites to Their Own Land. Collet argued that the restoration of the Jews would be a gradual process over a long period of time that would involve agricultural settlements.
Yet under the Ottoman Turks, the local Jewish communities were still locked in dhimmitude, a system which relegated non-Muslim minorities like Christians and Jews to second-class citizenship.
They were legally discriminated against, prevented from attaining high political office and subjected to public mockery and abuse. The Jewish remnant relied primarily upon halukah, charity funds collected in the West and distributed to indigent Jews in the Holy Land, as their main source of income.
Jews purchasing and developing land only became an increasing phenomenon during the 19th century, when notable Jewish philanthropists Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) and Edmond James de Rothschild (1845- 1934) contributed millions of dollars to establish Jewish neighborhoods, towns and agricultural colonies in Palestine, as well as to promote the industry, education, health and economic sectors for the growing Yishuv.
However, the agricultural development of the Holy Land did not begin with the Jews per se, including Montefiore or Rothschild and their colonies, even though they were important in sustaining the existing Jewish communities. It actually began with Christians whose theological convictions prompted them to take decisive actions to help develop the land and assist in the return of the Jews to their homeland.
A land with potential
 The first Christians who came to the Holy Land came not with an agricultural focus, but a spiritual one. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first American Christian foreign mission agency birthed after the famous 1806 Haystack Prayer Meeting on the campus of Williams College, sent Reverends Levi Parsons and Pliny Fisk to the Holy Land in the early 1820s.
Sadly, they both died from diseases soon after arriving in the land.
It was the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (also known as the London Jews’ Society or LJS), founded in 1809, which first established a permanent base in Jerusalem. In 1849, they completed the first Protestant Church in the Middle East, located within the Old City walls of Jerusalem, the still active Christ Church.
The scope of LJS activity was broad, as they established hostels, schools and hospitals to serve the local population.
They also set up workshops and farming projects in order to help the struggling Jewish community.
James and Elizabeth Finn, members of the London Society, arrived in Jerusalem in 1845. As British consul from 1846 to 1864, James Finn traversed the Holy Land by horse and camel many times throughout his tenure. In Byeways in Palestine, he reflected on the unfruitful land.
“Sad cogitations would arise while traversing, hour after hour, the neglected soil, or passing by desolated villages which bear names of immense antiquity, and which stand as memorials of miraculous events which took place for our instruction and for that of all succeeding ages; and then, even while looking forward to a better time to come, the heart would sigh as the expression was uttered, ‘How long?’” Although Finn attests to much of the Holy Land lying in a desolate state during the last half-century of Ottoman rule, he also envisioned the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises that the desert land would “blossom like a rose.”
“The land is one of remarkable fertility wherever cultivated, even in a slight degree – witness the vast wheat-plains of the south; and is one of extreme beauty – witness the green hill country of the north; although such qualities are by no means confined to those districts. Thus it is not necessary, it is not just, that believers in the Bible, in order to hold fast their confidence in its predictions for the future, should rush into the extreme of pronouncing the Holy Land to be cursed in its present capabilities. It is verily and indeed cursed in its government and in its want of population; but still the soil is that of ‘a land which the Lord thy God careth for.’”
Taking root
Although Finn’s primary purpose in Jerusalem was to serve as the British consul, he and his wife were devout Christians and Restorationists who shared a strong desire to help settle Jews back in the land. This they endeavored to do by giving them honest work so they could support their families and become p r o d u c t i v e citizens rather than rely on charity. Toward this end they bought several properties with the intention of establishing them as training farms, or agricultural colonies, to develop the land and to employ the impoverished Jews of the Old City.
The first property was a tract of land in the valley of Urtas (or Artas), located about 5 km. southwest of Bethlehem near Solomon’s Pool, which they purchased in 1850 from John Meshullam.
Meshullam, a Jewish convert to the Anglican communion, had moved to Jerusalem in 1840. He opened a hotel and grew vegetables in Urtas for the hotel guests. He also developed the first innovative irrigation technique from the natural spring and stream located in the Urtas valley.
Elizabeth Finn wrote of Meshullam’s irrigation system in Reminiscences of Mrs.
Finn (1913), saying “Urtas lies between two ranges of hills in a little valley, which was divided up into garden plots, each plot being periodically watered from the rivulet by turning the stream into it for some hours; the watering was literally ‘watering with the foot,’ because a little mound of earth by each garden was pushed aside with the foot to let the water run in; this was done about once every nine days.”
After purchasing farmland in Urtas from Meshullam, the Finns employed a number of Jews there. They trained them in building, blasting and quarrying the rock in addition to working the land. Mrs. Finn boasts of the Jewish workers: “Our Jewish blasters are in great request, building in all its stages having become about the most profitable employment in Jerusalem. Thus we were able to contribute to the rebuilding of the Holy City.”
Other Christians and sectarian groups joined Meshullam and the Finns in Urtas and together made it “of prime importance in introducing advanced methods of cultivation and new strains, such as potatoes and peaches, to the region.”
Swiss missionary Heinrich Baldensperger moved to Urtas in 1849 to farm the land. The Baldensperger sons started apiculture (beekeeping) there as well, and despite losing their father in 1878 they continued to cultivate the land until the 1930s.
Johann Gros Steinbeck, grandfather of the noted American novelist John Steinbeck, and his brother, Friedrich, also settled there.
By 1881, the area of irrigation in Urtas grew to 25 acres and the colony’s orchards were impressive, thriving and prosperous. Today, Urtas is a village of around 4,000 inhabitants and has hosted an annual lettuce festival since 1994.
The Finns developed a second property in Talbiyeh located about 1.5 km. southwest from the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.
Over 50 Sephardi Jews approached Mr.Finn seeking agricultural work, so he employed them in simple jobs, such as rough wall building and stone clearing.
The numbers soon swelled to 75 Jews.
As the number of Jews seeking work from the Finns increased, they raised funds to purchase a third property called Kerem Avraham in Hebrew and Karm al- Khalil in Arabic, meaning “Abraham’s Vineyard.” The plot was located one mile northwest of the Old City of Jerusalem near what is today the densely populated ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim. Mrs. Finn described the land as “the ground on the slope of a hill, not walled in, desolate and covered with weeds.”
They bought the barren piece of property in 1853, and by 1854 employed 200 Jewish men to farm the land, build cisterns and develop the property. The first house built outside the Old City walls was completed on this property in 1855, leading Pinchas Grayevsy to describe it as “the first [house] built outside the walls of Jerusalem by Jews for Jews.”
They also built cisterns for water storage, which provided water to thousands of poor Jews, and a soap factory selling the high quality product to tourists. The farm included a quarry, ancient wine press and a columbarium (place for storing cremated remains).
Around the initial house they planted grain, vegetables, fruit trees and vines that allowed production of oil and wine.
Today, the house continues to stand in what is still Kerem Avraham, a Jewish neighborhood surrounded by Geula, Zichron Moshe and the Bukharan Quarter. One of its former residents is celebrated Israeli writer Amos Oz, who grew up in Kerem Avraham in the 1940s.
The pioneers of modern agricultural settlement in the Holy Land were 19th century Christians, namely British Millenialists and Restorationists, who were firmly committed to God and His promises to the Jewish people to regather them to the land of promise.
Their efforts to purchase properties and set up agricultural colonies to develop the land also aimed to uplift and sustain the distressed and suffering Jewish community, both natives and newcomers.
Toward this end, Finn said, “it seemed advisable to do more than supply daily bread to mendicants, even if that were possible, the best idea that suggested itself was that of providing employment, however light, in field work, both as a means of earning daily food for the family, and as also for the advantage of health, in preparation for future usefulness; above all for promoting a character of independence among the sufferers.”
There were a number of other individuals, such as Warder Cresson, Clorinda S. Minor, George Washington Joshua Adams and James Turner Barclay, who were also drawn to the Holy Land during the mid-to-late 1800s because of their strong eschatological beliefs and likewise sought to set up farming communities while awaiting the end of days. Many were part of fringe sects outside the Christian mainstream, such as the Millerites from the US and the German Templars, whose apocalyptic expectations were dashed with time, leaving their communities to dwindle and their farming efforts to largely fizzle.
But it was devout Christians like Meshullam, the Finns and the Baldenspergers who became unsung heroes as their Christian Zionism drove them to serve the Jewish people and the land to which they were returning. With their help, landless Jews recovered the ability to feed themselves, pioneering the modern saga of Israel’s amazing agricultural wonders.