HaShomer HaChadash: Guarding Israel's farms, ensuring food security

HaShomer HaChadash is helping to reconnect the next generation with the land, as well as ensure the future of food security, not just in Israel but across the region.

 WORKING THE field up North: (L to R) Ori, Amit, Itamar and the writer. (photo credit: Troy Fritzhand)
WORKING THE field up North: (L to R) Ori, Amit, Itamar and the writer.
(photo credit: Troy Fritzhand)

“Beep! Beep! Beep!” is a familiar sound to wake up to in Jerusalem at around 8 a.m. on most days, though the feeling is quite different in Kerem Ben-Zimra, a moshav near Rosh Pina. This morning’s wake-up call is at 5 a.m., and instead of a day in the city, today I will be working alongside the future leaders of the state, the young motivated men and women rising to tend and protect the Land of Israel.

HaShomer HaChadash, founded in 2008 by Yoel Zilberman, is helping to reconnect the next generation with the land, as well as ensure the future of food security, not just in Israel but across the region.

Zilberman established the organization after seeing the problems his father encountered on his farm from Bedouin who sought to profit from his success. Having gone to the police, Yoel’s father was told to bribe the gangs. Accordingly, he felt that continuing the work that his father before him had started was no longer worth it.

However, the young Zilberman was not having it. He grew up a rancher, was strongly connected to the land, and was not going to let nefarious groups destroy his family’s heritage. Having completed his service in the Shayetet 13 elite commando unit, he returned to his father’s house, set up a tent and pitched a flag above the farm. It was a sign to anyone looking for trouble that this farm was not to be messed with.

Protecting Israel's farms

Fast forward to today: HaShomer HaChadash is Israel’s largest volunteer organization. It has grown to include over 120,000 volunteers protecting 50,000 dunams (12,000 acres) of farmland across the country. Most importantly, it is working. Crime has decreased by more than 70% in areas where the volunteers stand guard.

 RAIDERS BURNED Shlomo’s farm, including expensive equipment, totaling around NIS 500K in damage. (credit: Troy Fritzhand) RAIDERS BURNED Shlomo’s farm, including expensive equipment, totaling around NIS 500K in damage. (credit: Troy Fritzhand)

However, during the process, Zilberman realized that there was an even bigger problem: The average age of a farmer is over 60, and the next generation has no interest in farming. In fact, most farmers tell their children to avoid the agriculture business.

This disconnect from the land led the organization to start new initiatives targeting children and teens. Zilberman calls it “a new Zionist movement to field the land, love the land, and make it a part of their identity.”

TO ACCOMPLISH this, several initiatives were set up.

The first is a gap year program for young Israelis who live and work together between high school and the army, where the Magazine spent a day. The program comprises farming and studying a wide range of Jewish, Zionist and secular books. This instills in them values of camaraderie and the importance of the land for the future of the Jewish people.

A few of them provided insights into why they are volunteering and what they have gained from it. Ori Eliraz, 16, from Efrat, spoke about how “crazy” it is to work the land every day. “You recognize the value of the land… Growing up, I didn’t know about any of this,” he said. Amit Levi, 17, from Kochav Michael, was a leader in three of the youth movements and “loves the work.” To him, “guarding the land, cultivating it,” is something special. Itamar Berman, 17, from Sde Yitzhak, said he has learned the importance of teamwork, “a strong team is a team that talks.”

Additionally, four schools were set up, with three more on the way, to educate more than 25,000 children about these values. As a result, many regularly volunteer to assist farms with activities such as plowing and harvesting. At these schools, where reading and education are the main priority, children also learn about topics such as shmita (the sabbatical year). Children from all sectors of society – religious, haredi, secular, Arab, Bedouin – come together to appreciate the land.

THE ORGANIZATION was founded and still operates heavily in shmirot – guarding farms in the North and South. The problem of nefarious invaders who either burn down farms or steal cattle is huge. To combat this, Gil Maclin, who works in foreign relations, said they have two sections: individual guards on foot and convoys of jeeps, motorcycles and drones. Together, they have been extremely efficient, with no physical altercations between thieves and volunteers.

The business of theft is lucrative, Maclin said, and extremely sophisticated. There are two ways to cash out – either by stealing cows or sheep, which range from NIS 2,000 to NIS 5,000 each; or in protection money. The protection racket involves racketeers setting a farm ablaze and then approaching the farm owner a few days later to offer protection from future attacks.

This criminal practice has sucked dozens of farmers into making monthly extortion payments to criminal organizations.

One farm that the Magazine visited was on Moshav Alma. Four days prior to the visit, racketeers razed the farm to the ground. The hay was still burning, with smoke still pillaring up days later. Among the damage was a costly tractor.

Owner Shalom grew up on the farm and inherited it from his parents – 67 years in total. He believes that rather than seeking protection money, the racketeers are trying to tire him out and make him give up on the land. He has no desire to do this, as it is where he grew up and his son is now helping out. Further, Shalom hopes the Knesset will pass a law to protect farmers, as he said it is “terror against farmers.”

The damage to his farm is upward of NIS 500,000, sometimes more. A farm in Meshek Dror, which was recently attacked, sustained damages of about NIS 10m. Yishay Arie, operational manager for the northern region of the organization, explained that farmers must now calculate theft into their business plans, something unheard of in other parts of the world. Because of this, he said, “most farmers tell their kids not to go into agriculture.” A horrible reality for the future of the state.

The damage is not limited to farms. Criminals have burned 18 buses in Safed to push their “protection” business model. Crime is out of control, and criminals have no fear of the police or the state.

 FARMING IS an integral part of Israel’s security. (credit: Troy Fritzhand) FARMING IS an integral part of Israel’s security. (credit: Troy Fritzhand)

Why doesn't Israel Police help protect Israel's farms?

THE OBVIOUS question is: Where are the police? In short, they are woefully understaffed and unable to handle the task of protecting the farms.

Today, Israel has about 31,000 police officers, including those who are not operational. Amichai Bluth, chief operations manager of HaShomer HaChadash, estimates that this needs to be doubled, at the very least. “Farmers are the backbone of this country,” he said, lamenting that due to the attacks facing them, they either have to “pay or give up.” In most cases, “giving up” would entail returning the land to the government, since 93% of farmland in Israel is owned by the government, not private individuals.

Bluth stressed that we must learn to care about the farmers because their problems are our problems. “The state gives the farmers the land to cultivate and protect because the police and the state cannot do so on their own. We do not have another country, we only have this land. There is no hi-tech or anything without the land.”

He explained that the key to securing the land, and its borders, is by cultivating it. Many parts of the South, for example, are practically uninhabited, and as a result there are huge problems. He said that the mission of the organization, first and foremost, is to “safeguard Israel’s land,” through “boots on the ground.”

Bluth outlined the steps he believes can be taken in order to ensure that farmers and the land remain secure. 

First, he said, “we need to develop a national guard of post-reservists who are eager to keep serving.” He estimated this at around 30,000 people. This unit would serve under the Israel Police and be stationed at every farm around the country on a volunteer basis.

Second, by increasing volunteers and educating them on the importance of their work, in his eyes, this will “make the land become a part of their identity.” From this point, he expounded the three core values of HaShomer HaChadash:

  1. Love of the land.
  2. Mutual accountability: shomer achi (my brother’s keeper), from the story of Cain and Abel, has been adopted by the organization – ”You are your brother’s keeper,” is their motto.
  3. Civilian courage: If you see something, don’t just say something or post on social media, take concrete action to get involved in safeguarding Israel’s land.

Finally, Bluth believes that education must be at the center of it all. “We believe action is important, but the root problem is lack of education, so we need to educate them [people] on what is going on… they need to know how important the land is for the future of the Jewish people.”

Responding to the Magazine’s request for comment, an Israel Police spokesperson said combatting agricultural crime is “one of our top priorities” – noting a new force had been established that is working alongside HaShomer HaChadash to rid farms of crime.

Asked how the Israel Police feel about a civilian force at play, the spokesperson said they embraced it and that “we have the same goals… we work together and are not stepping on each others’ toes.” In all, the police said they see a reduction in crime as they continue to work toward helping farmers.

Empowering the next generation of Israeli farmers

THE ORGANIZATION recently started its newest endeavor, Eretz Noshevet, an investment arm that seeks to empower the next generation of farmers and agricultural innovators. Key people in the initiative include Aleph VC general partner Michael Eisenberg, who is chairman of Eretz Noshevet.

Eisenberg came to know HaShomer HaChadash 13 years ago when a friend told him he had to see the work Zilberman was doing. He was immediately captivated by what he saw – Zilberman had pitched a tent with dozens of books inside and a flag posted outside in order to protect his father’s farm. He felt he needed to get involved.

He tells of the formula which he believes necessary to make a strong impact: idealism and capital. For example, Eisenberg spoke of the Zionist project and how idealism – the desire to rebuild the Jewish homeland – was only made possible with the generosity of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, who was eager and willing to finance the resettlement.

For Eisenberg, it was clear that although Zilberman and HaShomer HaChadash were successful in building a deep connection and love of the land, they needed a “Rothschild” to support the organization.

To this end, an investment fund was set up to “bring Rothschild to the farmers,” who are doing incredible work. Fruits and vegetables such as blueberries and wasabi, not native to Israel, are now being grown in large quantities due to their innovation.

The investment fund focuses on three distinct areas:

  1. Entrepreneurs who want to set up “hi-tech farms,” where foods like vanilla, blueberries, and strawberries are grown
  2. Help young farmers by giving them land to work – an important investment in and of itself.
  3. Hi-tech software and hardware to make farming better and more efficient.

AS READING and studying are at the core of the organization, every meeting starts with some sort of learning from a biblical, Talmudic, or Zionist text.

This enhances the understanding that our future rests with the ability to ensure food security. As populations continue to increase and produce become more scarce, it will be the responsibility of farmers to keep people fed. Focusing on this can help to boost Israel’s agricultural industry and to expand its reach in the region.

This is particularly important in the Gulf. HaShomer HaChadash and Eretz Noshevet have created models that are both compatible and sharable with neighbors in the Gulf and Africa. In fact, when the UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment Mariam Almheiri visited Israel, she said her most meaningful meeting was with the organization.

As food security is so important, it can be an engine for peace with those countries that have yet to embrace Israel in the broader region. Looking ahead, Zilberman believes it is necessary for Israel to see itself as the provider for the Middle East, given its expertise and experience.

HaShomer HaChadash’s work, coupled with the values they are teaching kids, is setting the stage for a more prosperous future for everyone in the region. While Eretz Noshevet has yet to make an investment – it is closing on its first soon – it is eager to assist the next generation of farmers, either native Israelis or immigrants, to allow the land to flourish and feed people in the country and region.

THE SILVER lining in this is that there is a surge in interest by native-born Israelis and immigrants who yearn to farm and settle the land. People are lining up to make the Negev bloom; they just need the chance.

One notable example is Maj.-Gen. Moti Almoz, former head of the IDF Spokesperson Unit and the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria. Almoz, like many of his rank who left the army after a long and distinguished career, could have easily transitioned into a high-paying, hi-tech executive role. However, Almoz has returned to his roots, rising with the sun to farm fruits in the North.

The spirit that is shown by all involved in HaShomer HaChadash, from the youth volunteers to its leaders, as well as Almoz and others like him, is ensuring that the Land of Israel will continue to be secure and cultivated for the future. ■