Taunting Fallow Jews

Mazkeret Batya began with a struggle by its pioneers to observe Jewish agricultural law in the face of opposition by its administrators.

Mazkeret Batya 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Mazkeret Batya 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
When Mazkeret Batya farmer Amihud Arkin made the bold decision to leave his fields fallow during the sabbatical (shmita) year 5768 (2007-2008), he was reviving a long-lost family tradition.
His great-grandfather Zvi Arkin was among the village’s 11 pioneering families whose determination to observe shmita in 1889-1890 – without reliance on a rabbinic loophole – threatened their very lives.
As Sam Finkel’s tour de force describes in great detail and from a range of viewpoints, the early farmers’ near starvation resulted from a calculated plan to break their will, concocted by the iron-fisted administrators of their benefactor, Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
Other disputes between Rothschild-sponsored agricultural settlements and the baron’s paid administrators are well known. Yet the obscure story of Mazkeret Batya may be the most egregious and significant one. Finkel first learned about it while visiting the village’s museum in 2005 during a tour-guide course.
Like most of us, Finkel had assumed that all First Aliya pioneers were non-agrarians fleeing pogroms, who rejected Jewish tradition in favor of the new socialism.
In fact, he discovered, the 10 men from White Russia who formed the nucleus of Mazkeret Batya were religiously observant professional farmers.
(The 11th man was an educator brought along to teach their children.) Furthermore, it is not clear whether they were escaping from anti-Semitism as much as fulfilling a pre-Zionist dream. “And with 120 years between us, we will never know,” Finkel writes.
Whatever motivated them to undertake the perilous journey to establish the sixth Jewish farming colony in Palestine, they did so at great personal sacrifice to themselves and their families.
From the moment they set out in the winter of 1882 they encountered hardships that would have made less determined men turn back. A few years after they got their 3,600 Turkish dunams (about 900 acres), they found themselves at loggerheads with the organization that provided their lifeline.
Rothschild himself was respectful of matters of faith. His assimilated French administrators complained that the farmers were wasting precious morning hours in prayer, and he responded that they should be permitted to pray as long as they saw fit.
When he visited from Paris in 1887, Rothschild was so impressed by their wheat, barley and lentil fields that he donated additional funds to purchase farm equipment, and renamed the settlement (originally called Ekron) in memory of his mother, Batya.
Perhaps if the benefactor had maintained direct control of the colony, the relationship would not have soured.
But he hired “a tough, brazen man, a man of limited education, contentious, and a liar” – as Alphonse Bloch was described by one historian – to oversee his investments.
It was not only Mazkeret Batya that Bloch and his associates bullied into submission; the residents of Rishon Lezion and Be’er Tuviya became day laborers without rights to the land. But only Mazkeret Batya’s farmers put up a fight. And that fight peaked over the issue of shmita.
Bloch punished what he took to be their laziness by sealing the village’s water cisterns, closing its school and forbidding the Rothschild-paid doctor from tending to the sick. Malaria and trachoma were constant companions in 19th century Palestine; malnutrition on top of that had dire consequences.
The shmita battle, however, did not finish off the feisty farmers. The one that immediately followed – Bloch’s demand to turn their wheat fields into orchards – took the remaining fight out of them. The forced secularization of their schools followed.
Communication being what it was, the baron often did not know what was happening in his colonies, or found out only much later. Reports from his administrators obviously conflicted with those from his beneficiaries, and eventually his patience with the troublesome Mazkeret Batya group grew thin. That enough families survived to the day when Amihud Arkin could make his own stand with regard to shmita is remarkable.
In many ways, Rebels in the Holy Land is similar to Tal Beckerman’s award-winning When They Come for Us We’ll be Gone, chronicling the movement to free Soviet Jewry. Both intensively research and – with copious documentation – reveal a type of Jewish hero struggling against an oppressor; in this case, fellow Jews rather than a foreign regime.
Finkel has taken pains to present conflicting accounts of events and to refrain from injecting his own opinion of the personalities about whom he writes. Unable to do firsthand interviews of his subjects, he had to rely on newspaper accounts, letters and other second- or third-hand sources, so perhaps he was more sensitive to the need for impartiality.
This book is also exceptional from a design standpoint. Some 250 illustrations (photographs, maps and the like) are reprinted on the page margins of the relevant sections rather than in the center of the book, as is often the case.
The friendly layout and typeface make for a pleasant reading experience despite the volume’s length, even though the picture Finkel paints sheds an unpleasant light on the pre-state religious-secular divide that, unfortunately, persists to this day.