It is hard not to be impressed by what you encounter at the Yaaran goat farm. As you make your way into the grounds in front of the Yaaran family abode, which nestles on the western slopes of the Jerusalem hills, you are struck with a throwback sense of what life may have been like for the early Zionist pioneers.Okay, so the Yaarans don’t live in a tent, and they have electricity – generator powered – and they ain’t exactly dredging malaria-infested swamps, but there is a feeling of wholesome and enthused intent about the place and the people who live there.For anyone who has not visited or chanced upon the goat farm located near the roadway that leads down to the famed Stalactite Cave, imagine a real-life Walton family.For those under 40, the said 1970s TV series told the tale of the trials and tribulations and, above all, familial and communal bonhomie that abounded in Depression-era rural Virginia. The younger TV characters had some delightfully quaint monikers, such as John Boy, Mary Ellen and Jim Bob.For their part, Avshi and Bar Yaaran gave their five offspring wonderfully inventive names – Yam (Sea), Tzipor (Bird), Shemesh (Sun), Ee (Island) and Enosh, which translates as something along the lines of Human Being. But while the TV series portrayed a fictional, almost cringingly honest- to-goodness family, the Yaarans are real, as are their challenges and joys, and they have plenty of both.
After chatting with Avshi for a few minutes, it soon becomes clear that you have come across people who appear to have absolutely no intention other than to live a quiet life of earnest physical and bucol- i c endeavor, tending their herd of goats, tilling the soil and producing all manner of ingenious energy-saving and other contraptions. “Bar and I were on all sorts of farms in Australia, many years ago,” explains Avshi. “Yam was about six months old, and we had a sort of camper van, and we traveled around and saw lots of nature there.”Suitably fired up, they returned home, determined to set up an agricultural establishment of their own in their own country. Sounds reasonable enough, but the reality of life in contemporary Israel is not quite so simple. The aforementioned pioneering days, when you could set up shop on some plot of land and basically just get on with it, are long gone.There are rules and state guidelines to be abided by. Land in this country is almost exclusively stateowned, and if you are going to try to start your own farm, you need to get the thumbs-up from the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and the Israel Lands Authority, as well as the regional council.Had the Yaarans considered that, when hatching up their dream of living off the sweat of their brows deep in the bosom of Mother Nature? “We began traveling all over the country, in the North and South, checking out places,” says Avshi.“We thought that people who feel this is their vocation in life can look for a spot and make their dream come true.”
That may sound a mite naïve, but Avshi is no wide-eyed kid. The 50-something granddad served in an elite IDF unit – his son Shemesh is doing his military service in a similar crack outfit – and hails from Kibbutz Bror Hayil near the Gaza Strip. He and Bar could best be described as salt-of-the-earth types unsullied by financial avarice or political gain.Sounds like the true blue-and-white cup of tea (sans milk) that should appeal to those bastions of Zionist ideology, KKL-JNF and ILA included. That may have been the case for the last couple of decades, during which time the Yaarans brought up their five children, built their home – around the shell of a couple of caravans – and gradually developed the farmstead. Today, the farm is a popular spot for families, and others, who come by from all over the country, generally on a Saturday, to buy some of Bar’s delicious cheeses, enjoy the pastoral tranquility and meet some four-footers in person, so to speak. But all that looks like it is coming to an abrupt end in the not too distant future. After implicitly supporting the family venture for all this time, the KKL-JNF, ILA and the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council appear to have had a change of heart. It seems that the direction of the political wind has shifted, and the powers-that-be weather vane has spun against the Yaarans.Thus far, my requests for a response from the KKL-JNF and the council have gone unheeded, although the ILA did take the trouble to enlighten me on the grounds for wanting to close the goat farm down.
“This plot of land was authorized for use as grazing ground, and that authorization is no longer valid,” said the ILA statement. “No construction is allowed there. The buildings on the site are illegal and were constructed without a permit, and using the site for commercial and residential purposes contravenes the terms of the authorization in accordance with which the land was issued for use. As such, this comprises irregular use in the context of the authorization. Yaaran’s claims were submitted and examined by the court, and were rejected outright.”Twenty-something years back, Avshi thought the very concept of an isolated farm would keep him and his family safe from the machinations of politically driven bodies. But that was not to be.“We thought it would be like in Australia and that, when you get away from the main centers, you get away from all the intervention stuff. You get away from civilization and nobody bothers you.”The Yaarans weren’t just looking for an idyllic lifestyle, far from the madding urban crowd. They came to the table with some added value.“We put together an idea for preventing forest fires by having animals graze, to keep the undergrowth down,” explains Avshi.Unbeknownst to them, the Yaarans’ ethos got some hefty official support. Around the time they found the location for their goat farm, there was an enormous fire in Sha’ar Hagai, near Moshav Shoresh. Two million trees went up in flames, 31 buildings on the moshav were destroyed, and so were five more structures at Neveh Ilan on the other side of Route 1.“The Lapidot Report, issued by the committee that investigated the fire – we only learned about this later – said that permanent grazing activities should be introduced to JNF forests, as a way of preventing fires breaking out,” Avshi notes. “We already had our plan in place, so we spoke to the JNF and they said we should go ahead.”It was an inspired unofficial endorsement from the powers that be.“Before we came here, there’d be a serious forest fire in this area every five years or so,” notes Avshi. “There hasn’t been a single fire here since we came here, 20 years ago.”
On one occasion, the Yaarans were awoken in the middle of the night by the smell of smoke. Avshi and his sons sped off in the direction of the fire and put it out with their own improvised water container. By the time the firefighters arrived, the situation was well under control.Avshi does not go along with the JNF statement regarding the ban on construction on the site.“We, of course, submitted a plan to the JNF, which included most of the facilities that exist today. It included a goat enclosure, a residential building for a forest lookout, and a dairy. They said we should put up the goat enclosure and that they would discuss the other things.”That does not sound like the authorities gave the Yaarans the thumbs-up to build a residence on the farm.Then again, where did the JNF expect the goatherd to sleep and eat? “We could see that the authorities had not thought it through. No one thought about how the farmer, who tends a herd of goats, can also make a living from it. It was clear to us that, in order to survive, the herd owner had to live near the herd.”The Yaarans did not keep that observation to themselves.“We talked about that openly with everyone,” says Avshi. “They said we should get going and we went for it. We’d been looking for a place for a long time. I took a friend from the kibbutz and we put up the animal enclosure in a month and a half.”While the men got on with the construction work, Bar and her then four children lived down the road on Moshav Eshtaol.After a while the Yaarans realized it was time to combine workplace and domicile, and a couple of caravans were schlepped up the mountain roads and somehow leveraged into position.Avshi was clearly blessed with nimble hands and, over the years, he added a second floor to the family home and improvised and invented all sorts of labor-saving, energy-saving, definitively environmentally friendly methods of making life on the farm comfortable, and making the most of what Mother Nature has to offer.There are rainwater collection systems and composters, solar-powered heaters and even a facility for producing gas for cooking from human waste. And all devised and applied by Avshi, with help from various offspring.But, surely, the JNF and the other authorities must have gotten wind of the fact that the Yaarans were going beyond the originally sanctioned purview. Avshi says there was no deception on their part.“The JNF knew we were doing this [construction], and their inspectors were here at the time of the construction work, and said all sorts of encouraging things to us. In general, there was a sense of – the institutions put it like this, not me – that we were doing ‘a worthy Zionist deed.’” Avshi says there was clear de facto approval of the farm.“They told me that we could expect to endure 10 years of tough going, and that we should get in with what they call ‘creeping development,’ and that we should establish the facts on the ground, and that there was no other way of getting approval for the farm.”The Yaarans duly got through the trying first decade, but Avshi says life has not gotten any easier. “Each day is harder than the one before,” he says with a wry smile.It seems that the Yaarans were given plenty of encouragement to realize their dream, but no one was willing to put their money where their verbal promises of support were.“We submitted plans to the regional committee [of the Interior Ministry], after the local committee actually recommended approval of our plan to the regional committee,” says Avshi.“The regional committee approved the farm.”“The regional committee made its approval contingent on getting the OK from the ILA. The ILA, who said they would sign the plans if we received approval from the regional committee, when we went back to the regional committee they [the committee] said, ‘We don’t know who you are,’ because they [the committee] had given us their verbal approval only.”All these years down the line, with the farm a fixture on the local rural jaunt agenda, there is a real danger that the Yaarans will have their home of the last two decades demolished.In fact, they have already managed part of that themselves. The original caravan-based two-story structure has been dismantled, and they built a smaller abode which complies with the 25-sq.m. limit for a “guard’s dwelling.”The Yaarans are currently in the process of a High Court of Justice appeal against the evacuation order, and are waiting for the ILA to proffer an amicable solution to the situation. “They were asked to do that within two weeks, but it has been four weeks and they haven’t responded yet,” says Bar.“They said the evacuation was urgent, and suddenly they are dragging their feet.”“If we leave this place, it will be a great pity for us,” says Avshi, “but it will also be a great loss for kids. Where else can they come face-to-face with animals in this sort of setting? This is real education and, if you like, Zionism.”Meanwhile, the JNF signpost pointing the way to the farm is still in situ by the turnoff to the dirt road that leads to the Yaarans’ home. Could it be a positive portent for the Yaarans?