The Jewish people has been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls these two thousand years We lack the principal ingredient for national life. We lack the habit of labor not labor performed out of external compulsion, but labor to which one is attached in a natural and organic way. This kind of labor binds a people to its soil and to its national culture
-A.D. Gordon, guru of the pioneers, 1911
The Zionist revolution was not only an uprising against exile, it was also a revolt against what the rebels perceived to be the lifestyle and personality traits that had come to characterize us in exile: the stereotype of the exilic Jew, held by anti-semites and Jews alike, was that we were urban, disconnected from nature and agriculture, living from trade and the money market. Thus, even though our character (if such was indeed our character) had been formed by necessity (e.g., how could we be farmers if we were forbidden to own land and even if we could, what was the point if we might be expelled?), we perceived it as something to be cast off in our return to the "good old days" of living on the land, our land, resonating to its seasons, at home in its landscape.
The stereotype, by the way, was only that. Jews had indeed been farmers tilling their own land, or managing agricultural estates owned by others. Rashi tended his vineyards and produced wine, as did, apparently, many other Jews in medieval western Europe. And Jews were involved in every other profession, including all the crafts and of course medicine. Our self-image as requiring productivization may have been influenced by our experiences of pauperization in the Pale of Settlement in the 19th century, and by the "Old Yishuv," the Orthodox communities in the land of Israel who supported themselves from fundraising abroad so they could study Torah on behalf of the donors.
In any case, there was in the Zionism of the early waves of aliyah a thread of anti-urbanism, of "back to nature." The kibbutz, the great achievement of socialist Zionism, was not "just" a commune. Essential to its very nature was its agricultural basis. Working the soil with our own hands was seen as redemptive. It would revitalize our people, reinforce our moral and spiritual claim to the land (as peasants, not as landowners), and restore the land from swamp and desert to its biblical image of "flowing with milk and honey."
I think that many Diaspora Jews, throughout the Zionist century, have internalized this image, and associated Israel with the return to the soil, the reclamation of ourselves as we reclaimed the land. When we think of Israelis, we think of kibbutzniks. We still dance the "Sprinkler Horah." We buy Carmel tomatoes in the supermarket. We are shocked to discover that kibbutzim never constituted more that a few percent of the population and that most kibbutzim today could not survive without industry, from plastic widgets to high tech assembly lines and that much of the remaining agricultural labor is performed by workers from Thailand. Today there is a certain bitterness to the debate over the crisis in water resources, as voices are heard that question the decades of subsidized water for agriculture, which encouraged the cultivation of water-intensive crops in a part of the world where we should know better. Agriculture was sacred as a symbol of our aspirations, of our self-image, even if most of us have always and always will live in urban apartment blocks, even if agriculture was not economical or good for the environment. To this day, we live with a perpetual nostalgia for a reality that really never was. We like our leaders to be farmers (e.g., Rafael Eitan, Ariel Sharon) for farmers are real, authentic Israelis. It is fascinating to me how so many of us Israelis and Diaspora Jews still somehow feel we missed out by not being peasants.
But never fear, entrepreneurship will save us. More and more farmers here are opening "pick your own" operations, where, for a price, you can harvest the fruits of the land to your heart's content. Peasant for a day?