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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776



Galilee Diary #342, June 17, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein


It is life we want, no more and no less than that, our own life feeding on our own vital sources, in the fields and under the skies of our Homeland, a life based on our own physical and mental labors…  We come to our Homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted...  We… must establish a new relationship with nature; we must open a new account with it.

      -A. D. Gordon, “Our Tasks Ahead”


Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

            -Mike Nichols’ "The Graduate"


First there was milk and honey; then there were the seven species (wheat, barley, olives, figs, dates, grapes, and pomegranates); when we came back there were Carmel wine and Jaffa oranges.  Now, there are plastics.


A central element of the Zionist vision was the productivization of the Jews.  For centuries we had been (or so we perceived) excluded from "productive," healthy means of earning a living, restricted to commerce and banking.  Even where we were allowed to own land, it wasn't a wise investment if there was a chance we'd be expelled one day.  And the craft guilds in the middle ages were often exclusive of Jews.  On the other hand, our international connections suited us to trade, and the Church prohibited Christians from taking interest, so when they needed to borrow, they needed us.  And in Eretz Yisrael the situation was even worse: while there were some Jewish farmers in the villages of the Galilee, and craftsmen in the towns, by the time of the beginning of Zionist settlement, most of the Jews in Israel lived in the four "holy cities" (Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron, Tiberias) where they studied Torah on behalf of their Diaspora brethren, and expected to be supported by those appreciative brethren.  To the Zionists, the Jews of the "Old Yishuv" (the pre-Zionist community) were living proof of the validity of the anti-Semitic stereotype of the parasitic Jew.


Hence, Zionism wasn't just a return by the nation to its homeland, but a rebirth, a revitalization of the individual Jew.  In re-planting ourselves in our land, we would put down new, healthy roots in the earth, and would return to the biblical model of callused, suntanned peasants living simply on their own soil.  Zionism was not only a revolt against the Diaspora, it was a revolt against the alienation of industrial society.  Back to the soil was the message of Zionism, and A. D. Gordon was its prophet.  The Palestinian Arab peasants were our role models.  The kibbutz was founded not just as a collective, but as an agricultural collective.  Of course we needed to be carpenters and iron workers, to serve the needs of the farming community.  But factories were a symbol of the old order, of alienation, of mass production.


But what do you do when agriculture is not profitable and cannot support the community?  When increasing numbers of the post-pioneering generation find no satisfaction or challenge in agricultural labor?  How central is the soil in our self-image?  Well, there are 269 kibbutzim today – and they operate 377 factories.  Only fifteen percent of the kibbutz workforce works in agriculture.  Two thirds of Israel's plastics exports come from kibbutz factories; and while I don't have a statistic, my experience is that it is hard to find a kibbutz that doesn't have a plastic factory: toys, Styrofoam containers, furniture, packaging, films, irrigation pipe, etc. etc.


The romance of working the land diminishes when your fields are tilled by Thai contract workers, and your primary income is from molding plastic widgets.  I wonder: in the Plastic Age,  what exactly is the meaning of the soil of Eretz Yisrael in our identity?

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