I watched the huge muskrat swim toward the bank of the Jordan River below me. Zooming in with my long camera lens, I snapped a shot to give to Mahoning County native Karl Gebhardt who was about to be baptized (we’re talking “dunking” here) in the shallow river.
Later, I asked Karl if he saw the critter. He had. “I thought it was my first test; I was hoping God had a sense of humor!”
Like the muskrat and river (really little more than a creek where we stopped), the recent farm mission I took to Israel with a group of 28 other Ohioans was filled with unexpected twists.
I went with an open curiosity. I had no idea what I would see or learn. My knowledge of the region’s history and politics was limited to Leon Uris’ two books Exodus and The Haj (both give accurate background in a fictional setting) and two novels do not an expert make.
Then again, neither does a short visit, and I recognize my shortcomings in reporting.
Times are changing. Our group wanted to romanticize the hard work of the early Jewish settlers who pioneered the country’s agriculture. It’s the only way we could fathom why they endured the physical hardships and danger.
We also wanted to attribute the current Israelis’ entrepreneurial spirit to that same drive for building a Jewish homeland, but then an honest woman laughed and said, “Oh no! It’s every man for himself.”
But hidden in the country’s current wave of capitalism, there remains that Zionist ripple, the motivation to keep Israel self-sufficient and strong as the Jewish homeland. While privatization and ideological shifts are under way, the state maintains a controlling interest.
All land, for example, is owned by the government, the Jewish National Fund and the Development Authority. You can lease land and enjoy nearly all related property rights, but the land itself is not yours.
Inspiring. Still, the Israelis’ ability to adapt and change agricultural production in a challenging geographical and political climate is inspiring.
“It’s really amazing what they’re doing with what little they have,” said Trent Profit of Agracola Farms near Van Wert. “It’s admirable that they’ve adapted to the land they have.”
Rodney Crider, president of the Wayne Economic Development Council, pointed to industries created by kibbutzim that sustain the collective system. “They’re being creative and using their ingenuity, but they also have a sense of a higher vision.
“It’s more of a duty they have to make Israel more independent.”
The flow of information seems to be freer and more efforts at collaboration because of that over-arching goal, Crider added.
“They have a greater urgency to do it. The U.S. would just abandon property or equipment, rather than develop it.”
“We’re way, way, way, way behind where they’re at,” Crider said of Israeli efficiency, and natural resources and energy conservation.
And so, while there’s a lot we have going for us here in the U.S., there’s a lot we could learn from our Israeli farming counterparts. But that’s true for other places around the globe, too. It’s always good to learn more about other cultures, nations, challenges and opportunities. It makes you come home, look around, see things in a new light, and appreciate what you have – and what you can be.