The modern transfiguration

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(Note: Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell recently traveled with an Ohio agricultural trade mission to Israel.)
JERUSALEM – Guns. We thought we’d see more guns.
After all, when we started telling family and co-workers we were visiting Israel, their looks and comments conveyed worries about terrorists and violence. That’s our perception of the Middle East. Nothing else makes the nightly news broadcasts.
Yes, there’s a U.S. State Department travel warning to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, but our agriculture delegation of nearly 30 Ohioans never felt threatened, never saw violence, and came home with a whole new perspective.
Israel is a modern country of great beauty and diversity, history and true grit.
‘Surprising.’ “The whole trip was surprising,” said Chris Gibbs, Mercer County executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. “I thought I’d see camels; I thought I’d see guns, but we had to look for that.”
“I didn’t expect the industrialism of the Israelis,” he added. “We don’t get to see agriculture, the industrialization of Israel on TV.”
We met members of farm cooperatives diversifying into high tech international soy protein food ingredients. We met a young couple luring Israeli yuppies and tourists to stay overnight in their teepee camp amid the sand dunes. We met researchers making the desert bloom with water unfit to drink.
Transformation. Its roots may stretch back thousands of years, but Israel has been a nation only since 1948. Its pioneers settled in then-Palestine in the late 1800s and early part of the 20th century.
The early settlers endured great hardships in the often-hostile period between WWI and the creation of the state of Israel. The drivers of these early communities were the kibbutz, or commune, members. The first kibbutz was formed in 1909 and more followed in the 1920s and later.
Pioneering spirit. Like the first pioneers to build the U.S., the early Israeli settlers had to make do with little. But slowly, with the motto “Work and Believe,” they carved out productive farms, expanded into business and industry and fostered order. They forged a new nation.
“It makes me feel like we have it easy,” commented group member Michael Putnam of Chillicothe of Israelis’ pioneering spirit. “I take my hat off to them.”
Today, the kibbutz lifestyle is waning and only 3 percent of Israelis live in a kibbutz. But, in an ironic twist, the socialistic kibbutzim remain a foundation for much of the country’s current capitalistic agricultural and economic development.
Not backward. Israel, with its 7 million residents, is not a developing country. It’s technologically savvy and has an advanced market economy, although there is still substantial government ownership, including all land. (The state or state agencies own an estimated 93 percent of the country’s total land area, although individuals can lease the land and are granted rights that mirror full U.S. property rights.) Health standards are the highest in the Middle East.
The comparatively higher living standards in Jewish cities and towns, due to agricultural productivity and economic development, attracted Arab populations in post WWII, and so the creation of Israel in 1948 resulted in a Jewish state that included a substantial Arab population.
That explains why you’ll hear people talking about “Israelis” and “Arab Israelis.” Today, Israel’s population is approximately 80 percent Jewish; 16 percent Muslim; and the rest are Christian or Druze.
Military service is required at age 17 for all male and female Jews; it’s voluntary for Christians and Muslims. Men serve 36 months; women, 21 months.
When you ask Israelis about their background, they all say, “after the Army, I …” much like Americans say, “after high school,” or “after college, I moved…”
Holy land. The complexity of Israel’s makeup can be seen in the religions that claim a piece of the country, particularly Jerusalem, which is divided between Israel and Palestinian Territory of the West Bank.
Even the Old City of Jerusalem is divided into a Muslim Quarter, a Christian Quarter, an Armenian Quarter and Jewish Quarter. The city has a Russian compound, American and German colonies. Churches, cathedrals, mosques from just about every faith can be found in Jerusalem.
Travel along the Via Dolorosa, or Path of Sorrow that Jesus followed bearing his cross to the site of his crucifixion, and you wind through part of the Muslim Quarter where the flea market-like, open-air market vendors who line the narrow stone streets are a colorful contrast to the religious experience. Keep your eye on the cross, but keep your hands on your purse.
Complex. Just when we thought we understood the land and its people, the road turned. You talked to people who are “normal,” industrious workers, but leaving their village, you passed a watchtower or remnant of an Army tank, reminders that you weren’t in Kansas, anymore.
We visited the beautiful mountain country in the Golan Heights, but active landmine fields still exist and warning signs littered the fence along our route.
There, Israelis have developed substantial orchards and wineries even though the region’s future ‘ownership’ status is under negotiation. If it is returned to Syria, farmers and residents would have to walk away from everything they built.
Israel is complicated, yet intriguing; old, yet new. But everywhere we went, we sensed purpose beyond the individual.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, said “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”
They still believe.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at editor@farmanddairy.com.)
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See for yourself
CLEVELAND – The Ohio-Israel Agricultural Initiative and the Cleveland-based Negev Foundation will lead a second mission to Israel May 3-12.
The group will tour farms throughout Israel and learn more about the country’s advanced agricultural technologies.
The tour includes a stop at Agritech, the largest agricultural trade show in the Middle East, and visits to Jerusalem and other holy sites.
For more information contact the foundation at 216-691-9997 or e-mail sarah@negev.org.
Another farmer-to-farmer mission is also planned for next winter.

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