Agriculture in Israel

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To learn more about agriculture in Israel in the 21st century, see Focus on Israel. Reprinted with permission from The AVI CHAI Bookshelf.

My family had the Sukkah de rigueur when I was a kid. There was enough room for four folding tables to seat 30. The walls were brown burlap to complement the pine branches overhead. Decorations of orange and yellow gourds along with purple and browned cobs of corn hung from above. And although I enjoyed their autumnal colors and strange shapes, the significance of the dangling vegetables was lost on a suburban kid who thought anything could be found in the supermarket.    

Reclaiming the Land

In Israel, however, the agricultural motif of the holiday isn't missed, whether you're from the city or the country. It's part of the history here. For the many Zionist pioneers who first settled in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the last century, the most important theme of Sukkot was found in a biblical passage that called for a weeklong thanksgiving at the end of the harvest season: 

"You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God, seven days, in the place the Lord will choose; for the Lord, your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy" (Deuteronomy 16:1). 

Still, farming meant much more than providing a daily sustenance for Israel's founders. They wanted to reclaim what they saw as a barren country and realize the vision of a "land flowing with milk and honey.'' At the same time, the kibbutz movement spread its agricultural communes along the frontiers of the land in order to set up outposts that would one day be used in defense of the Jewish state. So when Sukkot came, the relevance of the holiday went beyond religion. It gave Israelis a chance to celebrate the agrarian enterprise and the national socialist values of the settlement movement.           

Israeli farmers have come a long way since the first pioneers began clearing away rock-strewn fields and draining the swampland. In the half century since Israel's establishment, the country has almost tripled the territory used for farming and production has multiplied 16 times. About one-fourth of that output is exported. The best-known success is the Jaffa citrus fruit brand, but Israel is selling much more abroad than just oranges.  

Making the Desert Bloom

One of the biggest achievements of Israeli agriculture has been the ability of farmers to utilize the country's desert areas as greenhouses. In the same way that the Children of Israel were compelled to face the trial of surviving in the desert wilderness for 40 years, economics forced many Israel crop growers to cultivate the barren regions of the country's southern periphery rather than the more expensive lands in central Israel. The exposure to searing hot days, bone-chilling nights and occasional flash-floods make Israel's desert farmers experts on the experience recalled by the weeklong Sukkah sojourn.           

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Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.