In a bygone standard view, Jews were not associated with farming or cattle raising. This all changed when the first Jews arrived in Israel, in the late 19th century. They started draining the swamps of the desolate land and turning it into green and fertile farms. Now there are cattlemen in the land of Israel.
First Farming in Israel
Israel was first famous for its sweet Jaffa oranges, exported worldwide. The Jaffa orange, also known as Shamouti orange, is an orange variety with few seeds and a tough skin that makes it particularly suitable for export.
The orange takes its name from the Israeli city of Jaffa, an ancient port city. From its docks, Israel’s first produce was exported.
Though Jaffa oranges were considered the most famous export in the early days of the state of Israel, their growth and export are much lower today. Today, many other products and produce make up Israel’s export economy.
The many Kibbutz that sprang up all over Israel during the state’s early years had agriculture as their economic base. The Kibbutz was a community that lived mostly off growing all kinds of veggies and fruits and raised cows. Cows’ milk was the base for Israel’s famous production of a variety of delicious cheeses.
And the farmers who started the agriculture in Israel, way before the state received its independence, are still farming. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue the farming tradition ala-21st century.
Arab Cattle Thieves
Though Israel’s population is multifaceted, the phenomenon of cattle robbery – where Arab robbers steal Jewish farmers’ cattle – is notorious and most frustrating.
Jewish farmers have been facing tremendous economic losses due to the cattle thefts. Lacking financial resources to employ permanent professional security guards has brought about the establishment of the organization HaShomer HaChadash that sends volunteers to help the farmers keep an eye on their cattle from being robbed by Arab cattle thieves.
Founded in 2007, HaShomer HaChadash works to ensure a stronger Jewish presence, mostly in the Negev, south, and the Galilee, north. It promotes a sense of mutual responsibility among the Jewish people of Israel, and upholds the Zionist ideals on which the State of Israel was founded.
Through its pre-army program, volunteer guardsmen are present on agricultural land and patrol it from observation posts, preventing fires, theft, physical violence, and slaughtering of herds. Other programs include an agricultural volunteerism program for visitors from around the world, and a post-army program, placing young Israelis in agricultural sector jobs.
Today, HaShomer HaChadash engages over 100,000 volunteers, working throughout 190,000 acres of land at 70 locations, all over the state of Israel.
During my December 2019 visit to Israel, I volunteered to join three brave volunteer men in HaShomer HaChadash, to guard a cattle herd, for one long night. The herd was 220 head of the Fleckvieh breed of dual-purpose cattle, suitable for both milk and meat production. The breed originated in Central Europe in the 19th century, from cross-breeding of local stock with Simmental cattle imported from Switzerland. Today, the worldwide population is 41 million head. And that precious cattle stock I guarded all night long, under the brightest moon I ever saw and during an impeccable weather night.
During the early hours of our night duty, the Jewish cowboy-farmer – Yechiam Altschuler, a 4th generation Israeli cowboy, arrived to meet us. Yechiam’s family’s ancestors were originally, centuries ago, Sephardi Jews from Portugal who, at some point moved to Eastern Europe. He certainly resembles the history of the Jewish farming communities in the land of Israel.
Yechiam, whose grandfather arrived in Israel from Prague, at the age of three, was among the founders of the colony-Moshava Binyamina, in 1922, came to ‘check’ on us. I had the opportunity to chit-chat with him about his family’s Jewish farming history in the land of Israel.
Binyamina, founded by members of what is identified as the Third Aliyah [immigration wave] to Israel, in 1922, was named after the Baron Abraham Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild who invested heavily in lands in Israel.
According to a census, conducted in 1922 by the British Mandate authorities, Binyamina had a population of 153 inhabitants, consisting of 137 Jews, 13 Muslims and 3 Christians, with an original citrus-based village economy. In 1947, Binyamina already had a population of 2000 and today it is called Binyamina-Giv’at Ada, with a population of 15,627.
The Altschuler’s ‘Cattle Lookout’ is a 600 Dunam Farm, (Dunam, Ottoman Turkish old land area equivalent to the English acre) located in Binyamina’s outskirts, in central Israel. Its purpose is to enhance the breed, to fatten the cattle that provides the best meat for the food connoisseur’s plate, as well as reproduction.
Yechiam’s Case Story
“The day several head were stolen from my farm by Arabs from a nearby village, one hour walk from here, at the loss of 30,000 Shekel, I shouted for help,” Yechiam told me. “People from HaShomer HaChadash came to check the situation and understood the present grave state of affairs. They delivered a caravan to a station on the property and recruited volunteers to come guard my cattle. That day I saw the good side of the state of Israel,” he continued.
“Members of HaShomer HaChadash bring potential donors to visit my farm and once a week a pre-army group comes to guard my cattle, which teaches them responsibility and gives them some military preparation as to how to guard our country. It makes them men.”
HaShomer HaChadash allots education stipends in return for work on Israeli farms.
“My land is state land which I lease. Each year I have to renew my contract with the Land of Israel Authorities and according to their draconian laws, I have no rights to the land,” Yechiam continued his flowing conversation. “My complaint is that the state does not understand that in fact I am the one who is protecting and preserving their land from all sides. Because if I was not here, long ago, some Arab squatters would have been here, illegally squatting on this land…”
Yechiam Altschuler, the Israeli-Jewish cowboy was glad to see me, all the way from the United States, lending my limited visit time to keep an eye on his farm, during a long night of patrolling the land and keeping a sharp eye on the cattle resting in their enclosures. And I was elated to be able to protect the land of the state of Israel from whatever may come.