Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Making The Desert Green

Here is another of the short pieces I've been working on for Div III. Even though it's only a few pages, and doesn't look as intense or important as some of the other stuff I've written, it took me weeks to write for some reason. Also since my last Div III update, I wrote up all my interviews with the students of the Arava Institute as short narratives, but it turned out to be 23 pages, so I'm not posting that. Anyway, enjoy this piece.


“What is a Jewish state?” (From interview with Rebecca)
The Zionist mission of “making the desert green” or “bloom” has become so engrained in the rhetoric that its origins are now difficult to trace. In reading Theodor Herzl’s The Jew’s State, Old New Land, and both volumes of his collected “Zionist Writings,” I found no use of this phrase, and only vague references to sending Jews to toil the Ottoman sands of Palestine. Herzl also suggests establishing Jewish settlements in Argentina or various places in East Africa, and makes other comments that completely contradict the idea of agricultural settlements in Palestine. Herzl’s political Zionist thesis, The Jews’ State, was published in 1896. On page 141, he declares that “Whoever wants to turn Jews into agricultural producers is really making a strange mistake.” He explains that agrarianism is an outdated peasants’ occupation, and is beneath today’s (of the turn of the twentieth century) common Jew. His novel, Old New Land, a fictional story and more illustrative version of his political thesis, was completed in 1902. On page 158, about halfway through the novel, the Zionist pioneer Steineck expounds on how effectively the colonization project of Palestine “drained the swamps as if by magic.” This myth of the early Zionist settlers draining the “swamps” of Palestine directly contradicts the rhetoric of making the barren desert green, but Herzl never addresses these contradictions, nor does he ever seem to explain his apparent change of heart regarding Jewish farming.
Despite his various contradictions, Herzl seems sure that Palestine is the right place for Jewish settlement. This is not only because of the biblical and historical significant of the land for the Jewish people, but also because of the benefits he foresees for the Ottoman Empire. In “The Solution of the Jewish Question,” published in English for The Jewish Chronicle in February 1896, Herzl proposes that the Jews of the world “regulate all the finances of Turkey” (Zionist Writings, Vol 1, 31) in exchange for the land of Palestine from the Ottoman Sultan. He reiterates this idea multiple times, in various ways. He says that the Jews have “no more magnanimous friend than His Majesty the reigning Sultan” (Zionist Writings, Vol 1, 39), but that the “Turks … have the best qualities – except those needed for the modern development and cultivation ofa land” (Zionist Writings, Vol 2, 73). He describes the land of Palestine as being at a “low point of neglect and dilapidation” (Zionist Writings, Vol 2, 73). Herzl suggests that the Jews could fix it up, so to speak, although how he could really make that assessment, knowing nothing of the environment or history of the region other than a nine days’ visit at the end of the year 1898, and perhaps some bible verses, is a mystery.
In his nine days there, Herzl visited the early settlements, and saw how they worked the land. He was impressed especially by the “settler Brozie…[who] started out as a simple day laborer in the Rehovot settlement” (Zionist Writings, Vol. II, 33). Herzl goes on about how the settler moved out of the Rehovot settlement on his own, and began a vineyard which was so immediately successful that other settlements provided him with loans to improve his vintage. Herzl reports that Brozie’s yield is ever-increasing, and that though the “well-kept vineyard is still surrounded by a desert… industrious people could turn that desert, too, into a garden.” In his whopping nine days in Palestine, Herzl seems to think he understands the ecology, and feels certain of the agricultural potential of a desert that has been inhabited and utilized by other people in the Jews’ thousand year absence, despite its apparent barrenness to the European eye.
Herzl compares this proposed colonizing in Palestine to the colonization process in the Americas and to the independence movement in South Africa. At first he rejects both of these models. In The Jews’ State, he lays out how he thinks the land should be toiled in order to establish the home for the Jews, starting with scientific exploration of the “natural characteristics of the land” (The Jews’ State,193). At this time, however, there was not a great understanding of environmental assessment, and the idea of trying to establish a viable settlement based on scientific exploration of the land does not really allow for great environmental sustainability. Herzl’s proposition is to auction the land off by achievement: those that work hard to establish the general necessities for a community (bridges, roads, water installations, government institutions, etc), will be given better plots of land. He accuses the settlers of the Americas of colonizing in “the most na├»ve way,” being taken by force, and instead envisions a utopia wherein the local groups are into account. Of the South African example, he says, “we don’t want a Boer [farmer] state, but a Venice,” (according to Jacques Kornberg, who translated into English and wrote the introduction for Old New Land), but at some point the Zionist movement changed their minds on that front. They felt empowered by the idea of “hardy independent warrior-cattle-farmers who had carved out the Boer republics in a hostile and threatening environment” (Kornberg, xvii). Herzl foresaw a utopian community that would not require the death and oppression of the local populations, and would be built up in an environmental paradise. Although I admire his vision, it is unfathomable to me how he actually believed it possible, given the history of colonization.
Though Herzl expresses these interests in establishing agricultural settlements in Palestine, I still feel there is not a satisfactory answer to how “making the desert green” became such a central part of the Zionist rhetoric. In addition to the practicality of using agricultural production as a means of laying claim to land (as was Ottoman law), I believe that there is also the symbolic need for the Jewish people to plant their roots in the land. Although I know I am probably not the first to make this connection, in my readings so far I have found no other explicit expression of this idea. The roots of the settlers’ fruit trees, and later the JNF evergreens, were also roots Jewish heredity in their biblical land, a way of proving that they [we?] are not all the proverbial “Wandering Jew” that Europeans so distrusted. It was the sign to the end of the Diaspora. For the first time, the Jews were not only allowed to own land, but also felt secure enough in this land that they would not be forced out or stripped of their rights to live self-sufficiently again. The roots the Jews felt to this land, the roots that had been mourned since the Babylonian exile, could be planted in the most visible way, by establishing the Jewish agricultural societies in Palestine. Although there were suggestions for the Jews to migrate to other countries, some of which Herzl himself supported, the symbolism of planting roots back in Eretz Yisroel is likely the reason that Palestine was the only choice that gained enough support to launch large-scale migration.


Works Cited
Herzl, Theodor. Old New Land. Translation and Introduction by Jacques Kornberg. Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data. 1997.
Herzl, Theodor. The Jews’ State. Translation and Introduction by Henk Overberg. Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data. 1997.
Herzl, Theodor. Zionist Writings, Volumes I & II. Translation by Harry Zohn. Herzl Press, Library of Congress Card Number 73-76668. 1973 – 1975.

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