For Tu Bishvat: Israel's agricultural blessings

The infamous Peel Commission issued its learned conclusions in 1936 stating that the entire land of Israel – then Palestine under British mandate – could not support a population greater than 2 1/2 million souls. And now...

Rabbi Berel Wein

Judaism fields

I think that if all of us stopped and contemplated the growth and success of the state of Israel in our time, we would truly realize that we are living in a miraculous age. Though the miracles are consistent and regular, oftentimes, perhaps even most times, we take them so for granted that the miraculous become mundane.

One of the great miracles of the state of Israel is its agricultural industry. Israel has an arid, rock filled landscape with very large patches of desert mixed in. It is not the lush landscape that exists in other parts of the world where agricultural industries bloom and prosper. Nevertheless, the prophets of Israel guaranteed that as part of the process of redemption and the Jewish return to its homeland, the desert would somehow bloom and the land would produce delicious fruits in abundance and variety.

As late as a half century ago this seemed to be an unlikely dream that would never come to fulfillment. The original Jewish pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries faced harsh and unforgiving challenges as they strove for the development of any sort of agricultural success.

Climate, the earth itself, mosquitoes and malaria, the Arab marauders, and the lack of proper agricultural tools and training all conspired to make it almost a hopeless venture. But they persisted in tilling the soil, removing the rocks and eventually began to see the results of their labor and sacrifice. Their rate of mortality was high and many gave up on the project and returned to Europe. The hardy few stuck it out and eventually were rewarded with the miraculous success of their efforts.

Even so, there were grave doubts as to whether the land of Israel could ever feed the people of Israel. The main agricultural products were grapes, oranges and dates. The infamous Peel Commission issued its learned conclusions in 1936 stating that the entire land of Israel – then Palestine under British mandate – could not support a population greater than 2 1/2 million souls.

As a result, it recommended the curtailment of immigration into the country at a time when Hitler was forcing the Jews of Germany to find refuge outside of the German borders. The recommendations of the Peel Commission led inevitably to the White Paper of the British foreign office that closed off Jewish emigration to the country for the next nine years, especially during the Holocaust and its aftermath.

And it seemed that the conclusions reached were not far-fetched since food was scarce throughout this period in the land of Israel and of infinitely meager variety. When Israel gained its independence in 1948, for almost the next decade there were great shortages of food in the country, especially in the light of the doubling of its population in five years with the influx of the Jewish refugees from Europe and the Moslem Middle East.

Full packages were sent from the United States to families throughout Israel to help supplement their meager diet. I remember how my father and mother scrimped and saved, often to my childish and foolish feelings of deprivation, in order to send these foods certificates to our Israeli relatives who could then redeem them for food packages in American warehouses located in Israel.

But Israel struggled on in war and in peace. It developed a national water carrier that began to make the desert bloom. Its scientists and researchers developed new techniques, created drip irrigation and pioneered new methods of agriculture that began to make the country self-sufficient and plentiful in food and its varieties.

In 1959, Moshe Dayan was the Minister of Agriculture. He introduced the planting of tomato vines into Israeli agriculture. The first year’s crop was hard, tasteless, green in color, and understandably was not popular. The appreciative Israeli public nicknamed them ‘moishelach’ in honor of Dayan and his experiment. But soon the Israeli farmer developed the finest and tastiest tomatoes, as well as so many other types of vegetables and fruits.

Bananas, mangoes, kiwis and other fruits previously unknown to the Eastern European Jewish palate made their appearance and rapidly gained popularity. Israeli fruits and vegetables were produced in such abundance that a large export market developed and for a long period of time agriculture remained one of the mainstays of the Israeli export economy.

All of this should be remembered by us as we commemorate Tu Bishvat, a new year and holiday for the trees in the land of Israel. The prophecies long ago uttered by our holy sages have come true before our very eyes. What a blessed country the land of Israel truly is!