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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/November 1913/Jewish Colonization in Palestine



HISTORICAL and religious interest has been responsible for many investigations and explorations in Palestine, but the country has still to receive an adequate study from the biological and agricultural standpoints. What we are pleased to describe as European civilization had its rise in western Asia and was based on the cultivation of plants indigenous in that region. The agriculture and agricultural plants of western Asia were brought to Europe in prehistoric times as a part of the equipment of the ancient Mediterranean civilization. To become familiar with the primitive stocks of our cultivated plants and the primitive agricultural arts that are still practised in this cradleland of civilization is quite as interesting as reconstructing its ruined cities or digging out its buried inscriptions. We have much more adequate knowledge of incidents of ancient history than we have of the underlying agricultural and social conditions.

Even among those who have urged the colonization of Palestine for reasons of philanthropy and national patriotism there has been rather tardy appreciation of the importance of scientific exploration and investigation of agricultural resources. It remained for American Jews who have relatively little interest in the colonization idea to undertake the investigation of the country from the broader motive of human welfare, and as a means of securing for American agriculture the advantages of better knowledge of the agriculture of western Asia, whence so many of our American crops have come. There is a special reason why this agricultural knowledge is likely to be much more valuable in the United States than in Europe, for we have in our Pacific coast and southwestern states enormous agricultural resources still undeveloped under natural conditions that are much more Asiatic than European. In other words, we have need to go back to Asia to get the remainder of the agricultural plants and agricultural knowledge that was not carried to northern Europe because the European conditions wore unfavorable. Thus the establishment of colonies of European Jews in Palestine has had the entirely unexpected result of opening the country to agricultural exploration in the interest of American agriculture.

The establishment of an agricultural experiment station in Palestine was announced in Science in 1909.[1] The director of this station, Mr. Aaron Aaronsohn, had already been engaged for many years in an agricultural and botanical exploration of the country, some of the results of which have been published in Bulletin 180, Bureau of Plant Industry, IT. S. Department of Agriculture. One of the most interesting discoveries was a wild species of wheat closely related to some of the domesticated forms, and possibly representing the long-sought ancestral form of this whole group of cereals. An opportunity of observing the habits of this plant in the region of Mt. Hermon in the summer of 1910 has left no doubt that the plant is a genuine wild species, and not an escaped form of domesticated wheat. A subsequent experiment with the wild wheat in southern California shows that it is worthy of further study from the standpoint of acclimatization in the United States.[2]

But the wild wheat is only one of many subjects that are receiving attention at the newly established experiment station. Many difficulties are being encountered, as was fully expected beforehand, including the necessity of grappling with the problem of malaria. As this disease has been one of the most serious obstacles in the establishment of the colonies, the power to control it has a direct relation to the agricultural progress of the country. Some of the most fertile districts have remained almost uninhabited on account of the prevalence of malaria, a disease that modern sanitation can easily exterminate. The recent organization of a health bureau for the scientific study of the indigenous diseases and the improvement of hygienic conditions is the first outgrowth from the establishment of an agricultural experiment station.

Thus the founding of this station has given a new aspect to the whole colonization movement, in showing that the resources of modern science are to be enlisted. It is becoming apparent that some of the problems of Palestine will yield to scientific knowledge, although they may have resisted the most devoted efforts and the most liberal expenditure of money in unscientific ways. Motives of religion, charity and patriotism have figured so largely that constructive applications of science have received little consideration. If even a part of the colonists brought with them to Palestine a knowledge of modern scientific agriculture the situation would be entirely changed. Such knowledge would be far more precious than money, so much of which has been spent to little purpose.

The tendency has been to think of Palestine as a refuge from oppression rather than as an opportunity of developing a new agricultural civilization. But if the colonization movement continues it must be only a question of time when the traditional idealism of the people will assert itself in agricultural lines, as it has in so many other forms of human activity. The factor of time is indispensable in all such movements. The ancient Hebrews of the Exodus spent forty years in the wilderness before they were ready to adopt an agricultural existence, and it is a new generation nurtured in the wilderness of modern Palestine who now appreciate the need of a more effective conquest of the art of agriculture.

The persistence of the colonists in the face of so many difficulties naturally arouses interest in what might be accomplished if a people capable of so much devotion and self-sacrifice should really face the problem of developing an agricultural civilization adapted to the local conditions. As the colonists had not been farmers in Europe, the life they undertook in Palestine broke absolutely with all their previous existence. What the previous existence must have been can best be judged, perhaps, by what the colonists are willing to accept in Palestine as an improvement. The absence of agricultural knowledge or experience means that they must work at first at the greatest possible disadvantage, and encounter all manner of unnecessary toils and hardships that people with agricultural traditions would readily avoid. But even after incredible perseverance has overcome the handicap of unskillful and inefficient labor and brought material prosperity, the lack of agricultural ideals is even more apparent, for the colonists have still to appreciate and utilize the opportunities that are within their reach, in the direction of securing the normal advantages of agricultural life. And yet in some respects the conditions appear extremely favorable for progress along new lines. The very existence of the colonies is evidence of a strong determination to escape the artificial restrictions represented by the conditions of life in the European cities whence most of the colonists have come.

In the effort to resume a simple agricultural existence the colonists may be said to have gone back about 3,000 years to the time of the ancient theocracy, before the establishment of kingly government in the persons of Saul and David. The provisions of the law of Moses evidently contemplated the development of a purely agricultural civilization, and made no provision for the control of urban populations by a permanent centralized government. The modern colonies are also free from any attempt at governmental organization and it may be this that has enabled them to develop peaceably in the midst of a population traditionally hostile, but actually much more tolerant than many European communities.

The reasons of safety that might have impelled the early colonists to crowd themselves together in small slum-like villages no longer justify the continuance of such methods at the present time. The more settled state of the country and the development of telephones and other means of communication would make it possible for each family to live on its own land under its own vines and fig trees. And even from the standpoint of safety more is to be gained by developing readier means of communication and transporation than by crowding the people into small inaccessible villages.

In spite of all that has been said of the devastation of Palestine, the country has rich possibilities of agricultural development. The prevailing notion that the Promised Land is now a hopeless desert rests largely on the impressions of travelers who confine themselves to the regular tourist route from Jaffa up to Jerusalem and then down to Jericho and the Dead Sea. The districts visited on such a trip give about as correct an idea of the country as might be obtained if a visitor to California were to land at Los Angeles or San Diego, and then travel over the mountains to Indio and the Salton Sea. Even the most recent account of Palestine, written by a professional geographer, shows a very inadequate appreciation of the factors that determine the agricultural possibilities of the country.[3]

The agricultural possibilities of Palestine are not likely to be appreciated by visitors from Europe and America until some readily accessible part of the country is developed on the basis of farm homes. People who live in crowded villages are not likely to attain any very high degree of agricultural prosperity or to make very rapid agricultural progress. What the colonists have been able to accomplish under their present methods of living affords ample evidence of a self-sacrificing determination, worthy, not of a better cause, but of a better course, more directly aimed toward agricultural improvement.

The natural conditions are undoubtedly favorable, and the desire for agricultural progress exists, but effective combination of the two elements must also be secured. The leaders among the colonists are no longer resting their hopes for the future upon securing political control of the country through purchase or diplomatic negotiations. Whatever the political status of the country the essential conditions will remain the same, in the sense that the whole resident population must be considered in any program that is to assure the permanent progress of the colonists. Thus the human problem is even more serious than the agricultural problem. The human environment of the colonists needs to be improved, no less than the agricultural environment. The only possible solution of either problem is through agricultural and educational progress. The improvement of agricultural conditions is the single issue on which the highly diversified population of the country might be expected to agree.

Whether any ordinary system of formal education in schools will have any practical result in Palestine seems very doubtful. Some parts of the country are already overstocked with different kinds of charitable and religious institutions, many of them engaged in educational work, but apparently with as little relation to the requirements of actual life as similar institutions in Europe and America. Though most of the colonists are already past school age when they arrive in Palestine, yet they are acutely in need of learning how to work and live in the new country. For effective agricultural education in a country like Palestine, there must be places where men, young or old, can acquire correct habits of doing farm work, become accustomed to the atmosphere of farm life, and learn something of its possibilities. Agriculture is a habit and a method of life, not merely a science to be studied or an art to be pursued for profit alone.

Agricultural education, in the narrow sense of formal scholastic instruction in agricultural facts, commonly fails to accomplish its intended purpose of improving the life of the farm. At the same time that the boys are being instructed in agricultural knowledge they may also be losing their agricultural habits and becoming less adapted to agricultural life. After their courses in agriculture they are more likely to enter some other line of activity involving less responsibility than agriculture and more similar to the work and life of the school to which they have become thoroughly accustomed. The unintentional training in town life usually has a stronger influence than the formal instruction of the school. The event proves the boy has been educated away from agriculture rather than towards it. Whether agriculture or other subjects are studied makes little difference in a comparison with the change of habits of life. Thus the general effect of agricultural schools and colleges in the United States has been to take more of the boys away from the farm, or, in other words, to make our civilization more industrial and commercial, rather than more agricultural.

Even less can be expected in Palestine than in the United States from the establishment of agricultural schools of the ordinary sort, because of the lack of previous agricultural contacts on the part of the students. The American student who has grown up on a farm and is thoroughly familiar with farm conditions is much more likely to project some of the new facts that he learns in the school against the background of farm life, but in Palestine most of the newly arrived colonists are without agricultural experience. They need practise in farm life and farm operations even more than they need instruction in agricultural facts.

The next generation also needs to be educated without losing its contacts with the life of the family and the farm. Otherwise the young men will go to Egypt to find employment as clerks or emigrate to Europe or America in search of better commercial opportunities^ as they are now beginning to do. Ordinary school conditions are in the nature of a training for commercial life, but there is no corresponding training for agricultural life. This deficiency may be a more serious hindrance to agricultural progress among the Jews because of their stronger parental instincts. The greater the stress that is laid on the formal education the stronger the tendency to develop urban habits of school life in the children. To what extent this educational propensity may have interfered with the success of agricultural movements among the Jews would be difficult to determine, but it is evidently a factor at the present time. Though commonly considered as a non agricultural people, the Jews have clung to their agricultural traditions with wonderful tenacity and have made innumerable attempts to place themselves on an agricultural basis. It would be important as well as interesting to determine what has held them back.

The difficulties of agricultural education are not peculiar to Palestine. The same limitations to human progress are being encountered even in countries that have elaborate provisions for agricultural education. More practical methods must be found, that is, more truly human methods if the full possibilities of any country or any people are to be realized. The issue seems more acute in Palestine, in the presence of a people who have fled from the urban civilization of Europe, as their ancestors escaped from Egyptian bondage. Urban educational ideas must be left behind if the permanent deliverance is to be attained. If a solution could be found, in spite of the extreme difficulty of the problem, no movement of our times would command a wider interest. The world would owe a new debt to the Jew, and Palestine would become more than ever the historical background of our civilization.

  1. Fairchild, David, "An American Research Institution in Palestine. The Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station at Haifa," Science, N. S., 31: 376.
  2. Cook, O. F., "Wild Wheat in Palestine," Bulletin 274, Bureau of Plant Industry, U. S. Department of Agriculture, 1913.
  3. See Huntington, E., "Palestine and its Transformation," 1911. This author considers it very unfortunate that most of the rain comes in the winter instead of in the summer season when the crops are growing, but overlooks the further facts that nearly all of the precipitation occurs in the form of very gentle rain, and that the granular limestone soil is extremely well adapted to absorb and retain the moisture till the crop season arrives. The sesame and sorghum crops grow without any rain, on moisture stored in the soil by dry farming methods.