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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An early Jewish settlement in Palestine (1882)

Famed, eccentric British explorer and writer Laurence Oliphant journeyed to Palestine in the early 1880s. In this excerpt from his book "Haifa; or, Life in modern Palestine," this is a somewhat humorous and illuminating account of the founding of a new unnamed Jewish agricultural settlement in 1882, probably Zichron Yaakov. (h/t anonymous commenter)
About sixteen miles to the south of the projecting point of Carmel, upon which the celebrated monastery is perched above the sea, there lies a tract of land which has suddenly acquired an interest owing to the fact of its having been purchased by the Central Jewish Colonization Society of Roumania, with a view of placing upon it emigrants of the Hebrew persuasion who have been compelled to quit the country of their adoption in consequence of the legal disabilities to which they are subjected in it, and who have determined upon making a bona fide attempt to change the habits of their lives and engage in agricultural pursuits. I was invited by the local agent in charge of this enterprise to accompany him on a visit to the new property, whither he was bound with a view of making arrangements for housing and placing upon it the first settlers. Traversing the northern portion of the fertile plain of Sharon, which extends from Jaffa to Carmel, we enter by a gorge into the lower spurs of the Carmel range, which is distant at this point about three miles from the seacoast, and, winding up a steep path, find ourselves upon a fertile plateau about four hundred feet above the level of the sea. Here over a thousand acres of pasture and arable land have been purchased, on which a small hamlet of half a dozen native houses and a storehouse belonging to the late proprietor compose the existing accommodation. This hamlet is at present occupied by the fellahin wlio worked the land for its former owner, and it is proposed to retain their services as laborers and co-partners in the cultivation of the soil until the new-comers shall have become sufficiently indoctrinated in the art of agriculture to be able to do for themselves.

The experiment of associating Jews and Moslem fellahin in field labor will be an interesting one to watch, and the preliminary discussions on the subject were more picturesque than satisfactory. The meeting took place in the storehouse, where Jews and Arabs squatted promiscuously amid the heaps of grain, and chaffered over the terms of their mutual co-partnership. It would be difficult to imagine anything more utterly incongruous than the spectacle thus presented —the stalwart fellahin, with their wild, shaggy, black beards, the brass hilts of their pistols projecting from their waistbands, their tasselled kufeihahs drawn tightly over their heads and girdled with coarse black cords, their loose, flowing abbas, and sturdy bare legs and feet; and the ringleted, effeminate-looking Jews, in caftans reaching almost to their ankles, as oily as their red or sandy locks, or the expression of their countenances — the former inured to hard labor on the burning hillsides of Palestine, the latter fresh from the Ghetto of some Roumanian town, unaccustomed to any other description of exercise than that of their wits, but already quite convinced that they knew more about agriculture than the people of the country, full of suspicion of all advice tendered to them, and animated by a pleasing self-confidence which I fear the first practical experience will rudely belie. In strange contrast with these Roumanian Jews was the Arab Jew who acted as interpreter—a stout, handsome man, in Oriental garb, as unlike his European coreligionists as the fellahin themselves. My friend and myself, in the ordinary costume of the British or American tourist, completed the party.

The discussion was protracted beyond midnight—the native peasants screaming in Arabic, the Roumanian Israelites endeavoring to outtalk them in German jargon, the interpreter vainly trying to make himself heard, everybody at cross-purposes because no one was patient enough to listen till another had finished, or modest enough to wish to hear anybody speak but himself. Tired out, I curled myself on an Arab coverlet, which seemed principally stuffed with fleas, but sought repose in vain. At last a final rupture was arrived at, and the fellahin left us, quivering with indignation at the terms proposed by the new-comers. Sleep brought better counsel to both sides, and an arrangement was finally arrived at next morning which I am afraid has only to be put into operation to fail signally. There is nothing more simple than farming in co-operation with the fellahin of Palestine if you go the right way to work about it, and nothing more hopeless if attempted upon a system to which they are unaccustomed. Probably, after a considerable loss of time, money, and especially of temper, a more practical modus operandi will be arrived at. I am bound to say that I did not discover any aversion on the part of the Moslem fellahin to the proprietorship by Israelites of their land, on religious grounds. The only difficulty lay in the division of labor and of profit, where the owners of the land were entirely ignorant of agriculture, and therefore dependent on the co-operation of the peasants, on terms to be decided between them.