Bedraggled Feathers

In the moshavim (cooperative agricultural villages) that are located in the Jerusalem Corridor, no one held his breath to follow the new economic decrees that were brought to the Knesset this week for approval. Their economic state is so desperate that they have become indifferent. At most of the moshavim, there remains nothing for which to fight. Farming is dead, the fields have dried up, the chicken coops have been eliminated and there are no sources of income. The young people have gone away, leaving behind parents who have memories of other days.

In the past, the Jerusalem Corridor moshavim flourished. They were perceived as the spearhead of agriculture, alongside the kibbutzim (collectives), and raked in huge profits. Then the crash began. Nonchalance, disputes among moshavim, ego battles and a lack of leadership accelerated the fall. "These moshavim had excellent records and were considered among the strongest in the country," said Nissim Zvili, who in the past served as secretary of the moshav movement. "They had no leadership and the second generation fled agriculture for outside jobs. To my regret, no moshav managed to prevent the fall."

The gospel according to Kisalon

The fall has left scars at Moshav Kisalon. Nearly 15 years have elapsed since this moshav was hit by the huge crises in the purchasing organization of the moshav movement. Because of the mutual guarantees signed in the working settlements, Kisalon had to pay millions from its coffers to help other moshavim. They had got into trouble because of loans they had taken out and could not repay.

More than 50 years ago, the first transit camp for new immigrants (ma'abara) in Israel was set up on the lands of Kisalon. Immigrants from Yemen who had come to Israel on Operation Magic Carpet were settled there and given farmland. Several years later, they preferred to abandon the moshav to join members of their community who had settled in the town of Rosh Ha'ayin. Immigrants from Morocco were settled at the abandoned moshav.

None of the immigrants were farmers before they came to Israel. Over time, they trained themselves in farming and raising chickens. "That was a wonderful period," related Hanania Tedgi, who immigrated from Morocco with his parents in 1956, when he was seven years old, "but nothing remains. See for yourself." Tedgi gestured toward the yellowing fields.

"Look at the chicken coops. There's nothing," he said, pointing to rickety structures that in the past had been home to hundreds of thousands of chickens. Tedgi learned to live with the clamorous racket that came from the chicken coops. The chickens provided a living for about 60 families from Morocco who settled at the moshav. The racket signified that their economic existence was assured.

Of the structures, only the skeletons remain. Here and there in the moshav, a few chicken coops are still in operation; these have been sold or leased to external contractors after it became clear their original owners could not maintain them.

"Nothing is left of the word `moshav,'" said Tedgi. "Only the name. The orchards and the fields are dried up. It doesn't pay to grow anything because there are no profits. The young people have left and most of the families work outside. The husband, the wife and the children."

After his businesses closed down, Tedgi was appointed maintenance man for the moshav. He had come to Israel as a traditional person. Eventually he became ultra-Orthodox and had 11 children. What hurts him most is that he cannot worship at the moshav, even though there are three synagogues serving the few dozen families that live here. The economic crisis cast the families into distress, which caused feuds and splits. Each splinter group built a synagogue for itself where its people worship, but there is not a prayer quorum of 10 men in any of them. Tedgi has to go all the way to Beit Shemesh for this.

"The 1970s were the best," he added. "We made a good living and everyone worked in agriculture. There was a quality of life and a wonderful atmosphere. Today, everyone is under pressure to earn a living."

About 10 years ago, the moshav members decided to end the cooperative arrangement. Every man for himself, with no guarantees for his fellows. If anyone had difficulties, they were his problem. "That's it. It was finished," explained Shimon Almaliah decidedly. "There are no more mutual guarantees and there is no more help. We live in a moshav but it's every man for himself. Anyone who gets messed up can't mess up anyone else."

Almaliah had just finishing placing eggs in cartons to be taken to Tnuva. He is among the few who still maintain a chicken coop, with thousands of hens. The value of eggs has plummeted. "Would you believe it?" he burst out, as he points at the noisy hens in the coop. "The price of a tray of eggs is NIS 7.50. This price hasn't gone up for years." This is the reason many of the chicken farmers take a shortcut and sell their produce directly to the markets, with no intermediary and no supervision.

The view from the houses at the moshav is breathtaking. Were it not for the poverty, the distress and the neglect evident in every corner, this would be one of the most beautiful places in the country.

"That's what I thought when I came to live here," related Dr. Zvi Berntal, a dentist who moved from Jerusalem to the moshav about 10 years ago. He found himself in the middle of a struggle with the religious inhabitants of the place. Berntal, who is devoutly secular and an even more devout seeker of liberty, was looking for quality of life, clean air and people who would not interfere in his life. This is not what he found. It was hinted to him that he should refrain from barbecues and other activities on the Sabbath. When he did not take the hint, his young children were attacked, and his clinic and car were vandalized. He erected a wall of concrete to create a separation zone between him and his neighbors. Since then things have calmed down.

Ever since he immigrated from Romania, he has not felt so threatened. "I have suffered here from anti-Semitism more than I did in Romania," he said. "In Romania, they didn't touch me the way they do here. Apparently it bothers them that I'm anti-religious." He is also bothered by the flies, which are attracted to the moshav by the smell of the chickens and show no mercy to his house. "Otherwise, it's a fantastic place," he said.

Taoz's story

Moshav Taoz is located not far from Moshav Kisalon. When it was established at the beginning of the 1950, immigrants from Yemen were sent there, and with time, they were replaced by immigrants from Kochin in India.

"We were farmers," related Hiligua Eliyahu. "We were 70 families and 70 farms. Today only two families remain who live off agriculture. All the rest have shut down their farms and work outside."

Taoz is one of four moshavim inhabited by people from Kochin. Immediately upon their arrival in the `50s, they set up agricultural settlements at Moshav Yuval in the north, at Nevatim in the Negev, and at Mesilat Zion and Taoz in the Jerusalem Corridor.

Members of Taoz built the chicken coops adjacent to their houses and raised olives and muscat grapes. As in Kisalon, here, too, there was a crisis in the mid-'80s that undermined the farming infrastructure. "The crisis occurred because they opened the market and stopped the subsidies to farmers," explained Eliyahu. "The moment agriculture became a free market, everything changed. Small farming disappeared and the small moshavim were left with no work. To my regret, most agriculture is now in the hands of the strong, in the hands of independent contractors and the kibbutzim."

Eliyahu took precautions in time. In consultation with the Tourism Ministry, he transformed storehouses into country guest rooms. Marketing experts from the ministry advised him to plan for the coming of pilgrims and Israeli tourists.

After he stopped working his fields and shut down the huge chicken coop, he turned to the tourism business in the belief that salvation would come from the guest rooms. It was a long time coming but the Tourism Ministry promised that the tourists and pilgrims were on their way to Israel and the Jerusalem Corridor moshavim with the Pope's visit to the Holy Land.

"We took out loans in order to get ready," explained Eliyahu, his voice faltering. "The intifada broke out and ruined everything for us. No tourists and no pilgrims. For two years now, the guest rooms have been empty. You say `the Jerusalem Corridor' and people are afraid to come."

His children work outside the moshav, as do most of the second generation of the founders of Taoz. The Jews of Kochin nourish the legend that they are among the original Jews. This same legend relates that 3,000 years ago, King Solomon came to the shores of Kochin in southwestern India. He spent a long time there with the Jewish sailors who were on the deck of his ship. "The Jews of Kochin are the descendants of those sailors," related Eliyahu proudly. During the first years after their immigration, they maintained the customs they had brought from their country of origin. In recent years, their culture had been fading away. Mixed marriages and population mobility have dimmed their cultural uniqueness.

"My fear is that in a few years nothing will remain of the glorious chapter of the Kochin Jews," he said. "Another generation or two and it will all disappear. Agriculture has gone and now our culture is also going. This makes me and all the adults in the moshav sad."

After reminiscing about the past, he got up and turned toward what remains of his chicken coop. It has been year since he entered this abandoned structure. Perhaps he has found it difficult to come to terms with the silence that has prevailed here after he had to get rid of his thousands of chickens. The small cages into which the hens were crowded are still here, row upon row of them. The pipes that brought water into the chicken coop are also still here, rusting away. Only the sharp smell has disappeared.

"I didn't have the heart to dismantle the chicken coop," said Eliyahu. "Ever since I closed it down six years ago, I haven't had the heart to move things."

Tarom's tale

Opposite Moshav Taoz is Moshav Tarom, where most of the inhabitants immigrated from Yemen. Here and there a few families from Kochin joined, but they have not succeeded in erasing the Yemenite dominance.

The place is empty. During the day, the moshav's members go out to work in Jerusalem and its environs. There is nothing to do here and there are no jobs. Here, too, the blame is laid on the mutual guarantees and the inflation of the `80s. They also blame the purchasing organizations that exploited the member of the moshavim and speculated in their assets. The government did not cancel the moshav's debts, as it did for the kibbutzim.

Meanwhile, people are adding on to their homes, building larger porches and tending their gardens. Moshe Rahabi supervises the work being done on his brother-in-law's large home, and Yehuda Agua also followed the excavations in the ground adjacent to his home. Because of their high altitude, the Jerusalem Corridor moshavim do not have drainage into a central sewage system for the most part and they have to use cesspits, just as in the days when they first settled on the land.

"OK, so agriculture went, but even what remains isn't worth anything," explained Agua, who wears a skullcap. "Ever since they brought television into the houses, all of the Yemenites' joie de vivre has gone. It used to be that we would spend the evenings together and take walks on the path of the moshav, and smell the smells of the earth and the chicken coops. And now - nothing. Everyone is in his own house with his own television."

Rahabi nodded. He came to the moshav in 1950, a year after he had immigrated from Yemen. He pointed toward the fields that surround the border of the moshav. "All of them were ours," he explained. "Today they are dead, to our sorrow. People lost their source of income and there is no one to work in the moshav. Everyone is outside or unemployed."

Levi Assaf Misik is one of the unemployed. He is 46 and for years has not been able to find work. His parents, among the founders of the moshav, still live here, in a house that has not been renovated for years. He has 10 brothers, each of them named after one of the Ten Tribes. The chain of brothers stopped at Zevulun. He also has four sisters. This week he sat on the porch of his parents' home and tried to exchange a few words with his grandmother. She addressed him in Arabic and he replied in Hebrew. She is ageless, according to him. Maybe 100, maybe more. No one knows when she was born.

"What do we have left? Only the view. Classiest in the world," he said and sat down by his grandmother. "Here it's like a hotel, but as far as earning a living goes, it's no good. Especially since agriculture is dead. People came to the Land of Israel to be farmers, and now they're telling them to look for something else to support themselves."

It is not clear to him why the moshav lands are destroyed while kibbutz lands still flourish. It is not clear to him why the government canceled the kibbutzim's debts. He has hard feelings toward the kibbutzim and their representatives in the Knesset.

"There are two classes in this country," he added angrily. "The kibbutzim get help from the state and we get nothing. For 15 years now we have been fading out. With all the poverty there was during the hard time after the founding of the state, there wasn't a situation like there is today. Then there was no hunger. There was what to eat and there was joy in life. Anyone who doesn't have an outside job - is unemployed like me."

His frustration is the frustration of many who invested the best years of their lives in working the land. It is not clear what will happen with these agricultural communities and many others throughout the country that are in similar trouble. Most of them have changed their purpose and have developed urban frameworks. The founding values, such as working the land and cooperation, have become a memory of things past.

The moshavim: facts and figures

Affiliation to settlement movements:

The Moshav Movement: 213

The Agricultural Union (Ha'ihud Hahakla'i): 70

Hapoel Hamizrahi: 80

Herut-Betar: 16

Agudat Yisrael: 7

Ha'oved Hazioni (Zionist Worker): 17

Total moshavim in Israel: 403

Total households on moshavim: 65,000

Total inhabitants: 325,000

Percentage of persons on moshavim engaged in agriculture, by year:

1955: 87 percent

1975: 81 percent

1985: 64 percent

2001: 39 percent