'Palestinian' Terrace Farming's Jewish Origins

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The Jerusalem hills after a wildfire, last week.
The Jerusalem hills after a wildfire, last week.Credit: Emil Salman

My father, Gideon Altshuler, almost paid with his life for the afforestation of the hills around Jerusalem. In 1928, my grandfather Nakdimon was part of the afforestation project, living in a tent with his wife Chaya and their baby boy. One rainy night, the baby got sick and my grandfather carried him by horse, galloping from Shaar HaGai to Latrun, where the monks saved my father’s life.

I’ve resorted to family history to refute claims by Hanin Majadli's recent oped in Haaretz, according to which the afforestation of the Jerusalem hills started after 1948, meant to cover up the ruins of Palestinian villages. Majadli waxed poetic about the recent fire there, claiming it destroyed colonialist Zionist forests while revealing the Palestinian past. Her pining is based on an error – the intensive planting of trees in the Jerusalem hills, including pine trees, began in 1926 at the behest of the British Mandate’s forestry department and under its management, and was intended to cover the bare hills.

Majadli lauds Palestinian farmers, who “know the land as well as they know their children and the terraces they built on these hills.” However, the term “terrace” is a translation of the Roman word for balcony, and this is what the Roman conquerors, 2,000 years ago, called the steps the Jews had built on the hillsides.

A similar agricultural term in Arabic, “mudarajat,” does not “attest to the ties between the Palestinian farmer and his land,” but is a translation of the Hebrew word for steps. In the Mishna, written in the third century, there is a ruling that relates to the construction of such steps, or terraces. According to the Mishna, it is forbidden to build such terraces at the opening of a gully as the seventh year (the “shmita” year) of the agricultural cycle approaches, in order to avoid working the land during this sabbatical year.

Archeological findings confirm that “terrace farming” is an ancient Israelite invention that included building steps on hillsides, digging cisterns for collecting rainwater and conduits for channeling groundwater during the dry summer season. The Jewish people developed in its homeland what Zvi Ron, who holds a doctorate in hydrology, calls a “hydrological culture,” which enabled the development of sophisticated agriculture that included the growing of crops that were irrigated during the summer.

The Palestinians “inherited” this terrace agriculture, which makes Majadli’s contempt for the historical-biblical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel a cynical ploy. She ignores the fact that for 1,300 years, from the Muslim conquest in the seventh century until the establishment of the state in 1948, the land’s conquerors forbade Jews to purchase land in their homeland.

In the Middle Ages, Christian ship captains were forbidden to take Jews to the country’s coast. All this was part of the policy of colonialist conquerors, Christian and Muslim, to thwart any attempt by Jews to return and settle in their native country. Even in the 16th century, in which Jews managed to settle in the agricultural region of Tiberias, Safed and the Upper Galilee, they were only allowed to lease land under demeaning conditions, not to purchase it.

Despite this, various colonialists never managed to invent a convincing native narrative and efface the authentic link between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. “Our land will yield its harvest,” says Psalm 85, verse 12. The truth comes not just from archaeology and holy scriptures, but from the immense efforts of Zionist pioneers who developed advanced agriculture, building what was destroyed and planting forests that had been burnt.

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