The Real Heroes of Israel’s Happy Harvest

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A Thai worker at Moshav Tzofar in the south. October 2018.

For a few hours Saturday I was overwhelmed by love for the land and country. It was at a Shavuot pageant at Moshav Tzofar in the Arava Desert in the south. It’s impossible not to be moved by the Rondo for Tractors, the wagon parade, the guilelessness, the excitement, the trip in the time machine and the sense of togetherness of such a likable community living in the desert, with the mountains of Edom in the background.

The people in Tzofar are so nice, sunburned and smiling. They didn’t steal the land from anyone, they made the desert bloom, and they’re even middle-of-the-road leftists: On April 9, around 70 percent voted for Kahol Lavan and just 4 percent for Likud — what more could we ask for?

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“There, all the Sarahs, Dahlias and Rinas walked slowly along the row of casuarinas,” as the old song says. At Tzofar they walked along the row of palm trees. Even the old Eretz Yisrael songs, which seem to belong in a collective farm, thrilled me at Tzofar on Saturday. The lettuce hora. The water sprinkler hora. “Here Is My Home.” “Our Baskets On Our Shoulders.” But maybe they should have sung “our baskets on their shoulders” — the shoulders of the Thai farmhands.

As in Naomi Shemer’s song “The Nahal Outpost in Sinai,” in Tzofar too, many nice things caught my eye: The breathtaking front of the action while the backyard remained in darkness, obscured, as if unintentionally. An Israeli classic. To see only what is comfortable to see.

Zionism has excelled at this, from “for a people without a land, a land without a people” to “the market square so empty” and the tractor song at Tzofar — the backyard remains in darkness so as not to spoil the party. The enterprise of denial and repression is one of the most important foundations of Zionism, regarding the Palestinians as well as the Thais.

One of the tractor drivers at Tzofar waved the rainbow flag Friday, alongside the Israeli flag, in a courageous and admirable act — fellow moshavniks said he has a lesbian daughter. But no one thought to wave the flag of half the community’s residents, the Thais, who comprise the majority of Tzofar’s farmers and laborers, who share in all its successes and its first fruits, with the exception of the babies born in the past year.

The invisible people remained invisible. The farmhands remained farmhands. Relegated to their trailer home parks, a few played footvolley, a sport that combines aspects of beach volleyball and soccer, as the wagon parade wound through the paths of the community that’s now their home.

An investigation broadcast by the BBC late last year presented a harrowing picture of exploitation and abuse of Thais brought to Israel to work. In the past seven years, 172 died in circumstances that weren’t always thoroughly investigated. The people at Moshav Tzofar say these workers are treated fairly: decent wages, air conditioners and solar hot-water heaters, health insurance and paid vacations. They cook their favorite foods, have their own little grocery and occasionally they’re even given pigs.

But it’s doubtful that anyone views them as equal human beings. No one thought, for example, to wave the Thai flag at the ceremony, a flag that’s more relevant here than the rainbow flag. The bar mitzvah boys and the discharged soldiers were presented, the moshav’s librarian received a prize — and half the community was excluded.

Maybe the Thais weren’t comfortable taking part in the celebration; they weren’t, of course, stopped from attending, and a few even stood bashfully on the side of the road and took pictures. But no one made the effort to invite them and honor them as they deserved to be honored, during an agricultural holiday that should have been their holiday as well.

Why? What’s the reason for the cold, patronizing, lordly and even exploitative treatment of the other, of the Filipino caretakers and the Thai farmworkers? The Thais don’t threaten to drive the Israelis into the sea, they’re neither terrorists nor BDS adherents, they don’t even intend to settle here permanently and endanger the sacred majority, as the African refugees do.

All they do is diligently work our fields and return to their own country, around 25,000 Thais who stay for five years, work hard, earn very good wages for Thailand, and are considered human shadows here.

Let them pick the dates and the peppers, return to their trailer homes at night and say thank you. Just as in Naomi Shemer’s “beautiful, forgotten Land of Israel .... And it’s as if she stretched out her hand. To give and not to take.”

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