Labor Zionism is alive and well

“The Pickers” build their own encampment on farms in Israel’s north and south, and harvest fruits and vegetables—oranges, dates, apples, grapes, mangoes and whatever else may be in season.

Volunteers busy helping farmers in southern Israel. Credit: HaShomer HaChadash.
Volunteers busy helping farmers in southern Israel. Credit: HaShomer HaChadash.
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

When our son Daniel completed his service as a combat medic in the Israel Defense Forces, my wife and I were proud and relieved. The expectation was that he, like other soldiers, would take six months to a year to decompress and travel to India, South America or some other distant land and then go to college. COVID, of course, ruined his plans and, instead of a walkabout, he joined a group called “The Pickers” and became a farmworker. This was not what we had envisioned for our son.

We were anxious to see him after a year-and-a-half apart. He had joined Garin Tzabar and was on the last plane of olim to land at Ben-Gurion in 2017. When he left Maryland, he was an immature 21-year-old who we never believed would make aliyah, join the army or become an elite soldier. In our subsequent visits, we saw how the army had made him into a mature, responsible and very fit young man.

We had hoped he could take time off to be with us. As luck (both good and bad) would have it, he fell out of a mango tree, broke his ribs and punctured a lung a few weeks before we arrived. He couldn’t work, so he spent time with us while he recuperated.

When he arrived at our apartment in Jerusalem, he was still fit and mature but also looked like a walking cliché from the ’60s. He wore a bandana and an earring, had a tattoo on his back, smoked cigarettes, played the harmonica, read poetry and spouted philosophy. The only thing missing was multicolored bell-bottom pants and hair to his waist (he could blame his balding father for that).

After spending a few days poking fun at him, he took us for Shabbat dinner at the kfar (“village”) in the north near Qatzrin where he lived and worked when he was healthy. There, we got a completely different impression of our son.

“The Pickers,” a rough translation from the Hebrew name for the group, build their own encampment on farms in the north and south, and harvest fruits and vegetables—oranges, dates, apples, grapes, the dreaded mangoes and whatever else may be in season. This is backbreaking work done early in the morning when it is hot but usually not yet unbearable (temperatures topped 100 degrees when we were in Israel). Laborers get paid by the quantity they pick. His comrades told us Daniel was one of the fastest and most efficient among them; nevertheless, there is no indication that he is getting rich. For his parents, that might be somewhat important, but for Daniel and the others, the money is almost secondary to the joy and satisfaction they get from the work.

When we visited the village, they were living in a cow pasture. Unlike further north in the Golan Heights where you can find signs warning about land mines; here, they could have used ones that said, “Beware Cow Patties.”

Pickers brought or built their own accommodation. Most lived in tents, though a few more ambitious souls constructed their own. Our son was particularly proud of the executive suite he had constructed from wire, wood and canvas he found in the area. It was a work in progress with no walls or roof, but it provided him a private space away from the others to contemplate the meaning of his life.

Most of the camp was built by the group. They could hire someone else, but “what’s the fun in that,” said one of the workers.

The base was not entirely primitive; they had water, electricity, regular hygienic bathrooms as opposed to porta-potties, a seemingly out-of-place washer and dryer, and a large kitchen area with freezers (that take six people to transport), running water, preparation tables and a stove. On a typical day, the workers would make their own meal, but for Shabbat, it became a group effort with everyone sharing in the preparation of everything from challah to tahini to roasted chicken.

While they cooked, my wife and I had a chance to get to know some of the “pickers.” They were all young, probably in their 20s. Most had completed their army service and had come to make some money, and to be part of a collective that wanted to do something for themselves and for Israel by working the land. Many had no idea what they were in for when they arrived, but all told us they loved what they were doing and the camaraderie of the group.

These were not hippies but true Labor Zionists in the tradition of A.D. Gordon. For those who don’t know, he was the first of the leaders of the movement to arrive in Israel, before David Ben-Gurion and others. He arrived in 1905 at the age of 47 and dedicated himself to physical labor because he believed that national salvation in Eretz Israel required working the land.

After the vegetarian dinner was ready, everyone had to wait while Daniel prepared chicken for his father over an open fire he started nearby. Everyone gathered in a large canvas-covered dome they had created for relaxation, entertainment, and meals. Daniel said they have a jam session on the stage there every Tuesday, their own mini-Woodstock.

The pickers sat patiently on a hodgepodge of couches and chairs with most on the ground beside long tables. To our surprise, they were waiting to hear Daniel give a short speech and say the kiddush. We were told that a highlight of the week was always a philosophical or inspirational talk by Daniel. He spoke in his now fluent Hebrew and, embarrassingly, we couldn’t understand him, but the group all applauded.

Afterward, he told us he had said. “There is a mystery of connection—that when two things are alone, they can be connected by a physical or verbal bridge. Here,” he explained, “there is something very powerful where we can sit one next to the other in silence and still feel connected. We don’t need to fill the space between words or touching. The vibes connect everyone, and it’s very special because there’s a lot of love here.”

The moment Daniel finished, the ravenous workers attacked the buffet like elderly Jews at a Saturday afternoon kiddush. After dinner, one woman started playing the drums while one of the men played guitar, and Daniel strummed a bass he doesn’t know how to play. Vegan ice-cream was distributed to the audience.

Most of these Labor Zionists stay a year or less before moving onto school or another activity. One young woman had been a shooting instructor in the army before she found the job with the pickers on Facebook. She had no idea what the job entailed, but fell in love with it and had been working for about a year. She was surprised by how quickly everyone had come to feel like family and loved being out in nature, where she saw the sunrise every morning when she woke up for work and the sunset before going to sleep. She considers herself a Labor Zionist and felt the work was hard but also fun. “You’re picking the fruit and putting it in a container, and then you look and see that its full of fruit and think, ‘How did this happen?’ and realize, this was me. I can do it. You learn a lot about yourself.”

One veteran of the group said he had originally come just to get out of the city. “I didn’t know jack about what I put in my mouth before,” he said. “Most people know the garlic they put in their tehina has to travel all the way from China. There’s a product here. Why not use it here. Why import tomatoes from Turkey when we have such great tomatoes in Israel?”

He told us farmers like the pickers. Instead of bringing over foreign workers, he said, they can hire young, energetic Jewish Israelis who find the work rewarding: “When you get up early in the morning to pick apples, you’re doing something useful, working at the rock bottom of the food industry.”

“We’re the first to touch the fruit before it goes anywhere else,” added Daniel. “We also wake up at the crack of dawn and catch the sunrise. While others are snug in their beds, we’re already sweating getting the job done. It’s an honor.”

Most people stumbled onto the job with the pickers. The veteran called the group a pack of strays. “After work, we do our thing. It works—most of the time. We don’t have too many rules, but the people who are meant to be here somehow get here.”

Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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