Traveling across Israel to visit a Terra Madre food community helps to better understand this complex country, so full of contradictions. Occasionally meeting communities in the places where they live is a good opportunity to appreciate the joys and the difficulties encountered by people working in close contact with the land.
The hour’s drive separating Jerusalem from Ela Valley provides a comprehensive snapshot of what living in this strip of the Middle East is like. Where until a few decades ago there was desert, cedars of Lebanon now prevail. Palestinian towns and Jewish settlements alternate along a road protected here and there by barbed wire and, at one point, by grim concrete shelters. Admiration for the attractive landscape is stifled by all the security measures, whose psychological effect is anything but reassuring. But the sense of unease disappears when, beyond Beit Shemesh, you turn into a small lane and find yourself immersed among olive groves in an unreal peace.
It is the exact spot where, according to the Bible, David defeated Goliath. Now as then, it is the stage for a deep conflict. That is something you realize straight away. Inbal Meldes-Flohr is a young woman, she is 29 and has two children. She has courageously chosen to bring up her two children among the olive trees. Harvesting and pressing olives is the main activity in her farm. The farm grows organically, uses traditional methods of pressing and achieves excellent results. In spite of this, Inbal says that times are hard. A few months ago they had 80 goats stolen, a huge setback for a community struggling to practice sustainable agriculture on a small scale. Bedouin raiders cross the border by night to rustle animals and once they have returned there is nothing anyone can do.
If it was difficult before to earn an income from the cheese of the few goats, now the whole venture is in jeopardy. These small farming communities, without any protection whatsoever, are the first victims of a terrible conflict, where enmity smolders under the ashes and occasionally flares up, fed by clashing grievances. It certainly isn’t just one side that is right.
Difficulties with the government add to the complicated relationship with the Arabs. It is too expensive to obtain certification for products, so only some of them can access traditional retail channels. As in the rest of the world, it is products produced on a large-scale which are favored and the laws, custom made for agribusiness, make it hard for small farmers to survive and demean all their hard work.
In spite of their difficulties, the members of this community proudly proclaim their happiness. Their faces light up when they begin to talk about the vineyards and harvesting the olives. They are pleased they can say that schoolchildren come and visit to see how olive oil and cheese are made. Before driving back to Jerusalem there is time to see the beehives. “The Bible says we live in a land of milk and honey,” says Inbal as we leave, “so I can’t be without bees in my farm.”
First printed in La Stampa on June 27 2005
Adapted by Ronnie Richards