Agricultural Cooperatives in Israel

In June 1968, eight people from the United States traveled to Israel for the purpose of studying agricultural cooperatives on leased land.  Their hope was that something similar might be applied in the rural South to improve the condition of impoverished African American sharecroppers, tenants, and farmers who were being forced off the land, an economic consequence of the mechanization of agriculture or a political consequence of their participation in the Southern civil rights struggle.

The U.S. delegation included:

  • Slater King, a local businessman and civil rights leader from Albany, Georgia;
  • Marion King, Slater’s wife, who had been one of the first African Americans to register to vote as Albany’s civil rights movement gathered steam in the early 1960s;Israel 1968-Slater King-Bob Swann-Marion King-Fay Bennett
  • Bob Swann, U.S. field director for the International Independence Institute in Massachusetts;
  • Fay Bennett, the executive director of the National Sharecroppers Fund, a nonprofit advocacy organization created in 1937 to publicize the plight of sharecroppers and tenant farmers and to push for protective legislation, social services, and economic opportunities for these agricultural workers;
  • Leonard Smith, a colleague of Fay Bennett’s at the National Sharecroppers Fund;
  • Lewis Black, a board member of the Southwest Alabama Farmers’ Cooperative Association;
  • Albert Turner, field director for the Southern Conference Leadership Conference in Alabama; and
  • Charles Sherrod, a founder and former organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who had recently returned to Georgia after earning a Doctor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary.

What drew these eight activists to Israel was the opportunity to learn more about the county’s Jewish National Fund logokibbutzim and moshavim, planned agricultural communities that operated cooperative enterprises on land that was leased from the Jewish National Fund (JNF).  Founded in 1901 by Zionists who were influenced by the writings of Henry George, the JNF purchased land in Ottoman Palestine (later Israel) and later made it available for Jewish settlement and development through 99-year ground leases.  Its policy from the beginning was to serve “as the Desert agriculture in IsraelJewish People’s trustee of the land,” in the words of JNF’s charter, which meant almost never selling any of its holdings.  This principle was later enshrined in the new country’s Basic Law, stipulating that “The ownership of Israel lands . . . shall not be transferred either by sale or in any other manner.”  Long-term leasing was allowed; selling was not.   

The opportunity to study this sophisticated system of large-scale ground leasing was one of the reasons for the Americans’ trip to Israel in 1968.  As much as they may have been inspired by India’s Gramdan villages, even to the point of talking about sparking a “Gramdan Movement in America,” the customs, laws, and economics surrounding ground leasing in Israel seemed a better fit for the United States.

The second attraction was Israel’s decades of success in doing rural development using experimental communities and agricultural cooperatives.  The model that the Americans found the most attractive, during their month-long stay in Israel, was the moshav.  They believed that the more collectivist approach to property, profits, and childrearing that characterized the kibbutz would be unacceptable to African Americans in rural Georgia.  In a moshav, by contrast, purchasing, selling, and most production were done cooperatively, but each family had its own leasehold and held title to its own home.

Nahalal todayThe first moshav, Nahalal, was established in northern Israel in 1921.  Nahalal’s land use plan, devised by architect Richard Kauffmann, became the pattern for many of the moshavim established before 1948.  It is based on concentric circles, with the public buildings (school, administrative and cultural offices, cooperative shops and warehouses) in the center, the homesteads in the innermost circle, the farm buildings in the next, and beyond those, ever-widening circles of gardens and fields.  By 1986, there were approximately 156,700 Israelis living on 448 moshavim.

When the American delegation returned to the United States, it was the moshav model they recommended to their friends and colleagues for adoption.  The combination of community ownership of land, individual ownership if homes, and cooperative organization of revenue-generating enterprises seemed to them the perfect mix for the community development they hoped to do and the impoverished population they hoped to serve.  One year later, after a participatory planning process led by the men and women who had made the trip to Israel, Articles of Incorporation were filed for New Communities Inc., “a nonprofit corporation to hold land in perpetual trust for the permanent use of rural communities.”

Further Reading

  • Elaine Baldwin, Differentiation and Co-operation in an Israeli Veteran Moshav (Manchester University Press, 1972).
  • International Independence Institute, “One Experiment: Organizing New Communities, Inc.,” Chapter Three in The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America (Cambridge, MA: Center for Community Economic Development, 1972).Commerorative moshav stamp
  • Bob Swann, “New Communities—5000 Acres and One Million Dollars,” Chapter 20 in Peace, Civil Rights, and the Search for Community: An Autobiography (Great Barrington, MA: Schumacher Society for a New Economics, 2001).
  • S. Ilan Troen, Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs, and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement (Yale University Press, 2003).
  • Harry Viteles, History of the Cooperative Movement in Israel (Vallentine Mitchell & Company Ltd, 1968).
  • D. Weintraub, M. Lissak, Y. Azmon, S. N. Eisenstadt, Moshava, Kibbutz, and Moshav: Patterns of Jewish Rural Settlement and Development in Palestine (Cornell University Press, 1969).

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