Of Sheep, Kibbutz, Xmas and Spies in New Zealand

A Guest Post by AKUS

Many years ago, shortly after I joined my kibbutz, a raging feud broke out over the future of the kibbutz’s sheep “department “or “branch” – the “dir”, as it was known. The manager of the “dir” – let’s call him Yossie – had invested a large part of his life in building up this flock of about 50 or so sheep, and was convinced that he could maintain it as a profitable branch of the kibbutz. The main produce of the “dir” was sheep’s milk, plus the annual wool that was sheared, and, no doubt, some meat from the more superannuated members of the flock.

Yossie’s enthusiasm for his branch was not shared by many other members. Sheep tend to need grazing space, and there were more profitable uses of the kibbutz’s limited land. Milking sheep was hard work, done at miserable hours of the early morning, and it was hard to get kibbutz members to work in the “dir”. The price for sheep’s milk was going down – this was in the days before the PC crowd got going and would pay higher prices for sheep’s milk. The smell was awful – if you are at all familiar with the smell of a dairy farm, add-on that that a sort of sickly smell that seemed to be part and parcel of the “dir”, which would cling relentlessly to the bodies of those who worked there.

There were also dark accusations that the head of the dairy branch was trying to get the sheep milkers to join his group to milk in the growing and more profitable dairy business, and was undermining Yossie’s business.

The reality was, of course, that raising a small flock of sheep in an arid country like Israel is simply not a profitable business. It can be a hobby for those who want to make cheese from sheep (and goat’s) milk, but there is no comparison with the sheer volume of milk and the automation possible when dealing with a well-run dairy herd. The “dir” was closed down. Yossie, to this day, has never forgiven the kibbutz and reconciled himself to the economics of raising sheep.

This week we were treated to the presumably heartrending story of how the Israeli occupation of the West bank has ruined the sheep herding business there. Ana Carbajosa reports that In Bethlehem, shepherds watching their flocks by night are a dying breed. Just as my friend Yossie found out, “Adel Alsir, a 35-year-old Palestinian who herds his flock less than 100 metres from a biblical site known as the shepherds’ fields” has discovered that raising sheep in the Middle East 2,000 years after Jesus is not one of the great and growing businesses in the world economy.  Just as Yossie blamed the manager of the dairy herd for his troubles, the ever eager subeditors rushed to add a typical Guardian sub-header, pointing the finger for Adel’s troubles at Israel: “Jewish settlements, Israeli army checkpoints, closed military zones and the separation wall make them an increasing rarity”.

The story is accompanied with a picture conveniently provided by an Arab photographer that has important elements that are meant to tell a story. There is an Israeli soldier, an unidentified Palestinian shepherd pointing into the distance, a few sheep (we can see about eight), an Israeli military ambulance, and a village in the distance that may or may not be Maasareh, an Arab village, or a Jewish settlement. We are expected to believe that the well-paved road we see leads to a checkpoint, which we cannot see. The emphasis on Bethlehem and the “shepherd’s fields” means that we are, I believe, also expected to understand that this is an Israeli plot to undermine the Christmas story and the traditional ambience of Bethlehem.

Of course, it is also possible that with true Xmas spirit that the Israeli army has sent an ambulance to take a seriously ill Palestinian to a hospital in Jerusalem, or rescue a virgin from giving birth in a stable, and the shepherd is pointing them to the correct location, but that possibility is not one that our intrepid reporter cares to suggest. It is all part of the usual story – whatever Israel does must be wrong until it proves otherwise. Whatever a Palestinian says must be taken at face value, even if later proven to be nonsense or flat-out lies.

Carbajosa’s story is a classic piece of cheap Guardian misdirection. Actually, the reality facing those Bethlehem shepherds is that in a global economy, and particularly in an arid area where there has been an ongoing drought for the best part of a decade, raising sheep is not a great business to be in. In fact, this was known in the Bethlehem area even before shepherds raised their flocks in the “shepherd’s fields”: Genesis 12:10-13 “And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine [was] grievous in the land.” Abram (later Abraham) had no wall, no settlements, probably few Egyptian checkpoints and so on to blame his misfortune on – he simply accepted what was happened as a fact of life rather than whining about it to a reporter for a foreign clay tablet, and found another place to raise his sheep – an option not open to my friend Yossie or, perhaps, to his neighbor, Adel.

This brings us, of course, to New Zealand and why it is to blame for the destruction of Adel Alsir’s livelihood.

New Zealand has vastly more sheep than human beings, is a lush, green country where rain fall often  falls two days out of three in some parts, and which has suffered mightily due to the competition in the frozen meat business from larger countries such as Australian and the USA. The market for sheep is so competitive that New Zealand had to try to increase their lamb exports by making an extreme issue of a couple of Israelis accused of using forged New Zealand passports in order to suck up to Arab countries. We can turn to the Guardian, grinding its way forever through the Wikiflops, for this gem:

WikiLeaks cables: Lamb sales behind New Zealand’s ‘flap’ with Israel. “Country’s condemnation of Israeli intelligence agents in 2004 seen as attempt to increase exports to Arab states”.

The Guardian says that “…US officials in Wellington told their colleagues in Washington that New Zealand had “little to lose” from the breakdown in diplomatic relations with Israel and was instead merely trying to bolster its exports to Arab states” – with not a thought as to how their actions affect shepherds in Bethlehem. In fact, the plight of those Bethlehem shepherds is really due to New Zealand’s excessively aggressive attempts to market its sheep, from the other side of the world, to Adel Alsir’s Arab neighbors. With or without Israel, Adel with his 40 sheep is another victim of globalization, perpetrated by thoughtless farmers in a small, rainy, far-away country raising millions of the wooly creatures on lush green pastures and Israel is merely a convenient excuse for Kiwi farmers hoping to garner greater numbers of petrodollars at Adel Alsir’s expense.

So shame on you, New Zealand! In Bethlehem, as on my old kibbutz, Kiwis are turning shepherds watching their flocks by night in the Middle East into a dying breed without any regard to the needs of the Christmas story. Shame on you, indeed!

(By the way – this jingle is doing the rounds, which also helps explain why the traditional ambience of Bethlehem has changed: Jihad Bells – Latma TV.)

Categories: Guardian

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18 replies »

  1. Question
    why doesn’t the minister of tourism in charge commission one groomed and styled herd of extra-beautiful sheep that gives the right feeling to Christian tourists?

    Also I’ve read recently that some people of North-African descent in France prefer sheep with long tails instead of the short-tailed ones I am used to. Hopefully those like the New Zealand climate also. I doubt however that long-tailed ones will satisfy romantically minded tourists, we when booking our tour have acquired a right to having sheep look like they do in our Grimm’s fairy tale books.

    When I was still hiking regularly through the hilly areas in Germany’s middle I met shepherds quite often in bright day light. I never noticed that they looked like lacking sleep and they never told me, that they had to stay awake at night, which is why I assumed that at night it’s their dogs that do the watching.

  2. I don’t suppose they know at The Guardian that a Holocaust survivor who managed to get to Israel in 1950 reported on the Arabs’ little black sheep which had denuded the hills.

    Or of Mr Lowdermilk’s report from 1939 of the denuded land and the hundreds of abandoned villages.

    Our taxes must have changed the picture for Arabs to have become successful shepherds. And people should perhaps know that there’s a bacterium that thrives on the cut surface of New Zealand lamb and nowhere else.

  3. Silke, when I was in the Highlands of Scotland some years ago I kept seeing flocks of pure white sheep. When I asked a local why they were so white he said that they put talcum powder on them before takng them to market to sell to the English.

  4. Ariadne
    I have lived for 20 years in a 300 people village which still had a number of full time farmers – nothing in that field will surprise me.

    but please say that the bacterium on the Zealand lamb is harmless, at least for the elderly. Frozen New Zealand lamb is the only I can get and I love it boiled together with white cabbage (I know German kitchen is disgusting but I can’t help loving what used to be Sunday’s meal)

  5. Silke, I don’t know how harmful that bacterium might be but I’ve certainly eaten New Zealand lamb with no ill effects. It may be that cooking destroys it.

  6. Akus, this is an excellent analysis, and an example of what the situation needs, rational thought.

    The Guardian has Israel so firmly set under its magnifying glass that to them the rest of the world has no influence on relations with the local Arabs, Israeli or Palestinian. They present Israel as an omnipotent power directing lives at its own whim.

  7. Living in Israel for most of my life, I’ve passed Bethlehen scores of times, both as a civilian and in IDF uniform.

    I never ever saw a sheep in that area. Donkeys, plenty – but nary a sheep.

    The whole point of propaganda, is that it should be credible. This story isn’t – sounds a bit sheepish.

  8. An additional info: In Israel during the last Muslim holydays when Muslims customarily buy and slaughter a sheep; one of the big supermarket chains gave away a sheep for every customer who bought electrical appliances above a certain limit, even they delivered the poor victim to the address of the buyer – for free. (If I remember well – the authorities put an end to the practice due to pressure from the Israeli animal rights organisation).
    The sheep business is dying in the Middle-East – this fact has nothing to do with the occupation but MS Carbajosa’s gormless report has a lot to do with her hate of Israel and the Israelis.

  9. Loved the story, loved Latma’s satire – can’t understand all the fuss.

    Xmas wouldn’t be Xmas without Christian antisemitism. Even if the Guardian reader is typically left-wing and anti-religious…

    Most of it is subconscious antisemitism, anyhow. Those hymns they made us sing at school are full of ‘pure Holy Land’ images which British newspapers eagerly consume along with the Xmas turkey and cakes. It’s become a tradition to report on the little town of Bethlehem besieged and behind the Wall in ‘occupied Palestine’…

  10. Where’s Mostly Harmless aka Philip Weiss of the ghastly Mondoweiss?

    He likes a good taleabout sheep.

    Or is he lying low on this topic? He had to make a retraction this week after his site blithely republished a story about a Palestinian shepherd whose flock were killed in a scrub fire in the Jordan Valley.

    Weiss spread the shepherd’s lie that it was started by settlers as part of a campaign of intimidation, until the shepherd admitted to the police that he started the fire by accident and fabricated a story about armed religious settlers driving to his field one Shabbat, chasing him off and setting light to it.

    Frazzling a dozen of your prize pregnant ewes is not great for business. Best to blame the Jooz again… right, Mondoscheiss?

  11. Most of it is subconscious antisemitism, anyhow.

    agreed, but this has been proved to be fertile ground for lots of the Menschen harbouring it to switch to the real thing in no time whatsoever again and again and again

    and in case you happen not to know: disregarding hasn’t been a successful strategy.

  12. It’s not just Israeli sheep farming that’s struggling – the British sheep farming industry is having a hard time too, which is particularly unfortunate for the many hill farmers in Britain, whose land is really not suitable for ‘growing’ anything else but sheep (maybe a few suckler cattle as a ‘cash crop’ in summer, but only in limited numbers, as their hooves cut up the boggy land.)
    Imports of New Zealand Lamb have played a significant part in this demise too (although they are not the only influential factor), as it’s relatively cheap, readily available in every supermarket, and supplied frozen, meaning that it’s shelf life is vast by comparison to fresh British lamb,so the supermarkets stock it in larger amounts. Never the mind the fact that it is poorer quality: As with cheap chicken, price is generally more influential to the masses than quality.

    In short, unless the farmer has vast amounts of very inexpensive grazing available for the vast majority of the year, sheep farming is largely non-viable anywhere in the world – and even with the grazing, it’s unlikely to bring significant wealth. This year especially, I found the price of lamb (actually, meat in general) in Israel quite shocking by comparison both to British prices, and the average Israeli salary, and the people I know there just can’t afford to eat it, except maybe in smallish quantities on special occasions.

  13. The Guardian had to include sheep -otherwise how could they relate to the spirit of Christmas ;-). Thanks for another excellent posting. Hope to see lots of your high level posts in 2011. Be strong and of good courage!

  14. ““The Guardian had to include sheep” – because most of their readers are sheep.”

    And contributers to Der Guardians are sheep too…
    ““Bah!” said the Guardian’s Ana Carbajosa, “Humbug!””