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Inspired by a song


In the moving 1958 film, Me and the Colonel, Danny Kaye plays the role of S.L. Jacobowsky, a refined, elegant, proper Jew fleeing from the Nazis in the company of an aristocratic, unabashedly antisemitic colonel in the Polish army, played by Curt Jurgens. The two men are reluctant travel companions, thrown together by the cruelty and chaos of the times. The film thoughtfully depicts the evolution of the two men’s relationship against the backdrop of their nerve-wracking, harrowing effort to escape capture.

The colonel (Jurgens) is visibly bothered by Jacobowsky’s presence. But he becomes especially irritated when his Jewish travel partner hums a certain tune, which, of course, Jacobowsky does constantly throughout the film as a way of relieving the gut-wrenching tension of their predicament.

That tune – Anu banu artza livnot u’lihibanot ba – was one of the rallying cries of the early pioneers who settled in Eretz Yisrael, then British-ruled, mandatory Palestine.

Like most rallying cries, its words were as important as the familiar minor key melody, sung by Jacobowsky in low, comforting tones.

“Anu banu artza (We have come to the Land), livnot (to build) u’lihibanot ba (and be ourselves built as well in the process).” (My unpoetic translation)

The alliteration works well in the original Hebrew, though not too well in English. But the key message was the duality of the benefits of the endeavour: building the land and also building up the strength, character, resolve, of the labourers, and thus the community to which they belong and the new nation they were creating.

While perhaps originally intended as a song of inspiration for the new generation of Jewish farmers tilling the soil, bending their backs under the hot sun, clearing the land of rocks and stumps, draining swamps, planting, sowing and harvesting, the poem’s central message clearly also applied to each and every person contributing to the difficult, mundane and exciting, day-to-day travail of creating a new society.

As is the case with all dreams, some of the details of the actual, new society do not quite fit with the details dreamed through the gauze-like filter on the lens of aspiration and hope. The Jewish state is imperfect. But given the military siege under which that new society has developed from the very first days the pioneers sang that song, one can be very proud of what they did build and what their inheritors continue to build.

The young, tiny Jewish state is a work in progress, to be sure. Yet, even so, just six decades after its establishment, the people of Israel are helping change the world for the better in every sphere of human endeavour and challenge, helping enhance the lives of human beings all around the globe.

Take for example, the area of agriculture, which of course harkens conveniently back to the song that the pioneering Jewish farmers sang and that S.L. Jacobowsky hummed to himself, too.

In 1956, then-foreign minister Golda Meir created Israel’s Agency for International Development Co-operation, known by its acronym, MASHAV. Since 1957, merely nine years after the declaration of the state, Israel – through MASHAV – has been sharing its agricultural and technological know-how with Third World countries. According to the website, MASHAV has trained close to 270,000 individuals from approximately 132 countries in Israel and abroad.

Between May 15 and 17, Israel will host its 18th international agricultural exhibition. Agritech Israel 2012 will take place in the convention grounds of Tel Aviv. As Israeli reporter Avigayil Kadesh has written, more than 7,000 visitors from some 115 countries are expected to attend the three-day gathering.

Kadesh notes that Agritech is “the go-to event” for representatives from 200 companies and countless prospective customers from North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

“Out of sheer necessity because of its location in one of the world’s most arid regions,” Kadesh observes, “Israel’s agriculture sector has turned out one advanced solution after another, revolutionizing concepts in irrigation, recycling, crop storage, drought and disease resistance, biological pest control, and purification and reuse of wastewater for the thirsty needs of agriculture.”

Most of the rest of the world, therefore, comes to Israel to see, discuss, experience, discover, learn from and possibly buy the latest inventions, discoveries, approaches and ideas for coping with agricultural issues in their own respective locales.

The one part of the world from which very few, if any, participants and onlookers come to Agritech, is the area that might most benefit by doing so: the Middle East. Most of Israel’s Mideast neighbours prefer to avert their eyes from the advancements wrought by “the Zionist entity.”  They might one day change their mind.

First, however, they must change the song they sing from one of destroying their neighbour to building their own society.