Sde Nitzan is a speck in the remote wastes of the western Negev Desert, an oasis south of the volatile Gaza Strip and east of the tranquil Egyptian border.
The bleak area south of Sde Nitzan is an empty, sun-baked quarter of sand dunes and gravel plains, one of Israel’s last frontiers.
Thirty four years ago, when Efraim Perlmutter arrived at this moshav as a 31-year-old American who had made aliyah the year before, this arid region was far less settled than it is today.
“If I had known what lay ahead,” he said the other afternoon, “I might not have come here. But it’s been a challenging life.”
Sde Nitzan and the archipelago of rural communities around it were built with the express purpose of developing the Negev, which comprises two-thirds of Israel’s land mass. The Jewish National Fund played an integral role in preparing the land and infrastructure.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first and per-haps greatest prime minister, decreed that the Negev’s development was a national priority. He poured scarce resources into it, and when he retired, he settled in Sde Boker, a kibbutz facing an immense desert crater. Some of his successors, intent on retaining territories won in the Six Day War, placed considerably less emphasis on making the Negev green. But in general, Israel has kept faith with Ben-Gurion’s dream.
Sde Nitzan, about an hour’s drive from Be’er Sheva, the capital of the Negev, is a pivotal component of Israel’s long-range plan to conquer the desert. Established in 1973 as an agricultural settlement for new immigrants from Anglophone countries, Sde Nitzan broke the spirit of many of the newcomers, who simply dropped out in exhaustion. The climate was harsh, the demands unyielding and unfamiliar and hard. Israelis replaced the dropouts, but eventually, North American Jews like Perlmutter joined them. Perlmutter, originally from Washington, D.C., is a life-long Zionist, having been a member of the Habonim youth movement and having resolved to settle in Israel when he was only 16 years old.
True to his convictions, he spent a year on Kibbutz Gesher Haziv when he was 17. Returning to the Uni–ted States, he continued his studies. While pursuing a graduate degree in political science at the University of Maryland, he read a story in the Jerusalem Post that piqued his attention. It was about a Jewish agronomist from New Zealand, a nephew of the renowned Yiddish writer Isaac Lieb Peretz, who had immigrated to Israel and had introduced the glass-house concept of agricultural to Israel. Upon further delving into the matter, Perlmutter discovered that this revolutionary meth-od shortens the growing sea-son, increases yield and uses less water, a perfect formula for Israel.
Captivated by the concept and by the no-tion that he could transform himself into a farmer, Perlmutter finally immigrated to Is-rael. He reached Sde Nitzan in 1974, just months after the Yom Kippur War.
Perlmutter’s life-changing decision to reinvent himself was surprising, to say the least.
Apart from having worked as a volunteer in a chicken and turkey coop at a kibbutz when he was a teenager, Perlmutter knew virtually nothing about farming. And as a city slicker to the mar-row of his bones, he always assumed that he would live in an urban environment.“I never thought I would end up on a moshav, much less the Negev,” he said, sitting in the kitchen of his rather modest cottage and sipping a cold Coke to ward off the heat.
Having committed himself to the moshav, he was presented with the choice of either tending to tomatoes or flowers, the two crops Sde Nitzan concentrated on at the time.
He chose tomatoes. “It turned out well,” he said. “I survived.”
But the hours were incredibly long and he was forced to supplement his income by teachi-ng at a local school.
Perlmutter, assisted by his wife, was a to-mato farmer 20 years, until he got fed up with Israel’s byzantine export regulations and resolved to expand his horizons.
These days, he tends to pineapples and rus-cus, a green ornamental plant native to Eu-rope, Africa and southwest Asia and normally used at festive occasions. Neither is as la-bour intensive as tomatoes, he noted. He ships the bulk of the pineapples to Tel Aviv and the ruscus to markets in Europe, Japan and the United States.
“I’m not rich, but by Israeli standards, I’m well off,” he explained. “I put food on the table.”
Sde Nitzan has a population of 400 – the majority of whom are native-born Israelis – and 74 self-contained farming units. Typically, each house is attached to a field. Perlmutter owns 8-1/2 dunams (one dunam is equal to 900 square metres), plus more land in partnership with associates.
Crops are grown in hothouses and fed and wa-tered electronically through a drip system of irrigation.
Like most farmers in Israel nowadays, he relies on Thai workers to care for and harvest crops. He and his partners employ six Thais, whom he praises as diligent and reliable workers.
Sde Nitzan no longer has Palestinian Arab workers on its payroll. “We never employed Palestinians on a big scale,” he said.
Prior to the eruption of the second Palestinian uprising, farmers like Perlmutter performed much of the manual work themselves, only using Palestinian farm hands when absolutely necessary.
Being seven kilometres from Gaza, Sde Nitzan has been occasionally shelled by Qas-sam rockets and mortars, but all the projectiles fired by Palestinian militants have landed in empty fields, not causing any material da-mage or injuries.
Perlmutter has four children, three sons and one daughter, but only his daughter has remained on the moshav. His eldest son is employed by a hotel at the Dead Sea, while his youngest one resides in Tel Aviv. The middle son lives in Australia.
Perlmutter has no intention of leaving Sde Nitzan. “Life is more intense here than in the city,” he said.
He is grateful that the Jewish National Fund has taken such an interest in the Negev. “Without the JNF, the moshav could not have been built.”
Nor could Sde Nitzan have survived with-out the benefit of the JNF’s Besor reservoir, a relatively short distance away.
Constructed about a decade ago with the help of JNF branches in Australia, South Africa and the United States, it was conceived to provide the region with an extra 10 million cubic metres of recycled water annually.
The water, used exclusively for agriculture, comes from a sewage plant in Tel Aviv and from flash flood, said Samuel Cohen, an engineer employed by Mekorot, Israel’s national water company.
Cohen said that the Besor complex consists of three pools, the Lower Rehovot reservoir, the Upper Rehovot reservoir and the Besor reservoir.
The Besor reservoir, the largest ever built by the JNF, is a sight to behold, resembling nothing less than a small lake in a hard-scrabble tan landscape. Stocked with 100,000 male fish to feed on algae, the reservoir is 17 metres deep when full.
Thanks to it, farmers are able to cultivate 25,000 dunams of citrus, corn, wheat, sunflowers and vegetables, much of it for export, in this heretofore inhospitable region.
“This was once desert,” said Cohen.
And now, miraculously, it is a lush garden.