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.)

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