Inon Rozenblum was born in Haifa and found his utopia on a dusty hilltop in the Jordan River Valley in 1982.
When the members of this fledgling community did their shopping and errands in nearby Jericho, Arab storekeepers were surprised to hear where the new customers were coming from.
“They couldn’t believe we were living on a rocky hill. They said, ‘You cannot eat from this land! You won’t last long.’ But now my grandchildren are here too,” Rozenblum told a group of journalists in the herb-packing house at Moshav Naama, an agricultural community of 50 families.
Premium Medjoul dates are the main crop grown on the 21 Israeli communities of the Jordan Valley, including Moshav Naama. According to the Israel Plants Production and Marketing Board, farms in the Jordan and Arava valleys provide the majority of the Medjoul dates in the world market.
“Thirty-five years ago, you didn’t see one date here. It was all desert,” says Rozenblum.
The pioneers used Israeli agricultural advances, including drip irrigation with purified wastewater, to turn the valley into an oasis of date orchards, reviving a crop that thrived here in biblical times.
Long since moved off the hilltop, Moshav Naama has 5 hectares (about 12.5 acres) of date palms, annually producing between 50 and 70 tons of fruit sold through cooperatives under various brand names.
The families here also grow herbs, organic vegetables and table grapes. Rozenblum’s son raises tropical fish for export.
Not only did the original residents happily prove their friends in Jericho wrong, but they shared their cultivars and ag-tech expertise. As a result, several Jericho families were able to revitalize the city’s prosperous ancient date industry that had lain dormant for many years despite its abundant natural springs, Rozenblum says.
Ruled by Jordan from 1949 to 1967, and by Israel from 1967 to 1994, Jericho now is administered by the Palestinian Authority. Israeli citizens may enter only with a special permit.
But the warm working relationships forged in the 1980s and early 1990s continue to bear fruit. Jericho residents are among the 6,000 to 9,000 Palestinian Arabs – depending on the season — who rely on the Israeli farms of the Jordan Valley for employment.
Harvesting and packing dates, peppers, grapes, herbs and even pineapple in these 21 communities pays double the money they would earn doing agricultural work in Palestinian villages, Rozenblum says.
Jordan Valley Regional Council Mayor David Alhayani puts it this way: “We want them to work with us and they want to work with us.”
On his own farm, Rozenblum grows sweet basil and tarragon all year in greenhouses.
Because temperatures in the Jordan Valley can climb to 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) on summer days, the packing house is air-conditioned to keep workers comfortable while they sort and box the herbs for export.
“We ship via air to Europe, the United States, Canada, Hong Kong and Japan. By the next day it’s in the supermarket,” says Rozenblum.
In the past few years, a new crop of young Israelis began moving to the area, some of them returning to where they were raised. Although 70% of adults in the Israeli Jordan Valley communities work in agriculture, not all the newcomers are interested in farming.
“It’s a wonderful place to live and to raise children, and we are only 45 minutes from the center of Jerusalem and one and a half hours from Tel Aviv,” says Rozenblum. “Our children are coming back for the quality of life.”