Miracle in the Desert

“The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.”

The Book of Isaiah 35:1

The 20th century Israelites did not find their promised land “flowing with milk and honey,” as their forebears did 3,300 years ago. They came to a land of encroaching sand dunes along a once-verdant coast, of malarial swamps and naked limestone hills from which an estimated three feet of topsoil had been scoured, sorted, and spread as sterile overwash upon the plains or swept out to sea. 

The land of Israel had shared the fate of land throughout the Middle East. A decline in productivity, in population and in culture had set in with the fading of the Byzantine Empire some 1,300 years ago. The markers of former forest boundaries on treeless slopes and the ruins of dams, aqueducts and terraced irrigation works, of cities, bridges and paved highways all bore witness that the land had once supported a great civilization with a much larger population in a higher state of well-being.

This neglected condition was on the mind of Western Jewish News UN Correspondent David Horowitz when he visited the Negev (desert region of southern Israel) in 1952 with acclaimed soil conservationist Dr. Walter Clay Lowdermilk. An Oxford University graduate who was named a Rhodes scholar in 1911, Dr. Lowdermilk worked in countries throughout the world to help protect and reclaim lands in order to better feed their population. Lowdermilk strongly felt that the Upper Negev region might well hold the key to the future development of all the idle and wastelands in Israel.

Acacia tree in Negev desert, Israel.

Dr. Lowdermilk hoped to create a situation in Israel, through his land reclamation program, that would make the establishment of settlements run ahead of the influx of pioneers by at least 6-8 months. The reclamation of the desert Negev areas would not only revive the soil for successful cultivation, forestry, or grazing, it would also perform the double function of preventing any further soil erosion, while containing the rains in the ground that fall during the season, thanks to the contours.

UN Correspondent Horowitz felt what Dr. Lowdermilk was proposing for the Upper Negev region may well prove to be the next great miracle in the Holy Land, and his enthusiasm for the Lowdermilk program was a reflection of much more than a mere journalistic story. It triggered memories of his first wilderness experience years earlier.

In 1925, the youthful 22 year-old Horowitz, in his second year of life as a halutz (pioneer) from America, agreed to join an expedition to the Wilderness of Judea.  Seeing this as an opportunity of a lifetime, Horowitz was determined to go despite the danger and the warnings of his companions. In those days the desert of Judea was seldom traversed except by roving Bedouin and bandits. The horseback expedition included a number of botanists, geologists, and historians. Armed companions and a crusty old Palestinian guide with a legendary reputation provided a measure of safety and security. Observing the work of these specialists in their field of study left a lasting impression on the young Horowitz and fueled his lifetime interest in the Negev area.

Returning to Tel Aviv from the Negev trip in 1952, Dr. Lowdermilk, David Horowitz, and a friend, Wayne Miles, dined at one of the famous shore restaurants overlooking the lovely Tel Aviv-Jaffa coastline. The discussion turned to soil conservation and health in the light of the Hebrew Bible. They agreed that in the light of scientific findings, the biblical laws on soil conservation, including prescribing one year of rest in every seven, was a sound practice and might be applied today with excellent results.

It was during this dinner conversation that Dr. Lowdermilk confronted Horowitz with the question “What is the matter with the UN?”  He made reference to the UN’s political attitude in general towards the Middle East, asking “Are the delegates for progress or not?’ He felt the diplomats had failed to recognize the geographic sufficiency of Israel either out of ignorance or indifference. “There must be unity of management” he said, “The full resources of the Holy Land could be exploited only if the impediments are removed.”  

Dr. Lowdermilk then turned to a broader comparison of the problem. “America has had many problems with soil erosion” he stated, “We only began to take these problems seriously in 1933. The work of soil reclamation is practically new. In Israel, there is a greater urgency than we ever had in America. The job is ten times as big. The will, stamina, and obstinacy of the Israeli pioneer will perform the miracle.” Dr. Lowdermilk’s words would prove to be prophetic.

David Horowitz would have many more meetings with Dr. Lowdermilk and with others who shared the vision of an ancient prophet. One such person was David Ben Gurion, who led the struggle for an independent Jewish State before becoming the first Prime Minister. Horowitz and Ben Gurion were friends who often communicated regarding the pressing issues facing the young State. After all, Horowitz represented the Jewish voice of the Press at the United Nations.

David Ben-Gurion once stated, “Israel’s future lies in the Negev,” the southern desert region comprising 60 percent of the country, which today comprises only 10 percent of the population. “It is in the Negev where the creativity and pioneering vigor of Israel shall be tested,” he also famously predicted.

Israel rationed food from May 14,1948, the day it was established, to February 1959. 

It now exports half its produce. Desert agriculture in Israel is one of the country’s greatest successes, and something for which Israel leads the world. Agricultural activity in the Negev has turned sand into green fields, the opposite to the desertification trend that much of the rest of the world is battling to prevent.

As part of its Blueprint Negev campaign, the Jewish National Fund is focusing on efforts to attract and retain new residents to the Central Arava and has built new and innovative communities. The Ashalim solar-energy project, one of the largest renewable energy projects in the world, is the size of a small town and is currently producing enough energy to power an estimated 70,000 households.

Among other projects underway are the development of a migratory bird reserve, water recycling system and environmental education center located in Lotan, and the aptly named “Blossoming Rose” project located on the ancient site of the biblical city of Tamar.

As the official curator of the 55-acre area site, Blossoming Rose, under the skillful leadership of Dr. DeWayne Coxon, is developing the first educational and historic National Park under the direction of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Biblical Tamar Park is one of the oldest and most unique archaeological sites in southern Israel. The desert oasis once held extreme importance to world trade and still remains a significant showpiece of Hebraic heritage.

When David Ben Gurion stepped down as Prime Minister in 1963, he retired from political life and moved to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev desert, where he lived until his death. A desert research center, Midreshet Ben-Gurion, near his home in the Kibbutz has been named in his honor. Ben-Gurion’s grave is in the research center.

Today, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is one of Israel’s leading research universities and among the world leaders in many fields. Founded in 1969, it is the only Israeli university established by a government mandate to help develop the Negev region.

“The Negev has begun to awaken. It must never be allowed to sleep again,” remarked Israeli President Shimon Peres in November 2007.

David Ben-Gurion stood resolute in his conviction that the Negev would someday blossom and rejoice as Isaiah prophesied in ancient times. Today, the people without a land have returned to the land without a people and the modern State of Israel has undertaken the redemption of an old and damaged land. 

Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. An author, historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.

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