Making the Miracle

I heard the following anecdote from Menachem Perlmutter, who was there when it happened. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, was visiting a settlement in the Negev. As he was being shown around, he pointed in one direction and said, “I would like to see orchards here;” further along, he gestured again and said, “Here I would like to see vegetables.”

Each time, the region’s agricultural expert patiently explained that orchards and vegetables were impossible to grow in this climate. Ben-Gurion said nothing, but later demanded that the man be fired. “I don’t need an expert who says it’s impossible,” Perlmutter quotes the Old Man, “I need an expert who can do it.”

These days, a skeptical “post-Zionism” often aims to discredit the popular myth of Israel’s half-miraculous rebirth. That’s why I’m glad I met Menachem Perlmutter. He’s one of those people whose larger-than-life life story makes you remember that Israel is a miracle — the dry bones that came back to life, that made the desert bloom.

Perlmutter is 70 now, with a rangy build and an open face. His blond hair is grayed and thinning, but his eyes are still a clear blue. Married, with two daughters, he has lived in hot, dusty Beersheva for nearly five decades.

But his story begins in eastern Czechoslovakia in 1944. Like many Holocaust tales, it carries its own little cargo of both despair and miracle. At the age of 16, Perlmutter was deported to Auschwitz. Near the war’s end, starving and half-frozen, he and his older brother escaped from the Nazis’ forced “March of the Dead” in a rain of German bullets. Picked up by the Gestapo, they were about to be shot by a firing squad when a German officer stopped the day’s executions and then, inexplicably, let them go.

Later the two youths, both blond and blue-eyed, wearing coats they had stripped from dead German soldiers as they traveled through the forest, were arrested by Russian forces, who took them for Germans. But the interrogating officer turned out to be a Russian Jew, and he too let them go. They found refuge finally in a Polish convent until the end of the war.

Which was when Perlmutter, returning to Czechoslovakia, learned that out of 53 family members, only he and his brother had survived. Out of 10,000 Jews in his native town, only 12 were still alive.

In 1946, Perlmutter attempted to immigrate “illegally” to pre-State Palestine. Caught by the British, he spent six months in a Cyprus detention camp. He finally reached Israel, alone and destitute, in 1947, fought in Israel’s War of Independence and afterward trained as a land surveyor. In 1952, he found a job in the Negev.

For more than 40 years, first as chief surveyor of the Jewish Agency’s Settlement Department and later as its chief engineer for a district that included the Hebron mountains, Gaza, Sinai, the Negev and the Aravah, Perlmutter planned and supplied basic infrastructure for 300 settlements that now thrive where, in 1948, there were only 18. Partly because of his work, the Negev, which had a population of 18,000 in 1948, is now home to 600,000 Jews and 100,000 Bedouins. Beersheva, population 7,500 in 1948, is now a city of 180,000. And in the Aravah, which a British study in the 1940s labeled “uninhabitable,” 24 settlements now flourish. “The impossible takes a little longer,” Perlmutter laughs.

The Negev is serious desert — a stark, dramatic landscape inhospitable to agriculture. Perlmutter supplies figures: no rainfall for 82 percent of the year, nearly constant hot sunlight, hardly any water (there are places in the Negev where more water evaporates in one day than falls all year). The advantage of a climate like this, he adds placidly, is that crops can be grown almost the whole year around. The man’s an optimist.

Without water? No, with salty water. Beneath the Negev lies a huge lake of brackish water. Using the drip irrigation that Israel pioneered, so that the salt doesn’t burn the plants’ leaves, saline water can be used for cultivation. Israel has pioneered that, too. There’s even an advantage in it, Perlmutter, the optimist, reports. Because salt creates stress for plants, they react by producing more glucose. You get sweeter dates and melons.

Now there are strawberries growing in the desert, along with cotton, melons, dates, and three times as much tomatoes per dunam as are grown in fertile California. The desert is blooming.

By insisting on the miraculous, Israel has not only stopped the creeping expansion of its desert lands, but has pushed the desert back, the only country in the world to succeed in doing so. And Perlmutter — maybe he never heard about post-Zionism — is talking about Israel as a “light to the nations,” with thousands of Israeli agricultural experts currently at work all over the world and students from many countries, including Egypt and Morocco, studying agriculture in Israel.

From Holocaust to rebirth. Man and land rebuild each other. It sounds like a cliché of Zionist propaganda. But what continues to amaze about Israel is that the myth is true. That’s what happened and is still happening here.

For Perlmutter, of course, the miracle is much more personal than the success of agriculture in the Negev. He feels the truth of the myth deep in his bones. He, who lost almost his entire family in the Shoah, married in Israel and raised two daughters. And at his Passover seder last year, he says happily, he hosted 31 people related to him by blood or marriage. Them bones, them bones, them dry bones.

David Margolis writes from Israel.

The Negev is serious desert — a stark, dramatic landscape inhospitable to agriculture. Photo from “Israel, the Promised Land,” 1980.