The history of Jewish agricultural settlement in Palestine (an Ottoman province until 1917, then a territory under British rule in virtue of a mandate delivered by the League of Nations) and Israël, is “a continually vexing issue in world affairs” (Troen, 2003: xiii).
Nevertheless, it represents a central experiment of Modernist rural landscapes.
In modern times, the first attempts to settle Jews as farmers in agricultural colonies was conducted by the Russian Czars in the early 19th century, as a means to “normalize” their economical role in an emerging Nation-State. The idea that “Labour therapy” would heal the “pathologies” of the so-called “wandering Jew”, help integrate this religious minority within the national population, and nip in the bud the rising antisemitism, soon made its way among enlightened Jews and Jewish philanthropic circles across Europe. Plans and programs to settle Jews in agricultural colonies where conducted by many such organizations throughout the world, including in then Ottoman Palestine as soon as the mid-1860s, and up to WWII. It was only with the emergence of the Zionist movement in the late 1890s, and the aspiration for a Jewish Nation-State, that the “return to the homeland” became a dominant motive, and that the creation of agricultural settlements was seen not only as a means to integration, but as a condition for self-emancipation.
In terms of planning techniques, Zionist agricultural colonies took inspiration on mid-19th century Prussian colonization policies, but also on the previous non-Zionist Jewish colonization experiments. They where established in Palestine both by private individuals and organizations, and by the official Zionist agencies. In ideological terms, private initiatives had a liberal inspiration, while official initiatives where inspired by co-operativism (especially by Franz Oppenheimer’s “third way” social theories).
This experiment represents an almost unique example of an ADCP conducted by non-governmental bodies in a foreign country, but also one of the few example where the settlers actually bended and took over the hegemonic control over the colonization policy, imposing as soon as the early-1930s a socialist direction (although ethnically exclusive). Eventually, this change also imposed more military-tactical objectives to settlements in seizing territorial control and power in the region, and participated to the escalation of tension with the local Arab population.
The Zionist agricultural settlements may be distinguished in two major types: the co-operative type (the so-called moshav), and the collectivist type (the so-called kibbutz). Both types had specific physical patterns, rules to organize the daily life of the village community, and agrarian systems. Moshavim and kibbutzim are specifically Zionist inventions and the “birthplace” of Israeli modernist architecture, bearing a strong influence in the building of Israeli national identity. The Zionist agencies managing the settlement process in the pre-State era laid the basis for the institutional architecture of the Israeli state apparatus, and the Zionist settlement policies are still influencing today’s Israeli welfare policies.
This case study is mainly known to the international audience because of the role of recent (post-1977) colonies (seldom agricultural colonies) in undermining the Pease process and the territorial sovereignty of the Palestinian authority. In Israel, scholars place their emphasis on kibbutzim (because of their perceived dominant role in the creation of the State), and less on moshavim or on non-Zionist Jewish settlements. Much documentation still needs to be unveiled, and the disciplines once intimately connected to the making of these settlements need to be bridged again.
Since 1977, the Israeli State has slowly withdrawn its financial support to agricultural settlements, especially to the many different kibbutz movements. Many villages have been absorbed into the so-called Gush Dan metropolitan area (around Tel Aviv), while others have gone through serious financial crisis, and existing village communities have adopted very diversified survival strategies. Nevertheless, new villages are been created, some inspired by radically religious ideas, others by the New Age movement.