American cowboys lend a hand to Israeli farms in the West Bank

HaYovel, an evangelical Christian volunteer-based operation, which this week brought 20 farmhands from Montana and Arkansas to Israel, has raised close to $2 million worth of supplies, with a goal of at least $29 million

Photos of men in cowboy hats and plaid shirts making their way to Israel, with captions indicating they were going to help with Israel’s struggling agriculture sector, spread widely on social media this week both in Hebrew and in English.

“American farmers and cowboys en route to Israel to help farmers in the [Gaza] periphery,” according to one Hebrew-language Facebook post, which was shared nearly 1,000 times. 

Indeed, farms in southern Israel have been among the hardest hit by the war, as both foreign workers have largely left the country and many of their Israeli employees have been called up to the reserves. The Agriculture Ministry calls southern Israel, specifically the area closest to the Gaza border, the “vegetable barn” because it supplies at least a third of Israel’s vegetables, and all those potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes were suddenly at risk.

In recent weeks, thousands of Israelis have pitched in to help with harvesting, planting and culling produce, and this week Birthright Israel launched a volunteering program to encourage its alumni to come help, offering free accommodations in exchange for farmwork. (Participants would have to pay for flights and travel insurance.)

But the cowboys and farmhands were not, in fact, going to the Gaza periphery. From Ben Gurion Airport, they made their way to the West Bank to work on olive groves in and around Israeli settlements with an evangelical group, HaYovel (the harvest), which brings hundreds of American Christian farmhands each year to “confirm Israel’s right to their ancestral homeland,” as it writes on its website, referring specifically to the West Bank.

Following Hamas’ attack, HaYovel, based in the West Bank settlement Har Bracha, launched Operation Ittai — which this week brought 20 farmhands from Montana and Arkansas, some of whom were already scheduled to come to Israel later this month.

“Everyone can help Israel right now with whatever their God-given gifts are,” John Plocher, a 24-year-old volunteer from Montana, told eJewishPhilanthropy

Zeke Strain arrived in Israel on Monday, his fourth time volunteering through HaYovel. The 20-year-old, also from Montana, was already planning — before the war broke out — to help with farming in the West Bank. But he pushed up his flight by a few weeks after Hamas’ massacre in southern Israel. “We decided to come early because they are in desperate need in these little communities in Judea and Samaria,” Strain told eJP, using the biblical term for the West Bank. “We’ll help out in any way we can.” 

So far, the volunteer-based operation has raised close to $2 million worth of supplies, with a goal of at least $29 million. “We’re procuring supplies in the United States,” HaYovel’s director of operations, Joshua Waller, told eJP. “The [mayors] of these areas requested us to bring the equipment in. Our first airlift arrived yesterday and will be clearing customs this week. The guys will be delivering supplies to the communities as well as working on the farms.” 

The volunteers have been sent to groves around the Shiloh settlement in the northern West Bank. Earlier this year, Israeli security forces uprooted dozens of olive trees planted by Israeli settlers in the Shiloh Valley, two years after Israel’s Supreme Court ordered that a farm stop operations on the grounds that they were located on privately owned Palestinian land. The Court mandated the eviction of 42 acres of olive groves, which is one of the largest agricultural businesses in the West Bank settlements that produces olive oil and wine.

The West Bank, which Waller referred to as Judea and Samaria and called the “biblical heartland” of the Jewish people, holds special significance to evangelicals, some of whom believe a modern-day return of Jews to the area could lead to Jesus’ Second Coming. Waller noted that HaYovel volunteers don’t chalk up their connection to Israel to Jesus’ Second Coming. “Our guys are more pro-Israel than that. We’re not promoting a Christian theology to Israel,” he said. “We’re Christian Zionists. We don’t follow the lines of a mainstream world and we fully back a Jewish understanding of Israel.” 

“Israel is important to us,” Plocher, who is scheduled to stay through the end of December, said. “We believe the Bible and that Jewish people have a right to this land.” Back home in Hamilton, Mont., Plocher said there is “a lot of pro-Israel support.”

“A lot of people feel for the Jewish people and care but don’t necessarily know how to help. Sometimes being that far away from a situation, you feel like there is nothing you can do.” 

Waller said, “Everybody in the world is calling for a proportionate response [to the Oct. 7 terror attacks]. We’re asking that the Christian world give a proportionate response to Jewish massacre.”