Money & Careers

He made deserts bloom

Eliahu Bezalel the Israeli horticulturist. Photo: Vipin Chandran   | Photo Credit: Vipin Chandran

Migration is more than just geographical relocation. It is often accompanied by psychological dislocation. Eliahu Bezalel, 82, who migrated to Israel, along with a large number of Cochin Jews in 1955 was prepared for the pangs of adapting to a new society

Bezalel and his wife, Batzion, were back in Kochi recently. Now, a widely recognised horticulturist, decorated by the Israeli government on various occasions, Bezalel spoke to The Hindu MetroPlus at length about how, with no prior experience, he turned into a successful farmer and his farming methods, a model for others in Israel.

“All of us knew it was going to be hard and were prepared. Remember, none of us came back. We had a spirit, a goal. It was to make a nation,” Bezalel recounts in Malayalam, which, he says, has turned a ‘bit rusted'.

Tough times

Bezalel picked up the rudiments of agriculture. “Our marriage was in 1958. Batzion, who was from Mattancherry, came to Israel as part of the youth immigration programme a year before I reached there. We had nothing, no water, and barren land. We struggled to make the most of it. Initially I worked in road maintenance, forestry and as a shepherd. We used to take turns to take some 500 to 600 of them to graze. I could read a whole book by the time they were done. Even when we had our first child we used to take her to the plantation and put her inside an inverted stool while we worked. It was a challenge, but we knew that we were fighting to survive”

Bezalel soon became part of David Ben Gurion's, (Israel's founder and first prime minister) dream of turning huge tracts of desert land into fertile farms. He was allotted land in a village in Negev Desert, south of Israel. And here he proved that roses bloom even in these arid deserts.

“I was conscripted in the army. And when I went my wife took over the responsibility of running the farm, looking after the children, paying the taxes.”

Bezalel travelled to Europe, with an Israeli scholarship, to study techniques of growing flowering plants in greenhouses. And when he set up Israel's first modern greenhouse, along with two other Indian Jewish partners, it was the start of a virtual revolution in the field of horticulture. He mastered the technique called ‘fertigation', where every drop of water provided to a plant is supplemented with a proportional percentage of fertilizers.

Rose farm

“Many have come to see my greenhouse. In 10,000 square metres I have roses of one colour. We cut them everyday, morning and evening. Packing and exporting happens everyday. The Israeli government recognised our efforts. Prime Ministers have visited the farm and my house. They also brought Indian leaders along sometimes.”

In 1964 he was awarded the Israeli PM's award for best exporter of flowers to Europe; in 1994, he was conferred with the prestigious Kaplan Prize for contribution to horticulture, and in 2006 India honoured Bezalel with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman.

Among the many visitors to his farm Bezalel was the Nobel Laureate and French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. “Sartre came with his girlfriend Simone de Beauvoir. He wanted to know if there was discrimination in Israel; discrimination of race, colour or prejudices of being European or Asian. I told him that this was not there but another kind of discrimination was obvious. It was very difficult for a farmer to get a loan in Israel. He had to go through so much formality. But for a European, in his silk suit and tie, doors would open very fast. Of course, things have changed now.”

There are six villages of Cochin Jews in Israel, informs Bezalel. They have set standards in education, agriculture and other fields. “Every year, in March, we get together near the Dead Sea. We sing, narrate stories of our ‘motherland' Kochi, and share memories. We are now a mixed race. The trend is that no Cochin Jew marries another from the same group. None of us talk Malayalam at home so my children don't know the language at all. We are united by one language, Hebrew. It is mandatory for any emigrant in Israel to learn Hebrew for which the government even provides an allowance.”


Bezalel, who finds a place in Sethu's latest novel, ‘Marupiravi,' still retains a nostalgic fondness for Chendamangalam, his native place. He is building a house on his ancestral property, on the ‘same foundation.' “My house stands close to the synagogue. I'm certainly not going to settle down here. But I hope to bring my grand-children here, where they can swim in the river nearby, take a boat ride. I want to be connected to my roots.”

If there is one thing that bothers him it's the lack of interest in agriculture. His parting advice to youngsters is that, “If I, as a simple, untrained farmer, can have success on the barren desert land, farmers here with adequate water, land, sunshine and manpower can surely achieve better.”

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2021 7:32:55 AM |

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