(Haaretz) In Israel, They Felt Unwanted. They Found Paradise in Portugal
Farmland goes for a song, farmers receive state support and falafel and malabi are readily available. More and more Israelis are finding a haven on Portuguese soil.
The most popular stall in the heart of the outdoor market in São Martinho das Amoreiras, some 200 kilometers southeast of Lisbon, is the falafel stand run by Maoz Kashty and his partner, Natasha. Is there anything more humiliating for an Israeli than to buy falafel on European soil? Out of Israeli solidarity and sheer politeness I bought one – and was pleasantly surprised. Next to me was a young local man who was wondering about the orange sauce. Kashty, 45, told him it was chutney, and immediately explained himself to me, in Hebrew: “Hey, am I going to tell him it’s amba?”
An Israeli from a nearby farm took advantage of the hype in the market and recently opened an adjacent stand that sells malabi (a Middle Eastern rosewater pudding, served with pomegranate syrup). Gentiles aren’t familiar with malabi, so passersby were offered a free taste. Was I a witness to the genesis of a malabi craze on the Iberian Peninsula? Apart from the falafel and malabi hawkers, there were quite a few Israelis in the market who came to buy or sell – or to get a look at the local guru, Moji.
Before visiting the market, we had been hosted on an impressive farm for a weekly hummus fest. We sat under a cork oak tree, where we polished off a dish of hummus for six euros. Like many other Israelis who are farming in Portugal, the owner of this particular farm wanted nothing to do with the press, and asked that his name not be published. Earlier, I’d offended him slightly by saying something to the effect that if I was already in Portugal, I preferred to eat local food. “All they eat here is pork,” he immediately warned me. On another Israeli-owned farm, a two-day party got underway that same weekend, with an Israeli deejay. They, too, asked not to be identified by name.
To join the Facebook page of the Israelis who already live in Portugal, you have to declare that you are not a tourist and that you are not offering a service intended to help people obtain a local passport. The page has more than 3,000 members, but according to more conservative data, the actual number of Israelis who have immigrated to Portugal in recent year is several hundred. A few dozen live on farms, most of which were purchased in the past year. This appears to be a first wave that might swell. Not long ago, a Portuguese magazine published a cover story titled, “Is Portugal the Promised Land of the Jews?”
For Natasha, 35, Kashty’s partner, it’s already too much: She keeps seeing Israelis buying farms in the area, and she’s afraid that the flow will only intensify. Most of the Israeli-owned homesteads are located here, in southern Portugal, not far from the town of Odemira. Some, though, have opted for east, in the region of Castelo Branco, or further north. The city of Coimbra, in the central part of the country, even boasts an Israeli-Portuguese school.
There are several Facebook groups of Israelis who would like to move en masse to Portugal and form a community, but that hasn’t happened yet, despite a good response. The fact is that farmland is so cheap in Portugal, there’s no real reason to share the property.
One common denominator among the nice people I interviewed here is that they tried to live in Israel according to their desired lifestyle, but felt that the state rejected them, and so they sought a haven in Portugal. Perhaps the best known of the recent exiles is writer and journalist Yigal Sarna, who is recovering here from a legal battle with the Netanyahu family and termination of his employment on the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. Sarna, who now spends half the year in northern Portugal, sounds happy, to judge from his Facebook posts. Kashty, the falafel king, had a clear explanation of why he fled: “We were living in a community in Pardes Hannah and we were good with that, but we were living in a bubble. The feeling is that in Israel everyone who is outside the bubble tries to prick the bubble, to stick nails into it.”
The economy in Portugal is lackluster, but it’s still a friendly place for foreigners, with a socialist government and vast, empty farmland that the state wants to populate.
Far from ugly politics
Dan Zeltser, 43, studied history and philosophy, did voluntary work with the Israeli-Palestinian organization Taayush and was a documentary photographer in the territories. But finally the politics got to him. “What happened in Israel stinks, it’s a sinking ship,” he says. “I decided I had to get out of there.”
Zeltser was determined to live closer to nature and set his mind on Portugal, even though he knew next to nothing about it. He met his partner, Biana Gaimano, 32, shortly before he left Israel. Gaimano had immigrated to Israel by herself from Russia, was employed in high-tech, and afterward was a producer on the reality-TV program “Connected.”
“Even though I had a good job in the industry, I realized that I didn’t want to be there,” Gaimano relates, adding that the day she met Zeltser, she sat in her car and realized that she would be leaving everything and moving to Portugal.
For a year, the young couple looked for suitable land. They show me their dot-studded Google map. “We saw a hundred farms,” Zeltser says. “We almost struck a deal with a Dutch swindler. Buying land here isn’t easy. You have to be careful and not trust lawyers; it’s crucial to get help from someone who’s already bought property.”
Newcomers also have to adjust to the local pace of life, he adds. “Everything here is very slow. But it’s important for the Portuguese to be accurate, to be on time. And Portugal is supportive, it doesn’t expel people, certainly not quickly. The people in the nearby villages are pleasant and hospitable, and really want to help. They think it’s good for them to have ‘new blood’ arrive.”
Did you leave because of things you saw in the occupied territories?
Zeltser: “Not only in the territories. Everywhere in the country. My heart said: Let go of the place.”
A few weeks ago, the couple bought 30 dunams (about 7.5 acres) of hilly land, near Castelo Branco. It’s covered with rocks and thistles, but has a stream and a few wells. They paid 15,000 euros, a sum that might buy you a lean-to back in Afula. “We don’t have a building,” Zeltser explains over black coffee served in empty baby-food jars. “If you want a real house you pay more – 50,000 to 100,000 euros and up. For me it was important to have a river nearby, so we won’t have to hook up to the water network.”
Their plan is to build a wooden house on their land, but in the meantime they’re renting a place on their neighbors’ property. They are delighted with their land. It’s nice to hike around there, despite the rugged terrain, but it’s hard to imagine planting anything on it.
“Just yesterday we organized an access road and fixed up a few terraces and canals,” Zeltser says. “Since buying the land, I discovered that we have a quite a few fruit trees. The foundations here are good.”
Other plans are amorphous. Zeltser waxes poetic about “a garden, with all the implications” and talks about hothouses for herbs, maybe saffron, and projects including a preschool, courses in sustainability, ecological tourism. Near the river, on Zeltser’s property, is the tent of an Englishman and his children, who looked pleased. As we nibble on cheese, Gaimano predicts that they will soon be making their own cheese. Zeltser hints that that will take some time. “The goal is to establish a home and farm that will feed us on a self-sufficient basis,” he explains. “In the next stage we’ll figure out how to make a living.” Gaimano wants to create a preschool for baby Elisheva: “We didn’t flee Tel Aviv in order to send our kids to institutional schools.”Eastern Portugal. Tomer Appelbaum
The couple say there are other Israelis living nearby and that one spoke to them about buying land next to theirs. “It’s just the beginning of a wave,” Gaimano says. “When I saw an ad for a Portuguese passport in Netanya, I knew there would be a flood.” (Since 2013, Portugal has offered citizenship to people who can prove their descent from Jews expelled from Portugal or Spain during the Inquisition.)
Ties with the local Jewish community are less congenial. “I went to the synagogue in the nearby town and said I’m an Israeli,” Zeltser says. “Because I walk around in a keffiyeh from Sinai, they thought I was an Israeli Arab, and the security guards checked me thoroughly. Maybe what did me in was that I said ‘Ahlan’ [Arabic for “Hello,” frequently used by Jewish Israelis]. The Jews of Portugal aren’t in the loop. It drove me crazy that the rabbi doesn’t know Hebrew. But we have made friends with foreigners here – 17 nationalities on our hill alone.”
Why do Israelis feel a connection with Portugal?
Zeltser: “The people here lack initiative and are very calm. Not everyone here is out for the dollar. The thinking here is more medieval, not capitalist, and that’s a positive thing. Besides, it’s hot here and it looks like Israel.”
Are you thinking of establishing a new Israel here?
“Isn’t one enough?”
Although they put on an optimistic face, it turns out that the couple have had moments of crisis. Three months after the move to Portugal, Gaimano was ready to go back. “I bought a ticket to Ben-Gurion, one way,” she says. “After two weeks in Tel Aviv, I’d had enough of sitting by the sea and I wanted to go home. I didn’t want to live in the city.” Zeltser hasn’t been back to Israel since he left.
Refuge from the storm
Yaaran Farm was established in 1995 in the forest below the popular stalactite cave in the Judean Hills, outside Beit Shemesh. The Yaaran family sought a self-sufficient lifestyle and raised goats on their farm, selling the cheese to visitors. Over the years, the Israeli authorities tried to get rid of them, because their farm lay on state-owned land. The Yaarans waged an impossible, perhaps naive, battle that entailed plenty of court hearings and then gave up.
Like most of those I interviewed, Bar and Avishai Yaaran, 51 and 56, respectively, felt as if they were simply spewed out by Israel and found themselves in Portugal. Three months ago, they bought a 40-dunam farm in the eastern part of the country and shipped the contents of their previous home there in a container, including the sign to their old place. Bar is now grateful to the authorities: “Thanks to the wickedness of the Israel Land Authority, we evacuated the place, and thanks to them I attained something of my own,” she says.
We catch up to her as she splits wood with an axe. “At first we looked for land in Crete, but just before the deal was closed, they tripled the price,” she relates. “Lucky we didn’t move there. The Greeks are tough and they don’t accept foreigners. They’re like Israelis. In Portugal, it’s the opposite. The economy is permanently drowsy. At midday everyone is at lunch. They don’t seem to have any motivation, but they are good people and welcoming. Even the clerks want what’s best for you. They don’t try to make things hard for you – the opposite of Israel. The farmers who were in the same boat as us back in Israel were always in competition. The average Israeli feels that he has to screw someone in order not to get screwed. Here I can breathe differently. I don’t hear stone quarries. The birds chirp here at night, too. We found our paradise.”
Looking back, Bar isn’t sure why she fought so hard for her farm: “We were a finger in the establishment’s eyes. It was just insane. We worked hard, people stood in line for our cheeses, and it all went to pay lawyers. I could have bought seven farms like this in Portugal if I hadn’t financed lawyers. When I stopped paying them, the lawyers simply stopped working for me, no matter how right I was. It’s unbelievable. There’s no ideology in that realm.”
The couple are now in the process of obtaining residency, which is granted in Portugal to people who establish companies, even if those entities are intended to manage an autarkic farm. Unlike Israel, the Yaarans say, Portugal encourages small, traditional, farm-based ventures. In many other countries in Europe, in contrast, the process of rapid urbanization means that many agricultural lands have fallen into disuse. In our travels, we passed through dozens of pleasant villages, and most of the people we saw were elderly folk relaxing with a glass of beer in a café on the main street.
Says Bar: “I know that even if I don’t come with all the paperwork, the Portuguese immigration authorities won’t throw me out. They won’t check whether I am Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Everyone can care for his goats and his vegetable patch, be simple like me, poor like me – and feel rich… Fortunately, Avishai knows the language, because he grew up in Kibbutz Bror Hayil [where many immigrants from Brazil live] and he has a Brazilian father.”
Bar says she is moved by the small things. “For years I didn’t have a mailing address. After all, the authorities don’t want to give offenders an opening for official recognition, and because of that the children didn’t receive army draft notices. [She says that they did serve, however.] Now the mail comes right to me. I can’t believe it’s mine.”
Like Bar, many of those I spoke to invoked the word “paradise.” The truth is that it’s not as simple as it looks. The farm the Yaarans moved into three months ago was completely covered by a meter-high layer of thorny raspberry bushes. The bushes mean there’s lots of water, but dealing with them is difficult and endlessly bothersome.
“We are refugees,” she says. “Even after we left, the Land Authority was mad because we left a few stones that we were supposed to remove. They wanted to issue an order barring me from leaving the country and also for us to pay a users’ fee. Today I feel as though I’ve been reborn. I’m convinced they’ll be sorry we left. There will be forest fires.”
What do you think they wanted from you?
Bar Yaaran: “In Israel, agriculture is always political, it’s always about grabbing land from the Arabs. They think that if you give something to every [Jewish] shepherd, they’ll also have to give the Bedouin rights. I just pity the people from the Nature and Thieves Authority and the Society for the Destruction of Nature. But I pity the land more. How did I ever believe we stood a chance? I sat there in my bubble, on my island, while all around me people were legally authorized to quarry, the stream filled up with sewage, the noise of the helicopters frightened the pregnant goats, and we were the only ones looking after the environment.
“We built a fire truck to put out fires, we collected garbage for 24 years and we appeared before every committee, certain that we were in the right and that they would understand in the end. The truth is that no one wanted us. We were not in anyone’s political or economic interest, and we didn’t screw any Arab. Here, they went along with us about the idea of a small herd and a tiny dairy. And because I’m a farmer, all the diesel fuel will be subsidized. Israel is not a truly democratic country. All it cares about is screwing the Arabs, and to achieve that it will shoot everyone in the foot.”
If at the Yaaran’s first farm they needed a herd of 150 goats to be almost completely self-sufficient, now that they don’t have to pay for a legal team, they say then can make do with 15. “It was insane work, just to satisfy a rotten system that has no point or purpose.”
Despite the couple’s seemingly anarchistic approach to life, Avishai – who served in the Israel Defense Force’s Sayeret Matkal commando unit and was among the first soldiers to cut through the border fence and enter Lebanon in the 1982 war – doesn’t rule out accepting subsidies from state authorities in Portugal. “It is a fine and correct matter, an expression of a desire to preserve agriculture.”
If the Yaaran family wants above all to be left alone, Shefa and Oded Elyashiv, aged 49 and 52, who are among the senior figures of Israel’s “rainbow” gatherings, arrived with a communal vision. For $50,000 they bought a large tract of land, 160 dunams, in southern Portugal, half an hour by jeep from the nearest road. They moved in three months ago.
Their place doesn’t yet look like a farm – more like a small conclave of hippies set in a spectacular landscape. In the meantime they are living in a trailer, with the children’s tents next to it. Oded is excited to show us the compost toilet he recently assembled, as though it were a Venetian fountain. He has a philosophy about this subject: “Man is an enterprise for producing fertilizer, but that involves dealing with poop. I don’t understand what the problem is with poop. It’s madness to throw our poop into the toilet, and afterward to buy expensive compost, which is horses’ poop.”
The Elyashivs met 13 years ago. Oded is a yoga teacher; Shefa is an information systems consultant. For years, they scoured Israel in search of land on which they could live with friends. (They have two children, ages 7 and 11.) They tried to join a kibbutz, but were rejected by the admission committee. Shefa, who was born on Kibbutz Tsova, near Jerusalem, admits that she was hurt by this.
“We would have been happy to establish something like this in Israel,” Oded says. “It’s the Holy Land – not that I am religious. All our life we just wanted a piece of land. Not a lousy half-dunam slice of land in a crowded suburb. I wrote to [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu” – with a request for land on which to create a communal settlement – “and he replied in a letter saying ‘Well done,’ and referring me to the authorities. We wanted to create a paradise, 10 dunams for 10 families, on the model of a small village for friends from the rainbow tribe. I wrote to all the authorities with the request. One referred me to another, but nothing came of it.”
“We only wanted land,” adds Oded, who liked to walk around nude at rainbow gatherings in Israel, so it took me time to recognize him. “We wanted to build a castle in Israel. And then we spoke to Haim Feldman, an Israeli who had moved here. He kept urging us to make the move. He told us how easy things are in Portugal. He’s a pioneer. The new Israel is slowly happening here. People keep coming. There are also those who try to make the move, but end up returning to Israel. But overall, the trend is that it’s continuing to grow.”
The family arrived in Portugal in 2016 with the aim of creating a community, but it didn’t work out. But Oded hasn’t abandoned his dream of a communal village: “It will happen naturally. Families want to visit. People will stay. We are the vanguard. There is enough room and we will find the way to bring them in. Maybe the others will want to buy neighboring lands.”
What’s the plan?
Oded: “The goal is to live in paradise. There will be 10,000 trees here, 1,000 of them fruit trees. There will be abundance never before seen. In the meantime, it really is hard. When you don’t know the language, even getting a pump is difficult.”
“The move is very hard,” Shefa admits. “My father was sick. I am torn. Should I go back to Israel? It would be wonderful if Israel allowed a simple life on the land. It’s incredible that it’s a criminal offense if a person lives on his own farmland. In every other country, people live on their own farms. In Portugal, four percent of every agricultural property is designated for the farmer’s house. In Israel you can’t even park a trailer on farmland.”
As in the original Garden of Eden, here too there are troubles with the children – although, despite their adventurous parents, they somehow came out quite normal. When we arrive, the children are using wireless internet and are busy destroying someone in the video game Fortnite. The parents admit that their offspring, especially their 11-year-old daughter, Petel, aren’t really wild about bathing in the river, and demand a standard hot-water shower now and again. To that end, they all occasionally head for the nearby town, which has a public bathhouse. There have been times when Shefa too broke down because of the harsh conditions and took a hotel room. “You have to understand,” Oded explains. “The girls have long hair, they have curls. They need a shower with running water. In another month we’ll have a shower.”
Are the children in a home-schooling program?
Oded: “It’s ‘unschooling.’ Petel went to an anthroposophic school in Israel. We didn’t want her to go there, but she had a girlfriend who was enthusiastic, and the school was good for her. Here they didn’t want it because of the language.”
Will I still find you here in another five years?
Shefa: “Absolutely. You’ll never get Oded out of here, and I’m with him. No one can take me away from here.”
Still, there are moments when her husband has heretical thoughts. “Since I’ve been here, I appreciate the city more,” he admits. “The city is an amazing place. People live there without any problems. You know, there are toilets and hot showers there.”
Even though Lisa and Haim Werksman Feldman, 41 and 44 years old, moved to Portugal only four years ago, they are considered veteran Israelis in the country’s agricultural landscape. Haim didn’t want to buy his own farm, preferring instead to purchase a modest house on the outskirts of Odemira, in Portugal’s south, for 50,000 euros. But he works and assists many Israeli farmers and is considered a “guru gardener.” At present, Feldman is cultivating an organic garden that supplies a restaurant, and also teaches ecology at two schools.
There’s a sad story behind his move to Portugal. After serving as a combat soldier in the IDF’s Nahal brigade, including in the territories, he tried to acquaint himself with farming, but couldn’t find his place in industrial-style agriculture. He went to the territories in the hope of learning traditional methods of farming and gradually got to know people on the other side. By the time of Operation Defensive Shield (2002) he refused to serve in the territories. Afterward, he tried to help create a bio-farming project with the Awad family in the village of Budrus, adjacent to the separation barrier. That lovely initiative was torpedoed by both the army and envious neighbors of the Awad family. What broke him was the shooting death of one of the Awad children at the hands of an Israel soldier.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” Feldman says. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t look the father in the eyes. I wanted something different, with plenty of traditional agriculture and an approach that encourages small-scale farming.”
Maoz Kashty, the falafel monger, whom I interview as he works, was drawn to Portugal for similar reasons. “People here want to have control over the elementary things,” he explains. “I’m talking about housing, food, medicine. An apartment that doesn’t require taking out a 30-year mortgage. Let us live life.” Kashti is hoping to buy a house and 10 dunams of land; the financing is meant to come from the falafel.
“Portugal recalls Israel from before the Six-Day War, before things got bad,” Feldman says. “It’s an empire that faded away. You don’t hustle off to work here, like in Israel. If you don’t need to work, you don’t work. But if you do, then you work well. It’s not slapdash. When the name of Israel comes up in conversations with local folk, I always mention what’s good in Israel.”
Even though you left because of what’s bad?
Feldman: “I am heartbroken from love. In Israel I was battered as a political activist and also as an ecological gardener. Israeli farmers are very condescending about enviromental concerns – they think that farming is only done with a tractor. Portugal is a country of small gardens, with great appreciation for the environment. Another reason I left was so that my daughters wouldn’t go to school in a fascist education al system. The brainwashing in Israel begins at an early age. A photograph of the chief of staff is hung on the kindergarten wall. Here the people are charming, and we mustn’t forget that in Portugal there was a Jewish community that lived together with the Muslims. It’s important to understand that there was a connection here.”
Tamir and Luna Burstein, 47 and 45, have lived for almost a year with their two children on an impressive 200-dunam farm in the south of Portugal. The price: 100,000 euros. A handy person, Tamir removed the raspberry bushes and also dug a lake, which he populated with ducks. His land covers two hills, on one of which there’s an old forest that Tamir doesn’t intend to touch. “It feels strange to say it’s mine,” he tells me.
Tamir owned a bar on Carlebach Street in Tel Aviv – he brought the popular Kleiner Feigling fig liqueuerto Israel. Luna was a PR person for the Allenby 58 Club and today is a spiritual teacher. “I simply fell in love with Portugal,” Luna says, calling it “the India of Europe.” Tamir adds, “Already in Lisbon airport our heart opened and we allowed Creation to take us.”
They purchased the second property they saw, and got to work. “There are a lot of people who want to join us,” says Tamir. “Every week two families ask. Some want advice about how to buy land, some want to come here. Our property has enough room for four families to live comfortably. The demand is so great that I decided to organize a tour for Israelis to get to know the region. Two families moved here as a result – one of them bought within 10 minutes. Someone told me, ‘Don’t bring more Israelis, we don’t want a little Israel here.’ I have heard about dozens who want to make the move. People sit around drinking beer, and they think, ‘Let’s move to Portugal.’ But it’s a lot of work. It’s hard to be a pioneer.”
‘Temple of love’
I met Tamar Mali, 36, at Tamera, an ecological peace community with a free-sex aura about it that’s been operating for the past 24 years in the country’s south. Mali, who says she’s planning to build a “temple of love” on the farm she bought in the area, has a tight schedule of lectures and workshops, so the only time we could meet was during supper. If she misses it, she won’t eat for many more hours.
After devoting half her life to the Israel Scouts movement, first as a scout and then as a leader, Mali is now active in the community of Israeli farmers here. “I am a person that deals with events, I’m planning to screen the Eurovision contest for the Israeli community. You can count on the Israelis here. I celebrate the Passover seder on my farm, but without reading the part about the plagues. Everyone talks about freedom. As I see it, every event is a reason to party. Christmas or Hanukkah or Eurovision.”
After leaving the Scouts, Mali studied sexual healing in London and visited ecological and spiritual communities around the world. “In the end I understood that I would not remain in any of the communities, because my mission is to establish a place myself, to establish the temple of love.” Her explanation is persuasive: “If there is a synagogue for the God of the Jews, and churches, I want to build something for love, which is the force that can bring healing to the world.”
She bought a 130-dunam farm near São Martinho do Porto, on which she intends to erect the temple of love in an old, half-destroyed structure. “In temples of love there is sexual work, and a prospect that there will be things related to sexual therapy. It’s a place that sets out to celebrate and activate that force in the world.”
Why not in Israel, a country where love is needed?
Mali: “I am very Israeli. It’s not that I left Israel because I scorned it. But what’s related to sexuality in Israel is more complicated. And to find 130 dunams in Israel is almost impossible.”
Even though the temple of love hasn’t yet been built, it has already brought about an impressive achievement: The first volunteer who arrived at the site, an expert in the art of paper folding, fell in love with Mali. “There are people who don’t leave Tel Aviv, because they’re afraid they won’t find a relationship,” she says. “One volunteer showed up, and now he’s my partner.”