How Jewish Farmers are Divesting from White Supremacy
“Jewish farmers are a dream-team crew for contributing to the creation of a just, kind, regenerative world,” says SJ Seldin, co-founder of the Jewish Farmer Network (JFN). The non-profit is a grassroots movement organization that was founded in 2017 and has since connected with over 2,000 farmers. Working at the nexus of sustainable agriculture, food justice, and Jewish life, JFN’s mission is to “mobilize Jewish wisdom to build a more just and regenerative food system for all.” The network began when Seldin and Shani Mink, two white Ashkenazi Jewish farmers in their 20s, recognized a growing collective reverence for the interconnections between Jewish heritage and farming. They began to gather with other farmers who value building community around the ethics and rhythms of Jewish agrarianism. JFN facilitates dialogue and action among Jewish farmers who find both spiritual and professional nourishment in turning to their own agricultural traditions instead of orienting toward others’ cultural or ancestral practices.
Jewish farming offers pathways to heal and divest from white supremacy, defined as a presumed superiority of white racial identities geared toward the domination of non-white groups. This becomes a central logic for the production of racism and privilege. Jewish farmers reject appropriative sustainable agriculture practices by imagining and enacting Jewish farming futures. JFN provides space for Jews—including white-ned1 Jews, Jews of Color, of all denominations, and of all genders and nonconforming gender identities—to reclaim and embody ancestral knowledge. While renewing Jewish land stewardship practices, the Jewish farming movement opens up politicized dialogue around displacement and land-based solidarity.
Participatory Action Research with the Jewish Farmer Network
During the first year of a participatory action research process, we (two geographers with pre-academic backgrounds in agroecological education and the Jewish farming sphere) collaborated with JFN founders, organizers, and farmer-participants to collectively analyze the knowledge and identity politics of the growing Jewish farmer movement in North America. Participatory action research is an approach and set of methods that blends collaborative research, education, and action oriented toward social change. This cyclical approach involves the inclusion of multiple stakeholders and voices in the research process, challenges objectivity in knowledge production, and represents an epistemological shift away from mainstream research traditions. This ongoing process involves interviews, surveys, participatory workshop facilitations, and conference event evaluation with the JFN community, as well as numerous farm walks, workdays, and community celebrations.
Newcomers in the JFN sphere often express surprise and awe at the growing social movement of folks who identify as both “Jewish” and “farmers,” proclaiming that they always identified with both separately but hadn’t yet merged those parts of themselves. At JFN’s inaugural Cultivating Culture conference in February 2020, attendees discussed the “misconception that there is no such thing as a Jewish farmer,” and how that misconception is addressed “by there being a gathering like this.” One attendee noted that “it [is] increasingly important and pretty necessary to root myself in my own traditions rather than taking from other people’s [traditions] even if other people’s traditions have been offered to me as a pathway to healing. To know that the answers I am seeking lie in Jewish texts is really exciting.”
Addressing and Healing from White Supremacy
How does JFN provide healing from white supremacy? Mink points to tendencies in secular, often white-led agricultural organizations that center Black and Indigenous farming practices, often without attribution, permission, or cultural context: “When white or white-ned people believe they don’t have anything meaningful in their own heritage to connect to, they appropriate. Our purpose is to say, ‘Hey, you don’t need to appropriate; this exists within your ancestry and this is what it looks like.’” This interrupts the process of appropriation by “offering cultural nourishment and regenerative agricultural technologies that are uniquely theirs, and are an alternative to white supremacist agriculture,” adds Seldin.
It was through centuries of assimilation that some Jews in North America are considered “white-passing” or “became white.” Jewish farming futures provide a counter-legacy to that of assimilation and anti-Semitism. According to Seldin,
White settler-colonialism has and continues to violently disenfranchise Indigenous Jews, Black Jews, and Jews of Color from access to and autonomy on land. Simultaneously, far too many white Jews have bought into the colonial project, seeking a safety and self-determination that has eluded our ancestors for millennia. For two thousand years, empires, anti-Semitism, and privatization have impeded our ability to be in right relationship with land. This is deep healing work to offer perspectives on those systems of oppression and to seek ancestrally-informed alternatives.
Within JFN, the focus on centering Jews of Color and gender nonconforming Jews recognizes the intersectional aspects of racial and gendered oppressions. These actions work to rewrite centuries of both externally imposed and internally perpetuated white supremacist culture that has distanced Jews of varying identities from each other. Redefining ancestral agricultural wisdom for today is a response to white supremacy, assimilation, and anti-Semitism, allowing Jewish communities to reorient to more inclusive and just futures.
While bypassing appropriative agricultural practice can provide meaning and healing for Jewish farmers and reduce harm, tensions arise when doing so in diaspora and on Turtle Island. Acts of solidarity with BIPOC farming movements require a responsibility to understand both the burdens and opportunities of one’s own land-based histories before working in coalition with others. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, JFN became the new host of a Jews and Land Study Group, originally developed by founders and former staff of the now-dormant Jewish Farm School (2005–2019) in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The curriculum originated from conversations with Philadelphia-based Sankofa Community Farm manager and educator Chris Bolden Newsome about the necessity of knowing one’s own stories in order to effectively partner in the work of liberation. Since May 2020, 14 study groups have engaged more than 120 JFN participants on topics of Jewish homeland, forced exile, diaspora, connection to land, and place-based farming. Participants collectively wrestle with both the histories of Jewish oppression and those of Jewish complicity in the oppression of others, including Jewish participation in the colonization of Native American lands and slavery.
Reclaiming Jewish Agroecology
Jewish farmers turn to ancestral texts such as the Tanach, Talmud, and Pirkei Avot and to traditional practices for agricultural frameworks around soil care and composting, seed keeping, closed-loop nutrient cycling, crop planning, animal husbandry, and cycles of rest and release for both the land and those who labor. Turning to culturally important plants such as barley, grapes, wheat, and garlic provides material and spiritual connection to the cycle of the Jewish agrarian calendar through foodways and the body. Observing shabbat, the weekly day of rest, is a mechanism for honoring labor, learning, and cycles of time.
Shmita, a year-long release of the land from production, is a Jewish agroecological value with which some modern Jewish farmers and land-based organizations engage today. During the final year of each seven-year cycle, fields must lie fallow, agricultural lands are declared public commons, and all debts are forgiven. At the soil level, shmita leads to microbial, nutrient, and structural regeneration. At the community level, shmita’s economic restructuring promotes the redistribution of land and capital. On a spiritual level, redistribution and release are practices of freedom. The practice requires farmers to perennialize growing spaces and preserve food to survive, steward wild edibles, think on multi-year production cycles, share resources, create mutual aid networks, and practice non-productivist ways of being. Such a reorganization of the food system through applying shmita principles today is a political agroecological movement approach and a collective imagining of Jewish farming futures: they must be local and place-based, de-commercialized, seasonal, and just to both workers and the land.
The Politics of Solidarity and Inclusion
Political tensions in the Jewish farming movement lead to productive growing pains. One presenter and attendee at JFN’s 2020 conference described the need for politicization through an international and justice-based lens. “I hope that we can be really careful about our politics [. . .] Calling ourselves a Jewish Farmer Network runs the risk of replicating and mirroring the way that Jewish farming has been used as a tool of displacement in Palestine.” This comment is representative of voices who push strongly for a politic that builds solidarity with BIPOC and social justice organizations locally and globally and see this type of solidarity as integral to collective healing and to Jewish agrarian ways of being.
While some participants see BIPOC solidarity as a necessary part of Jewish agrarianism, others place emphasis on intra-Jewish and trans-denominational solidarity. A different farmer at the same conference event expressed a desire to “continue doing farm work minus the layers of ideology, social justice, etcetera.” Some conference attendees thought conversations on displacement and Zionism might conflict with the process of networking and drawing participation from people of more or all Jewish denominations. This tension notably includes polarizing views pertaining to Israel–Palestine, which in mainstream Jewish institutions are often avoided or excused. According to JFN, all views can be held in a space together.
“Judaism is a justice-based tradition,” says Mink. And “a just space is an inclusive space,” adds Seldin. “A just space has to include everyone regardless of where they stand agriculturally or politically.” JFN seeks to hold and nurture these tensions while inviting all participants into dialogue, not necessarily to solve them from a top-down or organizational agenda. Central to this approach is the Jewish value of argument in the name of heaven, or mahloket l’shem shamayim, which emphasizes the importance and necessity of disagreement. Non-compatible views should not negate the importance of maintaining close relationships among community members who hold differing opinions. This holy disagreement requires asking questions with the shared goal of seeking mutual understanding rather than winning an argument. This holding of multiple tensions disseminates a powerful set of skills for resisting oppression: building tolerance for hard conversations, moving people politically through question-based learning, and deepening understandings of positionality.
Within Jewish communities, the return to ancestral agricultural practice integrates the reclamation of spirituality with land-based practice. The Jewish farming movement makes space for white-ned or assimilated Jews to reclaim ancestral knowledge without appropriating others’ cultures or practices. Those who enact Jewish farming futures are creators: by toiling with compost, animals, foods, medicines, fibers, and fungi, they produce and bring to life ancestral agricultural knowledge, spiritual practices, and inclusive communities. Jewish farming futures are imagining and reimagining collective liberatory frameworks, with ample dialogue and debate along the way. “What does a politicized Jewish agroecology look like?” Mink asked us rhetorically. “We are writing this story as we do this work.”
Featured image: A JFN member sits with two goat friends. Photo courtesy Shani Mink.
Anika Rice is a graduate student in geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She studies agroecology, migration, and environmental change in Central and North America through a feminist political ecology lens. Her background in experiential education, Jewish farming, and medicinal herbal cultivation continue to inform her academic paths. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Zachary A. Goldberg studies geography at Penn State University, where he researches and teaches on various topics on agricultural transitions and farming futures through the lenses of political ecology, agroecology, and his ancestral traditions. Zach has previously earned a degree at McGill University in Environmental Science, focusing on food production, and has worked on numerous farms as a production manager and educator. Website. Contact.
By “white-ned” we refer to the historical process of racial change whereby some Jews, and not others, have been assigned white racial identity during assimilation in the United States. See: Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998). ↩