MEHOLA, West Bank – At the entrance to a vast greenhouse, a group of Christian volunteers surveys the pots of strange, stubby plants they are to weed. They’ve come from various points in rural America — cowboy hats and all — to help alleviate Israel’s agricultural crisis, a result of the war with Hamas.
“We don’t have pineapples in Montana!” someone jokes, and everyone chuckles. But they roll up their sleeves and quickly get to work, moving along the rows of plants and ripping out the unwanted shoots.
The group of about 20 volunteers, who paid their own way to Israel, have come through HaYovel, a Christian Zionist organization based out of the central West Bank settlement of Har Bracha. HaYovel brings 300-500 volunteers each year on various programs that are mainly focused on assisting Jewish agriculture projects in the West Bank.
The organization is also responsible for the Jewish world’s latest sensation, “The Cowboys,” a group of four cowboy volunteers who were first noticed a few days ago by the internet after someone uploaded a picture of them at JFK airport on their way to Israel. Pictures of the cowboys were shared thousands of times on Facebook and other platforms.
John Plocher, a young man from Montana and one of the four, shrugs off the viral attention. “It’s my third time in Israel,” he says, adding that he came this time to help out specifically because of the war.
Although technically a tourist, he’s not so interested in going to the regular Christian tourist sites. “It’s a different experience to work the land, meeting working class people. Regular folks are who I connect with,” he says.
Since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7 with a shock Hamas assault that killed 1,400 people — including entire families — and saw over 240 people taken as hostages to Gaza, over 360,000 Israelis have been called up to reserve duty. Thousands of Israel’s foreign workers, mostly from Thailand, have fled the country after dozens were slaughtered or taken captive by Hamas. Security concerns have stopped West Bank Palestinians from being able to work in Israeli settlements and farms.
These factors have led to an acute lack of agricultural workers, and the HaYovel organization, which already was working with farmers, launched “Operation Itai,” a fundraising drive and volunteer call, in response.
HaYovel has been bringing a certain kind of Christian to Israel for around 20 years, explains Joshua Waller, the organization’s director of operations. “These are conservative, homeschooled, American farmers who own guns and love Israel,” he says.
The virality of the images of American cowboys, coming to help Israel during its farm crisis, has prompted a deluge of media attention, but like the others, Waller takes it in stride. All of the current volunteers have come to Israel before and what they are doing is nothing new. It’s only the recent attention which is different, he notes.
“We’ve been here for 20 years, we’re not going to leave now… this is the fourth front in the war,” he explains, referring to the current agricultural challenges.
“The world needs to know where the cowboys stand — protect your people,” he adds.
The current crisis facing Israel, he explains, has caused a surge in support from Christian communities. He has even fielded calls from Americans asking if they can come and join in the fighting.
Waller is the oldest of 11. His father, Tommy Waller, is the founder of HaYovel and many of his siblings, who have spent their lives going back and forth from Israel to the US, also work in the organization. HaYovel doesn’t try to convert anyone and operates in Israel with the support of Har Bracha Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a well-known Religious Zionist leader, Waller points out.
When asked about their specific Christian denomination, Waller just says they are “Christian Zionists… there are still billions of people who believe in the Bible, and here is where it all happened,” he says.
As the volunteers finish their weeding, Waller, who also did his share of the work, is coordinating with another of his groups who are building a fence elsewhere on the property.
“Hey, someone has donated chiropractic treatments in Jerusalem,” he says after checking his phone. “Sounds great!” someone calls back across the pineapple greenhouse.
The farm the HaYovel volunteers are working on, Meshek Dor, is largely organic and run by Nevo Dor, a Mehola local.
Mehola, a religious Jewish settlement, is in the largely rural Jordan Valley. Dor confirms that for decades, Palestinian workers from two nearby villages have worked in various Mehola agricultural concerns, but that is not the case currently.
It’s the first time he has received help from HaYovel volunteers, but it’s very appreciated, Dor says. “They are wonderful, special people.”
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