What Israel meant for Portuguese colonialism

Kibbutz Ein Harod, 1936 (Source: Polaris/Eyevine via guardian.co.uk)

In August 1961, a Portuguese agronomist named Raul Wahnon Correia Pinto made a work trip to Israel. “Visiting Israel gave us the sensation of enjoying the unique privilege of witnessing the creation of a world!” wrote Pinto in a report later published by the research branch of Portugal’s overseas ministry, its made-over colonial office. “Everything is in motion! In fact, what is happening in this young country is a miracle of faith, perseverance, idealism, and the longing for independence.” Pinto was based in Angola, where he helped set up agricultural colonies. He went to Israel to take a course in irrigation. The Israelis had become great innovators of systems that conserved water by delivering it directly to each individual plant. “Nothing is wasted in Israel. Not even the time!”

After 500 years in the colonizing business, Lisbon was in need of fresh ideas. Its recent efforts at African colonization, like so many in the past, came up well short of expectations. Portugal was a poor country. Portuguese were emigrating in the tens of thousands annually to France, to the U.S., and to Brazil. No matter how desperate they might be, relatively few Portuguese were interested in shipping off to Portugal’s major colonies—the “overseas provinces” of Angola and Mozambique.

Even as the number of whites in the colonies increased, most of the 5,000 or so Portuguese who each year did try their luck in the Portuguese ultramar weren’t very interested in settling as pioneer farmers in the African hinterland where colonial officials hoped they might exploit cheap African labor and the great potential of the soil for large-scale commercial agriculture. To Lisbon’s great frustration, Portuguese settlers preferred to stay in colonial cities and to make their living as office clerks and truck drivers and proprietors of small shops—not as empire builders. According to reports I recently came across, some officials were inspired by the example of the newcomer to the settler-colonial scene: Israel. The Israelis had become quick experts in making commercial farming work in hostile territory.

It’s not entirely relevant here, but nonetheless worth mentioning, that some fifty years before, a Jewish group came knocking on Portugal’s door seeking help. The Jewish Territorialist Organization proposed settling European Jews in Angola’s central plateau, and in 1912, the Portuguese Senate, troubled by the age-old problem of out-migration, approved the scheme, so long as the Jews became Portuguese citizens. The plan was scuttled by World War I. In an alternate universe, Angola is the Jewish homeland, if not the Promised Land. (Other scrapped possibilities: Uganda and Galveston, Texas.)

In 1958, ten years after Israel was founded, a Mozambique-based official named Viriato Faria da Fonseca travelled there to see what could be learned from its thriving agricultural colonies. The young state had startled the world with its obstinate drive to self-sufficiency. Agricultural output had doubled in Israel’s first decade; the value of that output had tripled. The farming revolution was said to be based on two factors. One was the widespread implementation of new technology, principally in irrigation. The other was the unique organization of the farming communities, principally the kibbutzim and the mochavim.

First day on a new kibbutz, 1940s or 50s. (Source: Hashomer Hatzair Archives Yad Yaari via Wikimedia Commons)

A kibbutz was essentially a socialist collective where nearly everything was held in common. A mochav was more of a cooperative in which farmers tilled their own plots, and relied on the cooperative’s administration only for support. As impressive as the spirit and energy of the kibbutzim might be, nothing could be further from the more individualistic habits of the Portuguese, writes Faria da Fonseca, and he suggests that the mochav structure is clearly more appropriate for Mozambique and Angola. He adds that the Brazilians were so impressed by the mochavim that they invited Israeli technicians to help set up 50 such colonies in Brazil, and even planned to call them “Mochavim.” (I don’t know if this project ever came to be.) He cautions, however, that the average Portuguese was not on the same “intellectual level” as the average Israeli, at least when it came to making capital improvements to his farm. Portuguese settlers would need more government handholding.

The impact of the Jewish settlers on their Arab neighbors—those living within the borders of Israel and those now living as refugees just outside—hardly rates a mention in the Portuguese reports. According to Faria da Fonseca, Arab farmers can only benefit from the Jewish presence. Pinto never once discusses the Arab population. Both researchers, it seems, are caught up in the idea of a society starting from scratch, in a place that Israelis often described as a blank slate. Behind their encomiums to Israel one detects a sense of thwarted potential. If only Portugal could start from scratch. If only the European farmers in Mozambique and Angola could apply such brainpower to their mulish toil. If only Portuguese could summon the same tenacious energy, selflessness, and divine sense of purpose as the Israelis had. These had been the essential qualities of the Portuguese conquistas a half-millennium before. Maybe the Portuguese still had it in them.

Pinto closes his report by praising Israel’s clever diplomacy, particularly its embrace of Africa as a giant potential market for Israeli goods. He sees signs in the street welcoming the president of newly independent Madagascar—“Jerusalem salutes the Malagasy people” and “Viva a Free Africa.” But Pinto confesses some discomfort as well. When he’s greeted as the representative of Angola, “which deeply wounded our Portuguese sensibility and condition,” he is compelled to explain to his hosts, with difficulty, that he’s a representative of Portugal, of which Angola is a part.

Pinto’s sensitivity on this point is better explained by events beyond the scope of his report. Earlier that year, in the cotton belt in the north of Angola, the first shots were fired in the war for Angolan independence. African nationalist movements later launched guerilla wars in Portuguese Guinea in 1963 and Mozambique in 1964.

Israel, it so happens, played a small role in some of that activity. In the archives of the Portuguese secret police I found a thick file on Israel’s support for anti-colonial movements in Africa, including those in the Portuguese colonies. I’ll get to that in a future post.

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