FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly is visiting Israel this week to learn about a culture that he finds suprisingly similar to his own.

Shelly and his wife, First Lady Martha Shelly, arrived Saturday amidst celebrations of Hanukkah, an eight-day Jewish holiday. His arrival also coincided with the exchange of embattled words between Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who vowed to never recognize Israel on Saturday.

Shelly plans to stay out of the political fight, instead concentrating on Israel's agricultural and infrastructure strategies. He also wants to learn more about Judaism and its history.

"This isn't about whether he supports Israel or Palestine," said Erny Zah, spokesman for the Office of the President of the Navajo Nation. "This is a cultural exchange."

Shelly intends to visit a number of the country's top leaders in agriculture, including members of the Ministry of Agriculture and dignitaries of the Knesset, Israel's legislative body.

He also will visit Shikma, a 12,000-acre farm in southern Israel, where he will meet with Meir Yifrach, head of the Israeli Vegetable Growers Association.

"Agriculture is a priority for us as we build a healthier Navajo Nation and opportunities for business development," Shelly said.

Though the nearly 8,000-square-mile country is substantially smaller in size than the more than 25,000-square mile Navajo Nation, the climate is strikingly similar in certain parts.


Israel is bound by the Mediterranean Sea to the east, Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan to the east, and Egypt to the southwest. It is most like the Navajo Nation in the southern portions.

The country has used a variety of technologies to distribute water throughout the South, including a combination of drip irrigation and fertilization referred to as "fertigation." It also uses a substantial amount of solar power.

"We set on this mission to look at how Israel has advanced in growth in some of the same areas we face on the Navajo Nation," Shelly said. "We came to discuss how we can adapt new technology for the Navajo people."

Access to water remains an everyday challenge for Navajo in rural areas, not only because of the lack of infrastructure, but also because of the radioactive contamination that has seeped into the groundwater for decades.

"Not everyone has water," said Zah of Navajo residents.

Aside from gathering new approaches to agriculture and infrastructure, Shelly also will be deepening the bond between Navajo and Israelis. He believes the two peoples have much in common — their difficult pasts.

"The President definitely sees how the Jewish community has struggled, and how they have continued in being successful," said Zah, he mentioned that both have endured persecution and have been relocated from their homelands at different times.

Shelly first discovered these similarities while at a December conference in Farmington last year. The "Navajo One New Man" conference featured speeches by Jewish and Christian leaders, many of them emphasizing the importance of supporting Israel.

Participants toward the end signed a "Declaration in Support of Israel," which stated: "...The First Nations of America honor the First Nation of Israel. The First Nations respect the Promised Land the Creator has designated for you... We declare the First Nations are one."

Many of the spiritual leaders took a liking to Shelly, who later received an invitation to Israel. Several faith-based groups and non-government organizations contributed funding to his visit this week.

"He believes in traditional Navajo teachings, but, at the same time, he isn't closed to the teachings that other cultures have," said Zah. "He is a spiritually well-rounded man."