During the summer of 1975 I worked as a volunteer on a Kibbutz in Northern Israel, close to the border with Lebanon. As a recent organic farming exponent in the UK, I wanted to explore how this unique socio-economic experiment on the land was working.
Although my stay in Israel was relatively short, it was an intense and meaningful experience. One which, as you will see as this story unfolds, throws a highly prescient light on the current catastrophe.
There were maybe two hundred residents of the kibbutz, named ‘Rosh HaNikra’.
One rose early and went to work on the land, coming back for a common breakfast at 9.a.m. It was too hot to work later in the mornings so one returned to the fields late afternoon to put in another session.
At its inception, the basis of this community was carved out of a desert. Only an intense commitment to establishing an enduring self-sufficient village could turn the sour, salty land into something capable of growing sufficient food to provide for its occupants and a trading income.
By the time I visited, there was already a thriving rural economy in operation, growing and exporting avocado pears and dairy products. Houses and land are integrated as a cooperative in the kibbutz movement, with no private ownership.
Being situated close to the Lebanese border had its disadvantages. Missiles were periodically launched into surrounding territory as unresolved hostilities flared-up intermittently on the border land. It was disconcerting to an outsider, but the Rosh Ha Nikra community was hardened to this reality and did not let it break their daily routines.
I am not Jewish, but have worked closely with Jewish colleagues in theatre and education projects based largely in the USA and Belgium. This led me to become interested in further exploring the background to the Israeli/Palestinian tensions that dog the peaceful functioning of the ‘two-state’ land division established in 1948.
In a break from the Kibbutz work schedule, I was fortuitously given the opportunity to meet a senior figure of the Israeli military, in Haifa — a kind, thoughtful individual who was close to retirement.
Questioning him about his perspective on Israeli/Palestinian tensions, he responded in a way that threw a highly significant light on the reality. I recount here my memory of the deeply prescient contents of what he said:
“Israel is not a country. The word in Hebrew means ‘to strive with God’ (to work with God). It is a tribal aspiration, it is not a place. To give the name Israel to this area of land is a falsification. It comes from the Zionist belief that this country is the original homeland of the Jews. There is no historical evidence for this belief, it is a dangerous fixation. Zionism is not Judaism.”
At the time I was not fully aware of the ramifications of this reply; however, it vividly endured in my mind from there on.
My host asked what places I intended to visit in Israel. Definitely Jerusalem, I replied. His response was quite firm “Go beyond Jerusalem into the West Bank; into Jordan. Experience this place where Jordanians and Palestinian refugees live and work together.”
I took his advice, initially boarding a bus to Jerusalem. It was here that I first experienced an uneasy tension between Palestinian and Jewish citizens.
It should be remembered that a number of holy sites in Jerusalem are places of worship for both Palestinians and Jews. The ancient claims of both parties to the rights of ‘ownership’ of these sites causes an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion to never be far from the surface. Over the years, many bloody incidents have flared up out of this febrile tension.