Fast forward to August 1984. I had arrived back in London after travelling around Ireland. Deciding that I’d firmly exhausted my quota of crappy, menial short-term jobs, I remembered a conversation with an Australian girl some six months earlier who had just returned to the UK after a spell in Israel. She’d had a great time so I made some enquiries. Ten days later I was flying to Tel Aviv as part of a group of British volunteers to live and work on a kibbutz, via an organisation in central London that specialised in such arrangements.
If I needed proof that Israel was a different kettle of fish (gefilte) to other places I’d visited, it was evident before I ever left Britain. In those days there was a separate area of Gatwick Airport specifically reserved for passengers travelling to and from Tel Aviv and Belfast. One of the delights awaiting me prior to boarding was an external body search. It remains my only experience to date and one I’m in no hurry to repeat.
David Ben-Gurion Airport proved to be symbolic of Israel itself: plain, functional, (albeit it in a dry, dusty, Middle-Eastern sort of way) and largely unconcerned with creature comforts. It put me in mind of an aircraft hangar at RNZAF Ohakea near Bulls, a thought that still makes me chuckle.
Its organisation, though, could not be faulted. Israeli authorities have a knack of getting things done with minimal fuss. In next to no time we had cleared formalities, collected our bags and were on a shuttle bus for the journey to Kibbutz Gal’ed further north.
Something that always intrigued me was Israel’s tiny size compared to its global significance. Seldom, if ever, out of the international news circuit, it is roughly one-tenth the size of New Zealand. And yet since its establishment in 1948, this small piece of land remains politically contentious and sought after.
A history of kibbutzim is a history of Israel. Right from the start, the small collective-based settlements neatly doubled as defence outposts. The division of labour saw all children being raised by a handful of women, leaving the majority to work alongside the men for maximum productivity. Meals were communal with the cafeteria being the heart of the settlement.
My kibbutz was typical, consisting of several hundred members. Black and white images on display of its early days bore no resemblance to the settlement I knew. In 1948 it looked like a moonscape: bare, barren and desolate.
By 1984 however it was a modern village boasting acres of apple orchards and a productive dairy farm. Like many kibbutzim, Gal’ed had removed their Jaffa orange groves in favour of growing cotton for better return. The members all lived in neat apartments containing all modern conveniences. And few, if any, children lived in the ‘Children’s House’ anymore, although they still received their primary education there. There were well-maintained lawns and gardens, thanks to vital irrigation systems in a land where access to water is an ongoing concern. The large cafeteria remained central to community life, but many members chose to eat privately in their own homes. In the early days, by contrast, it was almost impossible to even get a cup of tea outside the cafeteria. In spite of their prevalence, only a very small percentage of Israel’s population live on kibbutzim, but the model remains a successful example of collective living.
I quickly learned that Israel is a land of contrasts.
One of the first things to strike a visitor is the immediate security everywhere. It’s a fact of life. Barbed wire sits atop all major buildings and fences. Every second person is a soldier in uniform, with sub-machine guns casually slung over shoulders. And every second vehicle belongs to the military.
But its massive presence is enormously reassuring, the troops being well-trained and well-disciplined. At that time, every non-Arab citizen was required to join the army at 18 years of age, women for two years and men for three, with an annual refresher thereafter for men.
So with all that security, I would have thought hitch-hiking was out. Not so. Everybody – and I mean everybody – hitched rides. Drivers would just stop, enquire as to your destination and have you jump in the back. We’d been told that a concrete pecking order was in place, foreign tourists running a definite third behind female and male soldiers respectively. That turned out to be less than accurate. Males are males, no matter where you go – and there is some advantage in being young, female and not altogether stupid.
Having said that, the people themselves were the most unfriendly I have ever encountered, often verging upon downright rudeness. At first it’s a bit dazing, but then becomes rather comical if you have a sense of humour. Many just didn’t bother with social niceties toward strangers. The brusqueness derived from a sort of wariness of the rest of the world, I believe, because in due course they softened and I made some good friends. On the kibbutz I became very friendly with several migrant families from South Africa and South America, who were delightful. I spent numerous evenings in their homes, listening to their stories and learning about Israel and Judaism.
The people I met wanted to be known as Israeli rather than Jewish, i.e., for their nationality as opposed to their religion. Most people I encountered led secular lives, visiting the synagogue for traditional ceremonies only. Generally, they had little or no time for the black-garbed Orthodox Jews I would sometimes spot in Jerusalem who, I was told, still spoke Yiddish rather than Hebrew because they disapproved of the resurrection and use of what they considered a sacred tongue.
Some claimed that Orthodox Jews had been known to oppose the creation of the Jewish homeland; that their existence as God’s chosen people was supposed to be arduous in this life and actively funded the PLO as a result. I know it sounds bizarre, but there it is. Trust me, oddity and contrast are blood brothers in this part of the world and besides, it wouldn’t be the first time that people had offered themselves as sacrificial lambs. More, anyone who wears that ancient, heavy Eastern European clothing in that climate by choice is rather easy to put in the odd basket.
There is so much to discuss – much more than space permits, such as the biblical places. There is Jerusalem and its four distinct quarters where the world’s three major religions meet. Or Nazareth, where Christ grew up, and Bethlehem, his birthplace; a shabby little spot on the outskirts of Jerusalem where I found myself in the middle of an Arab riot while innocently eating yoghurt one Saturday afternoon. And the memorable day I spent time in the world’s oldest city, (Jerusalem), hottest city, (Jericho) and lowest point, (Dead Sea).
How the Holocaust is barely mentioned because you can’t escape it anyway and how your heart almost stops when you spot a faded tattooed number on someone’s forearm. But nowhere is it more evident, obviously, than Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum that is numbing in its clinical, chronological depiction of The Third Reich’s worst legacy.
There is the strange juxtaposition of people living a modern life in an ancient land, surrounded by hostile neighbours to varying degrees, with several of whom they have been at war. It is a land of gorgeous beaches and barbed wire. Of traders whose love of commerce goes back centuries. And the Palestinian issue which was not so much the proverbial elephant in the sitting room, as a herd of them.
If you thought this was going to be a political diatribe, you were mistaken. The Middle East makes Ireland look like a familial squabble by comparison, and requires a bit more than several hundred words to outline.
But what I can say is this. In my experience not one Israeli – not one – bad-mouthed Arabs either individually or collectively. They would openly and rationally discuss the situation, presenting many and varied opinions as to the best course of action.
But they all wanted the same outcome. Peace.
* * Read Susan Ryder’s regular column every Tuesday at NOT PC * *